Forward All Inquiries

My Fair Foreign-ness

By Jackson Hale

Hello, and welcome to Forward All Inquiries!

My name is Jackson. Nice to meet you! For the new ALTs (respectfully, newbies), here I take your questions about living in Aomori, questions about work, and really any question you might want to get answered, and then I answer them.

No question is too small, unless you ask me about my confidence. Haha-




Ok, here we go.

Hey there,

I am so excited to start my new life in Japan, but I am worried about the smallest things. When I meet a new person, I am so afraid that my foreign-ness will drive them away, or I’ll say the wrong thing and they will feel awkward around me. As a result, I have not been especially social at welcome parties. Is it too late? Can I come back from this? Am I trapped being an awkward girl for now?

– Jamie Say-nothing


Hey Jamie, I think we have all been there. You think to yourself, “Hey. In America, we hear all these things about how people exclude and ostracize people who aren’t like them in Japan. The Japanese culture is so strict, and it is built on so much ritual and saying the right things at the right time and also endless questions about sushi.”

Cool your butt Jamie. Think of your home culture. Think of the qualities someone outside your culture might typically subscribe to those in your culture. Americans are loud. Americans are friendly. Americans smile too much. Americans want people to see things their way, or take the lead in almost all instances. Americans are fat and don’t know anything about dieting. Americans are positive and cheerful. They get on well with one another. And they are both super religious and super violent.

Ok, you know what I am going to say with this. Surely you must. I can’t think of any American who fits all those stereotypes. To classify someone and expect something of them because of your image of them is a fool’s errand, and it is unfair to them. We travel so we can see that our image of a thing is oftentimes at odds with the truth of a thing.

So why would you do that to Japanese people? There are shy Japanese people (and shy American people), there are loud Japanese people and kind and strict and crazy funny and also sneakily funny and inelegant Japanese people.

I know you know, so I’m more saying it to meet my word-count but, the more you talk to people, the more you’ll see that you like some people and dislike others for arbitrary reasons that don’t have anything to do with the fact that they say things like お疲れさま for reasons that don’t always make sense.

I want to hit one more point about this before we go. Those of you who know a bit about Buddhism know it as a religion in parallel with Christianity. Jesus = Buddha, Heaven = Nirvana, the Bible = the Tripatika. Look at this website for a handy guide.

The problem with this understanding of Buddhism is that is seeks to overlay parts of Christianity we find important over the preexisting architecture of Buddhism, and mixing and matching where we see fit. The truth is, its lots of Buddhist practices (Mahayana) the bodhisattvas are just as important, if not more important than the original Buddha. The Sutras play an outsized role, and many people believed that if they were to just recite a sutra as they were in danger, they would gain entrance to heaven.

Point being, we went to another culture, squeezed its diverse and wild set of beliefs, practices, and ideas into a frame that we understood. And that in turn changed how Buddhists saw themselves and practiced their beliefs. So our image of it is more informed by what is important to us, and who we would like to be, than by the facts of Buddhism.

In a way, that’s sad. In another way, that’s exactly what you are here to do. You are here to provide exposure to foreign ideas and personalities. You are supposed to teach English, but even more important is you are here to show people that Americans, Canadians, whatever, are more diverse and interesting than TV would lead someone to believe.

So, literally, all you need to do to be a good ALT and to be effective at spreading culture is to just be nice to people.

No matter what your level of Japanese, work under the assumption that you are inherently interesting (you probably are, considering that you are a gaijin and probably brand new) and communicate along those lines. Ask what stuff is, talk about things that surprise you in Japan, and friggin use those chopsticks like a master chopsticker.

But if you are just starting out, maybe your Japanese isn’t good. That doesn’t matter, just try your best and run headfirst into your mistakes. If you are nice and show you aren’t trying to be rude, you’ll be ok. People will give you the benefit of the doubt because you are new and shiny and they assume most foreigners can’t say anything past 大好き!

So don’t sweat it, be nice, and you’ll do as well as you can. (Whether you would find that satisfying is another problem entirely.)


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