Three summers ago, I was walking in Seattle’s International District with an Asian friend when a middle-aged man came up and asked us if we were lost. He was round-shouldered and slightly paunchy, with thin, fair hair combed over a balding, egg-shaped head. In truth, my friend and I were a little off-course, but as the man kept asking us where we were headed and offering to show us the way, I started to feel uncomfortable and told him we were fine.
But he didn’t leave us alone. He walked ahead of us, looking back and constantly repeating his offers to show us the way, stressing that he was a nice guy, a good guy, that he had no ill intentions. When we continued to keep our distance, the man grew angry. “You’re so rude!” he shouted. “I’m just trying to be friendly. I have nothing against your people! I’ve been to your country and talked to your people. I know about your people. I’ve always treated them well!”
He stormed off, thankfully, without bothering us any more. But long after he was gone I kept thinking of the way he had said your people. Who, exactly, did he think were my people?
A few weeks ago I was waiting on a bench in a post office in Japan when the elderly Japanese gentleman sitting next to me suddenly turned around and spoke. From the torrent of Japanese that followed I was able to pick out the words “What are all these foreigners doing here?” He indicated a little cluster of four or five young adults—all fair-skinned, blonde, and speaking English.
I smiled nervously, let out an embarrassed chuckle, and said, in hesitant Japanese, “Actually, I’m a foreigner, too.”
Immediately the old man’s expression changed from one of confiding trust to one of surprise. He turned to his wife, who was sitting next to him, and muttered something in a not-so-low tone of voice that I didn’t understand. But I caught the words “surprised” and “foreigner,” and flushed.
Since moving to a relatively rural prefecture in Japan to teach English, I’ve often been mistaken for or passed as a Japanese person, and perhaps this is no surprise: I’m Asian, with black hair, monolids, and brown irises. I have also studied the language for six years, have a taste for Japanese street fashion, and did my undergraduate thesis on Japanese postwar literature. Though not fluent, I can sustain a basic conversation for at least a few minutes. But I’m not Japanese—my nationality is American, my ethnicity Chinese, and my feelings, when I am taken for a Japanese person, are conflicted to say the least.
The man at the post office assumed he knew who “my people” were, and he’s not the only one. There are plenty of others who think I am Japanese until I open my mouth: the restaurant server who waited expectantly for my order when I could barely read the menu; the pharmacist who asked me a series of rapid-fire questions about my eyes when I was looking for eye drops; the guy at the gas station who spewed instructions while I stood with my equally confused Caucasian friend. Every time it happens, I give a sort of confused “huh?” and an embarrassed smile, and whoever is talking to me will start and stare before resorting to the gesticulation and slow speech many use when trying to explain things to someone who doesn’t speak their language. Every time it happens, I feel a wall spring up between us. It’s like when you see your friend on the street and go over to say hi, drop an in-joke, chat about your day—only after tapping your friend on the back, you find yourself facing a total stranger. In this case, I’m the stranger.
One of my friends here in Japan, a tall white girl from Michigan, says that everywhere she goes she knows people stare at her and wonder what she’s going to do. Once we went to a middle-school track meet on a mountain, where she was the only “foreign-looking” person around. While walking with her, I noticed people turning their heads as we passed. As we were cheering for the runners, my friend admitted she felt like she was being too loud and making a bad impression. But she also had a resigned what can you do? attitude about it, accustomed as she was to standing out.
While it can’t be comfortable for my non-Asian foreigner friends to always feel like they are on display, if you’re always stared at then I suppose you get used to the stares. If you slip up when speaking the language or commit a social faux pas, you have something of a free pass: “she’s not from here, she doesn’t know.” (The term we use is gaijin smash.)
But if, like me, sometimes you’re stared at and sometimes you’re not, then you never know which reaction to expect. Navigating this country, I often don’t know what role I’m supposed to fill. I’m suspended between two worlds—not quite foreign enough to be completely foreign, but obviously not Japanese. So I am constantly on the alert, playing it by ear: am I passing this time, or have I given myself away already?
When I’m able to pass during a social interaction without giving away my foreignness, I often feel a sense of triumph. I’ve successfully paid for groceries, interacted with cashiers, asked strangers for directions and store clerks for clothes in another size, chatted about a Japanese author I like with a librarian. That I am able to pass as a native during these interactions is a testament to the effort I put into learning the language, customs, and culture; it is at least partly a validation of my hard work. But I often wonder if my “successful” interactions are in fact successful, or if the hiccups in my sentences and my clunky speech patterns give me away and whoever I’m talking to is just too polite to comment. Usually throughout these conversations I’ll be on tenterhooks, afraid that any second I’ll slip up, my difference will be recognized, and my interlocutor will recognize me for what I am—an imposter.
Just a week ago in a hair salon, I thought I had been carrying on a decent conversation with the hairdresser when he asked me, in that super-casual tone people use when trying to pry, “So, did you just move here? Where are you from?” “America,” I muttered, and he nodded, unsurprised. What had given me away? I didn’t feel confident enough to make conversation the rest of the session; this is, in fact, how I feel a lot of the time in Japan.
