Many of you may be wondering what the word ‘gaijin’ means, I know I definitely was when I started to notice it being repeatedly murmured around me when I arrived at my new university in Tokyo. Gaijin, according to the trusty urban dictionary definition, just means foreigner or more specifically in my case: white/western person. The concept of being labeled as an outsider or standing out due to my “Western-ness” was, I guess very new to me. Having grown up in England my whole life, I’d never experienced what it was really like to immerse myself in a culture that is so far, different from what I know – I’d always been part of the majority.
During my first term at Waseda Unversity, I became more and more aware of my ‘kooky’ gaijin ways. The culture here is just so different from what I knew at home and the only way that I eventually became aware of it was by learning from the reactions of the Japanese students around me when I would do something so out of the ordinary to them! It wasn’t just the obvious lack of experience and lack of grace I had in using chopsticks, these new ‘quirks’ of mine were in many ways a lot more subtle.
For example, a hard one for me to grasp: Japanese people do not eat on the street. I’d pick up my delicious onigiri (rice ball) on the way to class, eager to tuck in before sitting through a 3 hour lecture and then persist to watch uncomfortably at the stares coming my way. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing that was so out of the ordinary, I went through the expected self conscious thoughts: did I have a massive lump of seaweed stuck in my tooth? Did I have a nice little congregation of sticky rice hanging from my chin? To be quite honest with you I never actually guessed it, my Japanese friend eventually let on that it was just very ‘un-japanese’ (gaijin) of me to eat my food on the street. Like I said, I’ve stuggled to adapt to this one because any opportunity I have to pick up a little snack from the combini (corner shop) on my travels, I will take it. I’ve just learnt to be a bit less obvious about it now.
This no food eating example is just one of many ways in whichI stand out like a sore thumb in Japan. It’s really is quite an adjustment; having families of about 5-10 people coming up to you to take a picture with you for reasons untold was undoubtedly a little weird and left me extremely baffled. Why were these people so interested in me?! All in all however, I’ve actually learnt a lot from the experience so far. I’ve found a whole new respect for students studying abroad in England. Before experiencing the gaijin label that I have here in Japan, I completely took for granted how strange the British culture must seem to people (students especially) from all different stretches of the world. It’s so easy to forget the struggle that many foreigners have in assimilating and in adopting to the customs of their new home country.
If there is one thing I will take with me from my study abroad experience so far, it’s the need to try and integrate with exchange students back home. I was so thankful to have made friends with a Japanese girl who could fill me in on all my ‘silly habits’ that led me to live up to my Gaijin label. It’s helped me integrate more successfully into the culture and has opened my eyes up to how different Japan is to the U.K. This is the exact kind of experience I wanted to get from my year abroad. That and the chance to stuff my face with all the incredible food Japan has to offer!
Emilie Wolfman is a second year Sociology student who is currently completing a Study Abroad year at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan.