Recognition, “faux troubles” and the urge to “let it out.”
I wasn’t going to talk about this.
I really wasn’t.
But something happened.
At my small school, I try to help out during the cleaning time as much as possible. Like at my big school, it’s usually just moving desks back into place, but it’s something that gets me out of the office and interacting with the kids. I decided to walk into the first year class this particular time and help them out. While I’m still getting to know them, I’ve been to their class enough times to where they at least know my name. As I enter, I ask one of the first years (in Japanese) if it’s cool to move the desks back to their place.
He then runs to his one of his classmates, practically screaming (in Japanese), “X-kun, help me! I can’t speak any English! What do I say!?”
I now have multiple eyes staring at me due to the commotion. I give a pretty deep sigh and, in a very loud and more authoritative tone than I intended, asked again (in Japanese) if it was OK to move the desks. All the first years stood straight up, probably from the pure fright, and all said (in Japanese) “YES, OF COURSE.” I do the job and head off to the next class, all the while hearing them talk about the incident.
I have to add I first saw above video the night before this happened.
A very common theme in Kabuki is the conflict between the 義理 (giri) and the 人情 (ninjo), which is the struggle between the most socially appropriate way of handling a situation, 義理 (giri), and how one wants to handle it, 人情 (ninjo). A common real world example is a waiter/waitress having to deal with a customer’s behavior (no matter how outlandish), as reacting in any way would just make the situation worse. The containment of the rumbling emotion is what leads to the famous 見得 (mie) poses, where the actor’s eyes bulge and head spins around, trying to hold back an outburst with all their might. Luckily, those actions are saved for the stage.
What keeps me coming back to this video is that release towards the end. No, I’m not saying having a moment of catharsis is a bad thing, but I think the video makes a good point as to how futile such pleas would actually be. The release of that 人情, which is seen as good and the height of drama in a lot of western media today, means nothing since the other party still doesn’t recognize their feelings, nonetheless their language skills.
There’s been many times since I’ve been here (both in my study abroad days and now) when, honestly, I did want to have some radical moment of clarity and release. The little things just seemed to add up and I really wanted nothing more than to say “Why are you doing that?!?!” Though, it’s not as if it would actually be explained to me (the one off the top of my head is Japanese people repeating exactly what I say to them and laughing. Has anyone else encountered this? Are they just making fun of my accent??). For as much as I wanted to go off on the student that I can speak and understand his language, it would probably be the worst thing to do in that situation. Even then, he’s really not to blame. Letting out those frustrations at him especially doesn’t mean every person afterwards is going to acknowledge them either, as much as my brain might think so. While I have no other solid anecdotes, I can only imagine there have been ALTs who have decided to let it out, for better or worse.
Many times, it seems when I meet people for the first time, I don’t start at 0, but rather at -10. Not only do I have to prove I’m a regular person who can carry a conversation (as the case would be with anyone anywhere, really), but rather I can express it in ways they will actually acknowledge. Sometimes it feels like I start higher on someone’s list simply because of my hair and eye color, but then slip down to single digits after I fail to communicate something effectively. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially when flipped around. There’s been many times co-workers will stop mid sentence and say “oh, you probably don’t get what I’m saying,” even if it’s the most basic of questions, like “how do you spell your name?”
Before writing this, I asked a few friends about their thoughts on the video. One said that he too had never experienced anything that drastic. Another said if someone isn’t being understood “that is [their] own fault.” Another said something I think is really apt.
“I really don’t get why western people are so obsessed with trying to make it out like they have a hard time in Japan, or like they’re facing adversity.”
The vast majority of my interactions here create absolutely no struggles, especially when I am by myself. To act as if I’m facing some sort of grand hardship living here would be greatly inflating it. And, yes, I know perfectly well that the video spawning this whole writing is satire, but the tone still feels like it comes from a place that’s a little more raw. Someone who wrote or acted in it has to have had some sort of situation like it, and probably wanted to express those same frustrations at that time. In that regard, I can totally relate. I can also only imagine the eyeballs who are actually watching it will no doubt agree with the message, but the ones who need a talking to are barely aware of its existence.
As easy as it is to sit here and write about the crappy parts about living abroad, the “boring” aspects I barely care to mention are what makes me want to stay here: Now, places are familiar, routines become normal and faces become recognizable. In a weird way, it starts feeling like a home, although, as This Japanese Life puts it, “It’s just hard when the ‘home’ we yearn for always insists we never really lived there.”
This American Life re-ran their episode of Americans in Paris on their podcast last week (which funny enough was downloaded on my iPod the day of the desk situation) and quite honestly, it was a refreshing to be able to say “oh, yeah, it’s totally like that here, too” during some parts. As David Sedaris mentions, the more mundane parts of living in France are the best because it means people just acknowledge him as a regular person, not a “visitor” or “tourist” or, in his case, a “celebrity.” He makes regular stops at the places where he is recognized, places where the regulars might say “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while. Have you been on vacation?” and actively avoids the locations where people could care less. I am lucky enough to say I think there are a few places where some people might ask the same thing: the dog coffee shop, the bar downtown, the grocery store where the clerk gives me candy every time I go in.
I think it’s important to note here if someone is facing a “I’m not going to try to communicate with you” situation, it’s better to just leave. There’s been many times where I’ve met people in my life, both English and Japanese speakers, who just weren’t making an effort. The interactions were so one sided and, as much as I wanted to make it work, no matter what I would have done it wouldn’t have changed that. Maybe I left a bad impression, maybe my accent is funny, I don’t know. Again, as much as I probably wanted to express my frustrations in the pursuit of clarity, they honestly have no obligation to explain as to why. Many don’t, anyways.
In the end, getting worked up about the times people didn’t seem to care or acknowledge me overrides the people that do. After the swirl of frustration, watching the video with a different lens and the reality check of the podcast made me appreciate those people more. But, it’s that shitty part of our brains that makes the frustrating parts of life stand out significantly more than the good or normal ones; Just as the beginning of this post detailed a minor personal struggle, as opposed to mentioning the daily “good mornings” and small talks I have every day. There’s no point in giving a “recognize me!” speech every time because I’ll never be able to convince everyone in this country. However, it’s comforting thinking of the people whom I never had to convince anyways.
Either way, I wouldn’t be able to carry around all that beef, seafood and onions to sway the naysayers.
I want to emphasize I don’t want the conversation to end here. If you happen to come across this writing, I’m curious as to your own experiences with recognition. Have you ever given a speech in the same tone of the video? Have you ever had to hold yourself back from doing so? What do you think of the video, if at all? Do Japanese people repeat everything you say and laugh, too!?!? Feel free to comment below.