The word gaijin has a bit of a distasteful edge to it – though it directly translates to “outside person” and its intended meaning is often simply “foreigner”. The implication though is “not one of us” or “outsider”, and too often is put into a negative context.
Without the negative context though, it is difficult to feel proud of being an outsider person. There’s nothing to identify with there; you aren’t being equated to the culture you’re coming from. If something is “gaijin-made”, it doesn’t sound great, does it? It’s not from here. It’s foreign. That’s all you need to know.
There was a similar sentiment I remember feeling in Maine when people just simply spoke of people not from Maine as being “from away”. It sort of felt like, “I don’t care where you’re from, you’re simply not one of us and never will be.” At least, not until your family has been there for 4 generations or so.
The Gaijin Card
There is something about not being from here though that is freeing. Foreigners are not held to the same level of expectation that Japanese people are. They are not expected to know proper manners – people are often surprised when you do actually know what you’re supposed to say or do. They are not expected to arrive as early or stay at work as late. In a way, we are free to enjoy this very conscientious society without having to be as rigidly conscientious ourselves.
Some people might use this “gaijin card” consciously. My friend aptly described it as “gaijin smash” – instances where you are aware of the rules, but choose to ignore them. While Japanese people wait at crosswalks when the light is red but no cars are in sight, perhaps a foreigner would choose to ignore this because it makes no sense to them and cross the road, leaving behind a sea of stares. It’s a small simple thing that spotlights one’s foreignness.
During a recent lunch break, I had a bento but needed to get out of the room we were in all day and wanted to go enjoy my lunch with friends who were headed to a café. I figured it would be a casual place, open to me eating my bento there if I just got a drink from them. I had brought bentos to cafes that only served coffee before and it was of course no big deal. But this was a café restaurant for all intensive purposes, and I had brought my outside food in and was eating it at the table where we were also being served by wait staff. Not a casual, go-up-to-the-counter-and-order kind of place. I didn’t even realize how strange this was until hours later. And then I thought, I would NEVER do that in New York.
What had gotten into me?
Some might identify this as a part of culture shock. I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, who might recognize this as System 2 laziness or System 1 takeover. System 1 is described as the quick-thinking impression-forming brain that produces reactions or conclusions with little effort. System 2 on the other hand requires more focused mental effort in its functioning. It controls proper thoughts and behaviors. When it is depleted, with too little sleep for instance, or impaired by drinking, we become more selfish, more judgmental, perhaps more primal.
As foreigners, we use our brains a great deal in adjusting to new surroundings, trying to fit in as much as possible, trying to keep track of whether we are saying the right thing or maintaining appropriate behavior, on top of using a new language. Our system 2 is quite exhausted by this constant mental effort.
When a situation arises where typically we know the rules and would conscientiously adhere to them, our System 2 doesn’t have the energy left to put in even that little bit of effort. System 1 takes over and we do what is easiest. Maybe that means crossing the street when there’s no threat to our safety. Maybe that means eating outside food in a restaurant. Staying at school or work until 7pm seems out of the question when the end of the workday finally arrives. But give yourself a break, your gaijin brain could use it.