Mistaken Identity

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

Smiling, nodding, and running away was one of the early sets of skills I developed during my first trip to Japan. Because I am Asian, I was often approached by Japanese strangers who erroneously concluded that I too was Japanese and similarly fluent in their native tongue. Little did they know that my grasp of Japanese was basic at best. Thus arose the need for my simple but cowardly three-step solution of smiling, nodding, and running away. I developed and perfected this technique during my visits to department stores and shopping districts where I was frequently approached by friendly salespeople eager to assist a potential customer. Unable to understand the salesperson or find the vocabulary to respond, I was left with two options: 1) attempt to respond in Japanese and watch the salesperson go through the typical progression of reactions: annoyance (What is wrong with this girl? Is her brain fully capacitated?), confusion (Why is her Japanese so bad?), realization (Oh! She must be a foreigner), and finally, awkwardness or curiosity; or 2) smile, nod, and run away. Since the latter was less daunting and involved, I often chose to take this route, giving the illusion that I was a polite but aloof shopper who was one of them.

Despite burdensome expectations that I be fluent in Japanese, being Asian allowed me to feel a strange sense of belonging in a world where I was constantly reminded by my cultural or linguistic struggles that I was a foreigner. Oddly appealing, it was (as long as I kept my mouth shut) a reprieve from the alienation a foreigner cannot help but feel. In crowded urban streets, I was easily swallowed up in waves of Asian faces. I was never approached by friendly strangers eager to practice their English but rather by those who were lost and asking me (of all people!) for directions.

In contrast, my non-Asian friends were not expected to be proficient in Japanese and often received praise for knowing even the most basic of Japanese greetings. Although I imagine that this type of response could become tedious over time, it was one that I admittedly longed for, particularly in situations when my language ability was inadequate.

While my non-Asian friends benefited from these stereotypes, they could never truly escape being identified as a foreigner. One Caucasian friend remarked that because of his appearance, it was as if he permanently wore a camera around his neck and shouted, “I’m a tourist!” Every day he would pass the tissue ladies on his way to and from class, oftentimes plotting his path in hopes of receiving some free tissue. The tissue ladies, as we referred to them, were the ladies who would pass out free packets of Kleenex with advertising printed on the packaging. Yet, some ladies routinely ignored him. Here was a willing, almost desperate, recipient and still they did not take advantage. We hypothesized that perhaps it was because they assumed that he could not read the printed advertising. Or perhaps they viewed him as a guest in their country and did not want to thrust junk advertising on him. In either case, it was apparent that the reason for his special treatment was because he was obviously not Japanese.

While I am not convinced that my friend got the harder end of the bargain, I realized then that my plight was not so bad. At least I could get all the free tissues I wanted.

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