Hello, my name is Patrick, and I’m a first year ALT from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I’m currently residing in Minamishimabara as a junior high school ALT. I am an American with Filipino and Chinese ethnicity.
Being Asian American in Japan is the equivalent of hiding in plain sight. In fact, as long as my tattoos are covered and I don’t speak, I can navigate Japan without anyone paying a second glance. On a daily basis, whether it’s shopping, visiting a local conbini, or taking public transportation, I walk around completely invisible.
I didn’t notice this myself until another ALT from a more metropolitan area came to visit my small inaka town. We were out doing some shopping at Daiso. While strolling through the aisles, she made a remark about how she was receiving more stares in my area compared to her city. It was then that I realized, as we moved through the store, that people were staring at her, and subsequently me. The adults would do so subtly while the children would almost break their necks to stare at us as we walked by. I found it hilarious that kids were so obvious, but that situation also made me realize how differently we are perceived.
Unlike other visibly foreign ALTs, I’m not a point of interest and am never treated like a celebrity just for being foreign. But that also means I’m not harassed for being foreign either. It’s sometimes liberating to have the freedom to go about my business without unwanted attention, but other times I see other ALTs receive special treatment and adoration that I rarely experience.
When a white person is seen in Japan, many Japanese people expect them not to understand Japanese. My Japanese is almost nonexistent, but at first glance, people perceive me as fluent. However, as soon as I speak, I’m always met with visible confusion when I demonstrate a level of Japanese language comprehension comparable to a 3 year old. I have to clearly state, with every interaction, that I’m not Japanese and I don’t speak Japanese. I’m not foreign enough to stand out, but I’m not “Japanese” enough to fit in.
I always read anecdotes from other ALTs about how they’re praised because they used chopsticks, or how a Japanese person rudely touched their hair without asking. I’m never “hashi jouzu”, people don’t try to touch my hair, I’m never stared at, and I’m not of any notable interest because of my appearance. To most Japanese people, I’m just not interesting enough to fit their idea of what a gaijin is supposed to look like (other than my tattoos).
I get many different reactions when a Japanese person discovers that I’m not Japanese, but the most common reaction I get is the classic, “Eh?! But you look so Japanese,” response. Because I look Japanese, there’s always a sense of expectation to understand Japanese norms and the language. With that, there comes a sense of responsibility to try and uphold these standards. Perhaps it may just be me who feels the need to assimilate, but the pressure is always a looming presence.
Because I know I don’t stand out, I feel as if Japanese society expects me to follow the rules more strictly than other foreigners. Whenever I’m out with other ALTs, I know I don’t have to worry about being as conservative because I’m with them, and therefore part of the gaijin pack. But when I’m out alone or with other foreign Asians, if I act outside Japanese rules (like talking loudly on a train or being too straightforward), I don’t feel as if I can play the “gaijin card” or “gaijin smash” as comfortably as other ALTs or foreigners do. It’d be easier for a white person to be loud and opinionated because “that’s how they are,” or “they don’t know any better,” but for me to act the same way would be wrong. I feel that I’m held to stricter standards than my fellow gaijin for the way I look, even though I’m just as foreign.
Despite not fitting the Japanese preconceptions of a western foreigner, I try to use these opportunities to subvert their expectations. I explain quite frequently that I was born in the US and that I can only speak English, but it doesn’t bother me at all (though sometimes it can be tiring). Creating conversations about it helps bring awareness, and I’m always happy to do so. I proudly display the tattoos on my right arm, and even though it’s frowned upon, I continue to add more of them. I do my best to stay true to who I am as a person, while still being respectful of Japanese culture. I try to use each interaction as an opportunity to let Japanese people know that there are western Asians.
Even though I do not get the celebrity treatment or stand out, I’ve still found a home in my small inaka town. I’ve joined a kyudo club that has accepted me without question. Everyone there is so friendly and go the distance to help me out, even though I can barely understand their instructions. An old JTE of mine gave me my first homemade Japanese dinner, and it was some of the best Japanese food I’ve ever had. I have some amazing students at my JHS that aren’t afraid to talk with me and my kindergarten students are such a joy to be around. Even though I’m not what a foreigner looks like, I’ve managed to find a home here, and I’m excited for another year as an Asian American in Japan.
by Patrick Wong, 1st year ALT in Minamishimabara