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« Real Football Coming to Houston | Main | An Intelligent Decision »

December 19, 2005


It sounds like her experiences before Japan, and thus her expectations/perceptions, were very limited. Maybe I'm being too hard on her. But where she concludes with the following sentences, I feel she recognizes something that she should have before:

"While being tall and foreign and a woman are not serious handicaps, my experience in Japan gave me the chance to walk the proverbial mile in another's shoes. I know what it's like to be stared at in the subway or laughed at in a sushi bar or ignored because my syntax isn't perfect. Now that I do, I am much more ready to accept others who may be different—but not necessarily wrong."

I do believe that Cathy Gandel missed out on the opportunity of making the most of her stay in Japan by being too painfully aware of her "different-ness". I hope she goes back to Japan again with a more relaxed attitude and she might find out that much of what she had felt, may have been in her own head.

I think that the hostility and cause for humiliation were probably projected by Cathy Gandel, but not the fact of being noticed.

While I haven't read the Newsweek piece, the portion you excerpted reminds me of my sister's account of going to a bath on the relatively isolated island of Shikoku with an American friend who was living in Tokyo at the time. A group of curious old women crowded around them in the water, openly staring and giggling. The boldest brought her face in close to check out my sister's very un-Japanese figure, and with a smile, said something in Japanese. My sister's friend started laughing, and my sister asked what the woman had said. "She says you have beautiful breasts." (Since tone gets lost in print, I'll clarify that the woman's point seemed to be "what a fine, healthy heifer," not "Hey, hot mamma.") My sister said she turned bright red with embarrassment, but she always tells the story with a laugh.

I would ascribe my sister's Shikoku experience more to bumpkin manners than to Japanese culture (no doubt someone could tell an equivalent anecdote about a trip to rural America). Still, it reflects what I've learned in my own travel experiences, including two trips to Japan, in this respect: 1) no matter what you look like, there's going to be a large portion of the world in which you stand out; 2) most people will probably notice, and some may comment; 3) recognition of and curiousity about difference bears no particular connection to ill-will; 4) leading an interesting life requires getting over your embarrassment at standing out.

I think that to this extent, Ruchira, you and I agree. But, standing out is a spectrum, and different appearances carry different burdens of preconceptions. Because of my pale and sturdy Eastern European appearance, I stand out in southern Italy, but not as much as you would, and the reverse is probably true in Japan because of your height (though this is changing, generationaly) and hair color, even though neither of us looks Italian or Japanese. Moreover, since Hollywood, unlike Bollywood, has aggressively marketed in Japan, and America has a more contentious history with Japan than does India, it's understandable that a person who looks like what the media says Americans look like (which is still, unfortunately, of European ancestry) would trigger a more ambivalent response than a person of Indian ancestry. So would an African American person traveling in Japan, since we export our racism with our media. As with friendly curiosity, though, I think the response to this ambivalent curiosity is to demonstrate interest and respect for the host-culture (not hard in Japan, a fascinating place), and a willingness to engage if engagement is solicited.

I don't think this changes your very good, basic point that people shouldn't "need to feel just like everyone else to enjoy a foreign experience." But Cathy Gandel may both have elicited "gawking and giggling" and have been a victim of her own self-consciousness.

BTW, thanks for your technological shout-out those many moons ago: I'm no tech-wizard, but I'm great on offering advice, of varying merit. In the same spirit, one thing I commend about this post is that you link to a blog debate, rather than a newssource (as you more commonly do). While newsources are subjectecd to higher standards of reliability, I think that you'll lure more people who actually post by linking to other blog sites that show what sites have tracked back to them.

Thanks Anna, for your interesting and thoughtful comment (what took you so long?). I think you are probably right that my being Asian does help - also, India is the land of the Buddha! (I know this because in rural Japan, older people would come and hold my hand and say this).

I am sure Ms Gandel "stood out" but I am also convinced that her insecurity was largely due to her interpreting open curiosity with hostility, as you wisely pointed out. As a rule, I do not find the Japanese to be the "gawking" type even in small towns. But in the intimate atmosphere of the "ofuro" bath, a bit less inhibition is entirely possible.

I too have heard about the experience of Africans and African Americans in Japan and the Japanese don't deny it. One of my friends in Japan read this post and she said this to me in an e-mail:
"I found your essay on the blog web to be very interesting.It's true that Japanese people feel difference toward people from abroad. But as you said, we are not hostile against foreign people. To be honest, we just cannot help feeling difference physically and physiologically. We are not used to living in the circumstances where we have many different types of people. Many Japanese also feel a large barrier of languages. We are shy and hesitate to talk freely to foreign people. That's why foreign people are forced to feel they are not accepted. I'm glad you'd like to understand Japanese people's traits and characters."

You are right that I tend to link to news stories rather than to other blog posts. I do read a few other blogs but the ones I read for news are the big liberal ones which are almost like big media in their scope - no point linking to them. Other blogs I read are mostly the legal ones by the law "prawfs" and the Leiter Reports. There are smaller blogs too like mine, which I read and I should start linking to some of them. As for traffic, I have noticed that I get far more readers when someone else links to one of my stories than the other way round.

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