Friday, May 02, 2014

On not passing

There are two ways Americans visit France. One is as unapologetic tourists - the proverbial fanny pack and white sneakers, at least until that look was rechristened "normcore." The other involves trying to pass. Who does this? Expats and study-abroad students, fashion types and... I'm thinking of a scene from "Two Days in Paris" where the guy who isn't Ethan Hawke is all cringey at his compatriots. Because for Americans, France is Paris, and because Paris is a big, diverse city, it's really not all that difficult for most of us to pass if dead-set on doing so. Sure, there are always the juniors abroad who, despite the newly-acquired scarves and cigarettes, can't help but look like the robust, athletically-inclined American college students they are. And then there's the question of passing once you've opened your mouth, which even a doctorate in French won't guarantee. But overall? Passing is, at least, conceivable.

So I just got back from Japan. (Which was all kinds of trip-of-a-lifetime fabulous and must be discussed over multiple posts; this is just the beginning.) A country where I am the general dimensions of the average woman (or was when the trip began; then I found the source of better-than-Paris croissants...), where my natural hair color is approximately that of the entire population. Most of my clothing comes from a store with branches all over Japan, that sells many of the same items worldwide. But there was no question of passing. No outfit, no language knowledge, would change this. I am instantly, visibly not Japanese. As are Chinese tourists, for that matter - it's not even about East Asian vs. not East Asian. This is, I suppose, what's meant by ethnic homogeneity, a phenomenon I can't say I'd much encountered anywhere else. The closest, maybe, would be Leiden, or at least this one part of Leiden, where everyone I saw was not merely blond but the same shade of yellow-blond, and where people at a cafe responded to my husband (whose native language, which he was using, is the same as theirs!) in English.

The usual games, then, aren't what they are in Paris. Even in Tokyo, there's no great danger of people addressing you in a language other than Japanese. There's no searching for off-the-beaten-path authenticity. What one is instead searching for are, I don't know, restaurant/bar type places that let in foreigners? (Not the izakayas of Shinjuku, apparently; the cheap noodle places of the other part of Shinjuku have more of a fast-food indifference to clientele, and might have been good to locate sooner.) And, assuming you don't know the script, menus or department store food-hall stands where it's possible to know, perhaps not what's in any particular dish (strict vegetarians, don't even bother), but whether the meal will cost $4 or $400 a person? (A menu item could be anything from a dozen-course meal to a small piece of meat on a skewer. Plastic models of the food - more on those later - do help, though.) As useful as it is to learn to say a few phrases and to arrive knowing the names of many Japanese foods beyond sushi (thank you, "Cooking With Dog"!), not reading Japanese ends up being quite an obstacle. I would redo my youth and have learned it, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to go, so I'm not exactly beating myself up over this.

Anyway, while the sorts of immigration policies that lead to homogeneity aren't my favorite, as a tourist, there was something relaxing about not dealing with 'do I pass?' anxieties.


Flavia said...

there was something relaxing about not dealing with 'do I pass?' anxieties.

I've had this same feeling in Asia. Though I think it's easier if you're an average-sized brown-haired person--you're obviously a foreigner, but you're not unduly interesting. The summer I spent in Japan, years ago, one of my travel companions had long, strawberry-blond curls and one was a very tall African American woman. And they were mobbed, all the time.

Phoebe said...

Ha, yes. I was just reading something else about foreigners in Japan, and the line was almost exactly what you wrote - that if you're black or blond, you'll attract more attention. (That said, there are *many* people in Tokyo with bleached-blond hair, so the hair itself might not stand out that much at this point.)

My husband and I (both dark-haired white people) were mobbed only once, by a group of uniformed schoolgirls in Takayama, led by the most extroverted of the group, who kept saying "cool," presumably because this was her English word. I don't think this was her assessment of these two exotic 30-year-olds.

kei said...

When we go to Japan, on the first full day there, my mother and I always marvel: "Wow, everyone is Japanese." Of course they are, we should remember this and we kind of do, but it's almost alarming upon arrival. Of course we get used to it and of course we blend in--I pass so much that people think I'm from specific suburbs of Tokyo (Saitama or Chiba, I've been told).