What does it mean to belong, or to be “foreign”? I’m finding that it’s not just a matter of linguistics or how long you’ve lived somewhere. To be native to a place implies not only fluency in the language, but also a shared set of experiences and a shared environment. No matter how much I read about Japan, how closely I study the language, or how long I live here, as a foreigner I will never “belong” to Japan in the same way as someone who was born here, went to school here, grew to adulthood here. Even if I spent twenty years here, a difference would still exist.
Though my appearance allows me to fit in while in Asia, in America it singles me out. While I sometimes consider myself to be an invisible foreigner in Japan, in America, it is my nativity that is invisible; if the guy in Seattle is any indication, a lot of people think that my place of birth is not the sole determining factor of where I am “from.” For them, my origin goes back further than me—it goes to where my parents were born, and my parents’ parents.
Living in America, I felt foreign, too. Whereas in Japan people first speak Japanese to me, in America taxi drivers ask me where I’m from as their opening gambit, and strangers will sometimes greet me with Ni hao or Konnichiwa or Annyeonghaseyo. From the first, I am set apart.
It’s not just a matter of greetings. During my freshman year of college, I took a seminar on the classics of political thought. Within the first few weeks, I remember feeling distinctly panicked when it became clear that most of my fellow students were far ahead of me. They had grown up in households filled with Western books, media, and culture. Maybe they were handed books by their parents or talked politics over the dinner table. Maybe they read Harry Potter or Tolkien with their families, or had dads who showed them Star Wars or classic Bogart movies. I remember one classmate telling me how she discussed Marx and Locke with her family, and another who said he was reading Kundera because his mother recommended it. My classmates knew about popular websites and blogs and got The New York Times delivered. But I’d never read or talked about any of these things with my parents—we got no magazines delivered, and any books I read I had found on my own. At the student activities fair, two campus publications explained their differences by comparing one to The New Yorker and the other to The New York Times. But I didn’t know the difference, so I just chose one at random.
I said before that I feel a lack of confidence in Japan, but in college I also felt backwards and behind. Whenever someone made an offhand reference to a musician I didn’t know or a TV series I hadn’t seen or some childhood book I hadn’t read—one they just assumed was in the common cultural collective—my mind would scramble trying to figure out the reference. I would clam up, afraid I’d say something wrong. My classmates had the easy confidence that comes with long exposure to the types of things we talked about and learned in class. But I didn’t share their background, and I didn’t have their confidence.
“My people” are those who, like me, grew up in the half-light of overlapping identities, at the margins. If I have a true home, it is in this gray space between boundaries.
If being native involves sharing a certain set of experiences, values, and cultural customs, then I am still foreign to much of America: I can think of many TV series I never watched, political events I didn’t know about, music I didn’t listen to, family values that differed from that of my white peers. In college I always felt like I was playing catch-up, trying to stuff in all the stuff I didn’t consume when I was younger—an imposter, who could be exposed at any moment.
Yet at the same time I realize that the word “imposter” implies that being foreign is something that must be kept secret, something to be ashamed of. That sense of shame makes no sense. I cannot help my environment, my upbringing, or my blood: these things are not things I should be ashamed of, things I should hide.
At first, when I first came to Japan, the tacit assumption of strangers that I did belong was rather intoxicating. By pretending I was at home here, maybe I would actually feel at home: I could feel as if I’d finally been taken in somewhere special, warm—taken in by a whole people. But as much as I like it here, if someone asked me now if I want to pass as Japanese, I would say that I don’t, not really. Likewise, if someone asked if I ever wish I had been born white, in a generations-old white American family, rather than a first-generation Asian American, I would say no.
It is hard to be always doubting myself, to doubt my belonging. I’m tired of feeling like I halfway fit in and halfway don’t. I’m tired of waiting for the other pin to drop, walking on a wire trying to pretend my halfway status is a whole one. Feeling foreign means feeling like an outsider. Feeling foreign means feeling lonely.
Edward Said writes: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” I initially found this quote in an essay by James Wood, an expat Briton who has now lived and taught in America for two decades. Analyzing this notion of a “true home,” Wood suggests that some people might not have one, or that perhaps for those people the notion of a true home exists only in imagination or memory. As an emigrant, Wood wonders whether voluntary homelessness (rather than forced, as in exile) “means that home can’t have been very ‘true’ after all.”
I am neither exile nor emigrant. I can return to America whenever I wish. I could, if I liked, return to my parents’ homeland and try to understand my roots there. But I have been there, and I didn’t find peace, or the sense of belonging I’ve been chasing. The conflation of my birth, environment, upbringing, and profession have forced me into this category of perpetually “foreign.” I was born in America, my family is Chinese, and I live and work in Japan. “My people” are those who, like me, grew up in the half-light of overlapping identities, at the margins. If I have a true home, it is in this gray space between boundaries.
But recognizing that now doesn’t have to be a source of embarrassment. In some ways, embracing this fluid identity brings me a great deal of freedom. As time passed in Japan, I added Japanese decorations to my walls, English books to my shelves, and started referring to my apartment here as “home.” And for now, it is. Tied to nowhere, I can make a place to live anywhere. I may not truly belong here, but I can do my not-belonging here just as well as anywhere else.
 Gaijin means foreigner; lit. “outside person”