2002年10月02日 水曜日

Clompy McLeadFoot

by Justin Hall

Expats in Japan

"So I called Jane over, because I couldn't follow what he was saying, and it turns out he's the downstairs neighbor, and he wants us to walk more quietly. She understands and assents. He continues, 'the last neighbors were also foreigners, and I asked them to be quiet.'"

Jane and I have found a place to live in Kakio, West of downtown Tokyo. We had spent the day building out our home. The best stroke of luck was stumbling on an Italian/Turkish couple (with good taste) having a "sayonara sale" (bye bye Japan) selling tasteful table, chairs, nice sized fridge, cool carpet, all cheap. And nearby! It won't be delivered for days - no cold beverages until after Saturday. But a nice feeling of accomplishment.

We're dropping off the second round of purchases, putting away the bathtowels and toilet mint-smell-jar, posting the pole to dry laundry out on the balcony. 6:30pm, here's a knock on the door - a young but bleary-eyed man is making a request in Japanese. I don't understand - I wonder if he's asking me for money. Somehow it strikes me immediately like these men who would come to the door in Berkeley or Oakland - hello my car broke down and my pregnant wife is applying for a job and I'm trying to pay my way through medical school selling candy that was stolen when I took the grayhound bus from upstate and now can you pay for me to get my teeth back? Or some such story, that if you let it wind on, or even if you cut it short, it ends up being a hope for a help, some assistance, actually can you spare more than a dollar?

So I called Jane over, because I couldn't follow what he was saying, and it turns out he's the downstairs neighbor, and he wants us to walk more quietly. She understands and assents. He continues, "the last neighbors were also foreigners, and I asked them to be quiet." We wished him goodnight, and Jane admonished me to keep my footfalls lighter, and my tossing around of material objects to a minimum.

Later on the way to eat grilled meat at the local grilled meat place (a great blessing - decent grilled meat and korean food a short walk from home with a gregarious host who has a picture of herself with a younger (pre-)Prime Minister Koizumi up on the counter) we debated what he meant by that. Maybe he meant, "Well, you guys are foreign, and you're loud like the last foreigners - I had to tell them too to be quiet because they don't know the system, the proper way to conduct things," or maybe he meant, "Well, there were other people here before you with the same problem." I just wondered, why did it matter to him that they were foreign? Or, why did he tell us that?

We alternate between more admonishment, "don't walk so loud!" with a smile, or "let's invite those [loud boisterous meat-eating party] people back to the house for some flamenco" Jane suggested.

As Donald Does

I was reminded of a funny story from Donald Richie's 50 years of writing on Japan collection. He moves into an apartment. This cranky neighbor lady soon begins to complain, to him and to the manager and to the neighbors that Donald is playing his TV too loud. But Donald doesn't own a TV. Sometimes when she comes up to complain, he is dead asleep, with not even the radio or the typewriter running.

He tries bringing her presents, to become friends. She won't have any of that. And the neighbors talk to him, "We know she's crazy. But can't you please be quieter?" they sayHe tells them of the truth as he sees it, that he doesn't own a TV and he's being quiet, and they nod sympathetically. Still she is waking him up and constantly complaining about his loud television. Finally he blows a gasket and tries to make some sort of formal complaint that this woman is driving him nuts and everyone in the building turns against him because open conflict was inappropriate in that situation. I can't now recall what exactly ended up working as a solution - I think ignorance, death or relocation.

solution seeking

I've never lived in an apartment building where all people are shoved close together with expectations of some kind of deep silence in the early evening. And I think to myself, well, screw it, I'm going to stride about and just carry on because this guy is a freak trying to limit my behaviour. I wasn't even doing anything that wrong! Just walking around and living in this, our apartment. As I plan to do for some months ahead.

And then I realize that reflects poorly on me, poorly on Jane. And then it reflects poorly on her family, and her mother who arranged this for us, and then finally it reflects poorly on the woman who owns this building and agreed to let us have this place.

So nested in all this social reputation and reciprocity, I have to keep my manners in mind. I kind of like the challenge of having to be more conscious of my footsteps and my object placement. But I am wary of this early-warning neighbor. No "Hello nice to meet you my new neighbors." Or "Some time let's get a beer." Just "Be quiet. You are like the other people - loud and not from here."

I guess if I was just woken up from my one chance to sleep per day during a six day work-week of eleven hour days, I would want to go straight-up school those new neighbor fools so they knew where I stood. I like to imagine that he's a hard-working fellow instead of a high-strung crank. But either way it bugs me somehow that my being "gaijin" ended up being a part of his request. I guess I get a bit of "grace stupidity" of sorts for being from another country. Whee!

Posted by Justin Hall at 2002年10月02日 22:03

1- Howard

He's your guru, Justin. You've graduated to a new level of consciousness. Remember the party at Spiral? I bet you don't get drunk and physically invade the personal space of strangers, touch them uninvited, and shout at them in broken Japanese any more, right? So now you are forced to move to a new level of hyperawareness. It's training. He was sent to train you.

2- Howard

I know this is really not the best place to post a reference to a horrible stereotypical Japanese -American, but remember that scene in Karate Kid where the kid's sensei makes him wax the car for a year? "Wax on, Wax off." I think that walking with superhuman quietude is that kind of awareness exercise for you. Forget the nutty neighbor, concentrate on the exercise. That's my advice.

Hey, dude! Phone home! Or at least email.

3- Gen

I'm sure people have told you this, and you probably know this by travelling in Japan, and I don't mean this to be rude, but being Caucasian in Japan is license for native (usually ignorant) Japanese to put any/every kind of stereotype on you.

