An Asian Foreigner’s Perspective On Living In Japan
By Bernie Low
On August 12, 2014
Two years ago when I first arrived to Japan, I was all starry-eyed with wonderment and beyond excited for what life in a Japanese university would bring. I barely knew any Japanese beyond basic travel essentials and my image of the country was glamorized by movies, dramas and songs.
I believed I was coming to place of dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Japan, but I am beginning to understand and learn more about the country beyond the shining lights and glittering sights.
I’m a Chinese Singaporean and have lived in Singapore all my life. My native language is English and my second language is Mandarin Chinese. Culture wise, Japan isn’t so different from Singapore; there are common Asian values so culture shock was not an issue.
Adapting to life was not too big a problem, while trying to deal with all the paperwork and procedures took some getting used to, and I still struggle with it, but everything was still fun. I made new friends in school, other foreigners in my batch, and when classes started I made friends with both exchange and Japanese students.
I started to realise the extent of just how different I was being treated.
Things were fine, and I thought everything was the same for everyone. Then I heard stories, read blogposts and saw articles about how foreigners are treated in Japan – unwanted attention, wide-eyed wonder, random English shouted at them on the street, and many other stories. Some funny, some weird, some disturbing. But nothing happened to me, I had no stories, no incidents. No one paid me any attention and I flew under the radar. I was fine with it, believed myself lucky that I had nothing bad happen to me so I should be thankful.
And I am, except that I started to realise the extent of just how different I was being treated. When you are Asian, or look Asian, somehow, Japanese people seem to think your Japanese is good. At restaurants, they look at you when you’re with Caucasians and expect you to be the one who has the best Japanese, but in reality you have no clue what is going on and desperately need that English menu which they don’t bring to you.
I remember I was at a cafe with my Australian friend (who was very fluent in Japanese), they came over with menus, apologized that there was no English menu, then turned their gaze onto me and expected me to place the order. I was clueless and lost and when my friend started translating the menu for me, the look of surprise on the waitress’s face was priceless.
There also seems to be a misconception that being Asian equals bad English ability. Basing on appearances alone, there is a belief that if someone looks ‘white’, their English is better or they’re native English speakers. The notion that Asians can be native English speakers too seems to not exist in Japan.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been told my English is good “for an Asian” before I have to explain that the first language in Singapore is English (though this probably is not a problem exclusive to Japan). Sometimes I also get mistaken for being Japanese and when I start to speak English they are shocked and ask if I am a ‘mutant Japanese’.
Once, on the train, I was conversing with a fellow Singaporean in English, and being the easily excitable person I am, was probably speaking at a volume louder than acceptable. Behind us, a Japanese guy made a snide remark to his friend in Japanese which was something along the lines of “Look at them showing off by conversing in English.”
I’ve also noticed in school or on television that every time there is a survey for foreigners, no one seems to approach Asians. If they do, you realise that it’s because they do not fit the typical Asian stereotype – darker skin, special cultural attire etc.
While the ability to fly under the radar may sound like an attractive situation, the problem arises when you look Asian but do not conform to the stereotype. I am loud and opinionated which somehow is not acceptable. I joke and dress just like my friends but feel like I am judged more for my decisions and actions than they are.
A senior once told me I was “loud and noisy” just because I was actively asking questions and taking part in discussions in class, when the norm in Japan is to keep quiet and ask questions after class. Sometimes when you forget a custom or do something wrong, it is easier for Caucasian foreigners to play the ‘Gaijin Card’ and get away with it but as Asian I don’t have that option.
In social situations where having or easily drawing attention becomes an advantage, flying under the radar definitely doesn’t do an Asian foreigner any good. Somehow, your Caucasian friends get given special treatment – they’re always offered help, always complimented, always talked to, approached and wanted. People prefer to be friends with them, and more often than not don’t talk to you at all.
I joke and dress just like my friends but feel like I am judged more for my decisions and actions than they are.
They’re also higher up on the dating preference list for Japanese; while we see ‘yellow fever’ in Western Countries, in Japan there definitely is a form of ‘white fever’. Asians trying to get a Japanese significant other? Good luck. It’s not impossible, but the odds are probably not in your favor (just look at the perfectly coifed Japanese girls/guys you’ve got as competition!).
Every foreigner will face their own individual problems when acclimatizing to Japan, though somehow when you’re Asian there are more things to deal with. With a lot of literature and gaijin tips coming from predominantly Caucasian points of view, having a very different Asian experience can come as a bit of a shock.
Two main tips to all the Asian foreigners coming over: don’t expect any ‘superstar treatment’ and don’t be surprised if you’re expected to be the default translator.