Young school children are often the most bold in expressing their thoughts and feelings towards Westerners. I think they really did think you guys were cool! As they get older (and as they start looking less Japanese--bleached hair, serious makeup, etc.), they're much more bashful, but there's almost always an admiration for Westerners. Some of the admiration can get kind of old, or weird/awkward, but my feeling is that most of it is quite genuine.

kei said...

"Anyway, while the sorts of immigration policies that lead to homogeneity aren't my favorite, as a tourist, there was something relaxing about not dealing with 'do I pass?' anxieties."

I have mixed feelings about homogeneity as a policy, official or otherwise. The Japanese population is declining, and I think if they relaxed (officially or otherwise) on this front the population numbers might go back up. My model for this thinking comes from sumo wrestling--many of the top ranked wrestlers since the 90's have been from abroad. The sport seems to have survived, or flourished, as a result of letting in foreigners, and the sport has retained its intrinsically Japanese qualities. It's such a "holy" sport and associated with Shintoism I think, that it seems strange that letting foreigners in worked so well. (I don't think women are ever allowed in the ring, still.) So then I wondered if this could happen with the population more broadly. It would basically be an utter disaster in so many ways, but it's an interesting thought experiment to see how it could work!

Britta said...

I'm living in a small city in China that's big enough that I encounter new people every day, but small enough and non-cosmopolitan enough not being dark-haired, I am extremely interesting to everyone. It quickly gets tiresome to constantly be a spectacle. It's also unnerving when you can understand that people are talking about you, all the time, every where you go. I'm beginning to understand why celebrities snap at some point and beat up paparazzi. In general my experience is that I look ethnically specific enough that in some countries, everyone assumes I'm a native, regardless of how I dress (not that any country I might stereotypically be a native of is known for their fantastic dressing).* Outside of those countries, including the US, people assume I'm a tourist or from abroad. There is something frustrating about wanting to be taken as an insider (if not a native) and not because of the way you look, though there's also something nerve-wracking about being taken for a native when you're not, especially if you don't have native linguistic competence.

*I was spending some time in outside of Venice a few years ago, with an extensive hiking trip in the Alps and a trip to Cologne planned. Given hiking needs and packing constraints, my hiking boots had to double as my rain shoes, and I remember one particularly unstylish day clomping around Venice in hiking boots and a gortex rain jacket, feeling as frumpy and un-Italian as possible. A few rainy days later, in the same outfit in Cologne, I realize I'm dressed just like a local, and suddenly I was feeling great about my outfit. Language-wise, I was mostly with native speakers, but on the rare occasions I was off on my own, Italy was less nerve wracking, even though Germans have better English, mainly because most Italians figured I don't speak Italian and adjusted accordingly whereas Germans would assume I spoke the language and it was awkward when they found out I didn't.

Phoebe said...


That's right about sumo wrestlers! (I saw a couple, just minding their own business, one in the subway I think, and this was probably more exciting than spotting a geisha.) As for what would result if Japan let in more immigrants, I suppose I have no idea how many people would want to emigrate to Japan, or from which countries. Or, for that matter, how much of the current obstacle is immigration law there, and how much is the language/script/reputation of the culture as not accepting of outsiders?

And yes, I like the idea that this teenager thought we were cool. Anything's possible!


The hair color thing is so funny - I mean, dark-haired white people are quite clearly neither Japanese nor Chinese ethnically, yet someone, people like me or like my husband (Jewish or not seems not to register in these public-space encounters, but of course how would I know if it did?) are not of all that much interest. I wonder if it's about being spotted in a crowd, which just increases the number of people who might potentially come up to you? Or if it's that certain traits (blondness and blackness, evidently) are in and of themselves considered fascinating?

And yes, the passing-without-meaning-to thing is weird, for language reasons and potentially others as well. I've experienced this in Europe as well, and it's always bizarre for me because I think of myself, in the context of Europe (if not the States) as something other than white - I mean, there was a genocide against my "race" there not all that long ago! And yet I quite clearly (too jet-lagged to cite the evidence) do pass basically anywhere where brunettes aren't an oddity. (I.e. not in Leiden.)