At the same time, you wouldn't expect a native Brooklynite (just for example) to appreciate the intricacies of Japanese culture either, so it goes both ways.

I love visiting Japan. Living there, however, frustrates the hell out of me, even though I look the part and speak the language.

4- Liz

I really don't think the neighbor is any different than people here who call, lets say, all Asians...Chinese. Get my drift? You *are* the foreigner there. Hey, at least he didn't shout at you,
"learn the language!"

Justin, did you touch people uninvited? Maybe it's some karma coming around or something. ;-)

I was just in Beijing staying at the St. Regis, which is one of the best hotels, but I was stunned by how thin the walls were. I literally couldn't tell the difference between the door bell from the next door and mine.

Maybe the point is that you have very thin floors.

I find it generally unpleasant to be put in a category that is not of my own choosing especially when it is associated with negative behavior. I get it on both sides. "Chinese Japanese dirty knees look at these" was my theme song at my mid-west elementary school and in higher education I was constantly labelled the "inscrutable, quiet, and reserved" Japanese. In Japan I can get called a gaijin when I do something a Japanese person doesn't identify with or even if I am messy. Sometimes, as Howard suggests this is part of my training to pass in both contexts. When people tell me how I don't fit in, it can be annoying but I do learn something of people's stereotypes and expectations. Lately I tend more to broadcast my sense of difference. "I am bicultural and you will may not fully understand that." I am not sure this is healthy, but it is a survival tactic from feeling culturally inadequate and I think does help create a new kind of category of cultural mixing.

But... bottom line: if you are a representative of your category to others, your actions reflect and are reflected by that category. I guess that means that like it or not, border-crossers and cultural emissaries bear some responsibility for elevating or debasing their category. So Justin I totally sympathesize with your "bug-off" sentiment, and you are probably making no more noise than anyone else. BUT if you go on making the noise you are reinforcing the noisy-gaijin" category construction as much as you have been labelled by it.

One last thought which I hope you don't take offense at. The category "young white male" is probably the most powerfully and positively inflected category you can inhabit in the US while at the same time being an invisible "unmarked" category. Perhaps it is a surprising jolt to find that it is a marked, and negatively marked one at that in some contexts.

But hey, justin, are you really one of those gaijin-guys that touch uninvited???? I had no idea. ;-)

7- Lee

I lived in apartments for years and had many instances where a neighbor was a little noisy. I would never complain about it.

I had a pretty nice home theater system that I would never turn up. I thought it was an absolute waste of money because my concern for the neighbors kept me from any enjoyment from it at all. After I started realizing that everyone is noisy, I wouldn't care too much if maybe once a month I would watch a movie at the volume level I want to (or at least close to it).

I can't believe everyone would tip toe around there own apartment. The guy below your neighbor probably has the same complaints against him but is polite enough not to say anything. I think the guy is a jerk.

8- jane

Actually Mr. Grumpy (as we like to call him) is lucky enough not to have anyone below him. So who knows how he walks. One problem is, as Joi pointed out, the walls and floors here are extremely thin. This is a pretty old building - probably one of the post-war reconstruction constructions.

I'm not sure Mr. Grumpy was necessarily being negative with the gaijin comment. He could have meant, "I'm comfortable telling you this even if you are gaijin, because I've had previous experience with that." Also Justin, you didn't mention that he was also referring to me as well as you, since I believe he was looking right at me when he said this.

And I do think that actually many Japanese, especially older people and women, walk quite differently from those of us raised in the U.S. Partly because they wear slippers indoors, partly because many were raised on tatami mats, and partly because the women, especially, had bound themselves with layers of <i>kimono</i>, they do more of a soft shuffle step than Americans, who are more inclined to do the sharp heel-toe step. I find that when I come to Japan my entire body shifts and changes - on the trains, in houses, in public spaces, I contract and walk with slightly smaller steps. My demeanor is different. I bow when I get change back at the grocery store, naturally and without premeditation. It's not a deliberate acculturation, it's perhaps childhood memory re-asserting itself, or my body adapting without my conscious awareness to alien surroundings.

In any case Mr. Grumpy has become a focus of our light-hearted jokes and speculations. Perhaps we'll invite him up yet for beer and flamenco!

9- Howard

Please, all friends of Justin (and Justin), accept my apology for telling a tale about Justin. The incident to which I referred came very VERY early in his tenure as a Tokyo resident, and he was uncharacteristically under the influence of alcohol. As all who know him can attest, Justin is a very friendly person. I'm sure that he has long since learned about cultural differences relating to personal space. I guess I was using that as a milestone -- surely, I was trying to say, you remember there was a time when you needed to learn that lesson.

Come to think of it, I believe Jane has a point. Slippers force a kind of shuffling that I have noticed myself -- a kind of "indoors walking" that differs.

Frankly, one of the biggest culture shocks I had in my life was when I returned from my first extended visit to Japan (well, two weeks) was to realize that Americans wear our shoes in the house. And our toilets and bathing facilities are in the same room. Gross!

10- Rob M

Approach this situation like you should any other social situation, with extreme empathy.

And if "Mr. Grumpy" has a problem with you because of your color, then you'll know not to share that tasty flamenco I keep hearing about. Yum!

Which leads me to a side note/question, I can order Chinese and Thai food, and I can drive for Korean, but where's the Japanese beef?

11- Innocent Bystander

It looks like Howard is the jerk to me. :)

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember Me?