Gaijin is the word in Japan for foreigner. If you’re not Japanese, this is what you are. The nail that sticks up in Japan is hammered down. The gaijin can’t be hammered down, you will always stick out. Accept it and cause a scene on a train.
The decision to move there was made after weeping from flu pains in the stacks, my sweaty forehead resting on a map of Japan for over an hour.
“Mom, I’m sick.”
“Sick of school?”
“No, like, really sick.”
“Well, when’s your Japan application due?”
“I dunno; soon…I said I’m sick.”
“Get that done and go to the health center.”
“A book said Osaka was like the Chicago of Japan.”
“Sounds good. Far from home, but still like home.”
“I wanna’ come home now…”
“Well, you can’t, you’re in New York.”
Japan, at first, seemed very Western. There were lots of cars, people loved beer and baseball, American sitcoms were on the TV. There was cheese at the grocery store; I could live here.
Japan’s layers fell away quickly. The cheese cost fifteen dollars a block and had the consistency of an eraser, the taste of yellow. The streets were full of vending machines that dispensed booze, cigarettes and girl’s underwear. Squid ink pasta. Octopus leg topped pizza. “Wheat bread”— the illusion of wheat painted on a loaf of white. Sarcasm was mangled in translation.
And there was a lot of staring. Prolonged staring. I tried to blend, rode my bike everywhere, kept my nose in a book on the bus. If it weren’t for Japan, I probably never would have finished The Fountainhead. One area in which I refused to tone down my gaijin was what I didn’t eat.
“Maeve-sensei, you don’t eat fishes?”
“No, I don’t eat fish.”
Dame (dah-may) is a Japanese term for no, bad, never. Dame levels are relative to how loudly the person says dame and how big of an “X” shape is made. Small dame: whisper voice and an “X” made with two index fingers. Big dame: louder and an “X” made with forearms. Real bad dame? There are no words, just a forearm “X” in your face.
“Yes, fish dame for Maeve-san,” Small finger X.
“Maeve-san doesn’t eat niku?”
“Hai, dame niku.” This was survival vegetarian — dame niku meant no meat.
“Dame big fish?”
“Hai, dame big fish.”
“Little fish OK.”
“No….little fish dame.”
“Even little fishes dame?!”
Culture shock was eased by imbibing in the local boozine. A vending machine outside my apartment dispensed Chu-Hi, a strong mix of hard alcohol and soda; the cartoon fruit on the cans helped me decipher the flavors. A morning after too many Chu-Hi’s, I road the bus to school, taught my classes, and decided the rest of the day in my bed watching Ally McBeal with Japanese subtitles was the only cure.
I sat at the back of the bus, a side seat against a window. I took out The Fountainhead, which was my second mistake. I was a half page down, when I felt it, out of nowhere, that I was going to throw-up. Panicking, I knew the bus was on its windy, steep downhill section with no stops. There was no where to get off. Me and the little Japanese ladies who were on the bus at one o’clock in the afternoon were just going to have to tough this out. I hunched over in the corner, trying to be smaller, less noticeable. A very small, gaijin making alien sounds. No one, especially not old Japanese ladies, would notice that. They notice everything. I was fucked.
Very little is worse than the sound of puking besides the sound of someone trying to puke more discretely. It was foamy. It smelt of weird raspberry Chu-Hi. It was followed by dry heaves. And I was sitting at the back of a bus that was going downhill.
No one asked me if I was alright, offered a tissue, looked in my direction. Perhaps they were respecting my privacy, or trying to preserve my dignity. You’re sticking out again gaijin, what have we told you about doing that? The whiny child in me wanted some sympathy and a gingerale, at least a concerned glance from someone elderly. I got none of those things, and so, watching my own vomit run down the full length of the bus, I rode it all the way home, with my pale, sweaty head held high, issuing a proud, “Shimasen!” to the driver, as I exited the bus with a particular gaijin grace.
One of the first friends I made living in Nishinomiya was not Japanese, but British, and the first time we met she poured her Chu-Hi down the front of my shirt, on purpose. I called Abbie when I got home, leaving a pathetic message I knew she would hear after she had finished her school day like a good foreign employee who was genuinely trying to learn the language and wasn’t just in it for the travel.
“Abbie…it’s me…I puked on the bus today…call me back.”
I watched too many episodes of Ally McBeal and waited for Abbie’s phone call.
“I puked on the bus.”
“What did you do?”
“There wasn’t much I could do.”
“Did you get off early?”
“I figure I’ll just never take that bus at that time again.”
“Dame gaijin. But we all dame gaijin. I lost my apartment keys and they literally had to hack my flat’s door down.”
“You’ll be home soon, sweetheart.”
On my last evening in Japan, Abbie and I would share drinks together in Kobe, then ride the train home to my apato. Other Japanese folks rode in silence, staring straight ahead, or blatantly staring at the two gaijin girls. I decided that this gaijin was going to go out on top, put the F in foreign, give a farewell performance worth staring at. I leaned over to Abs.
“Shall we cause a scene?”
“What kind of a scene?”
“Oh, a bit of one. A right one.” Some of Abbie’s accent I mimicked, some had genuinely been enfolded into my speech.
“Abbie! No! No. You can’t break up with me. Leave me alone in Japan?”
The eyes and ears of the train that weren’t already on us, tuned in.
“I can’t, I just can’t do it anymore. We…it’s not right.”
“Not right? How can you say that? After eleven months, and twenty-nine days together? This was meant to be.”
“I didn’t plan this, he just —”
“Don’t you say he to me! He! He?!”
“I can’t fight it —”
“You can, you’re making a choice, I can’t be without you, I’ll die.”
We were shouting our lines at this point. Hysterical with laughter, and with leaving each other. Perhaps it was the fatigue of twelve months trying to be a good gaijin, making America proud, mixed with too many Chu-Hi cocktails. It also could have simply been an inevitable implosion of one of those early-twenties friendships where you get one another so deeply, know one another so intensely in a short amount of time, that you can’t fathom it ending. Or maybe it was like breaking it off with a good boyfriend because you were both going off to college — the only way to do it was by being kind of an asshole.
Abbie was staying on, her boyfriend would join her soon, I was headed back to the states, to Chicago, a town I hadn’t lived in for five years. Our stop was coming up, time for the grand finale. Abbie stood. I stood too. I was wearing a sundress. I removed my underwear, and presented it to her, a token of my rejected love. She pushed it away, I shoved it back at her, finally she took it and shoved it in her purse as the train pulled in.
“I can’t believe you did that, you bloody mental gaijin.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“Put your underwear on, you’re going to need that on the plane.”
I would go back five years later: visiting my old school, walking by my once dwelled in apato, stopping into the neighborhood bar, visiting Fuji-san; it was all still very weird. And weirdly, like home.