A while back, in my efforts to maintain my sanity, I’d taken to avoiding looking at Japanese people by walking through the streets of Yokohama with my head down.
Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’m dead-ass serious! I still do it, sometimes.
Enter, or sometimes even approach, a space currently occupied by Japanese and the atmosphere palpably changes. The Japanese body language of uneasiness ensues everywhere you look. If I enter a confined space like a train car or an elevator, at best, the atmosphere becomes something akin to the atmosphere of a room where everyone is catching everyone else up on the latest bit of nasty gossip and it’s about me. I enter and the people around me transform into stiff and self-conscious caricatures of themselves. Faces turn from joyous to grim, or freeze into a plasticity that is painful to watch. That’s on a very good day. Typically, though, the space becomes a classroom and I’m a notoriously strict teacher who has been known to occasionally behead students in his immediate vicinity with no provocation; a mortified hush comes over the trembling student body as they silently pray to exit the classroom in the same condition they entered: with their heads intact.
The overall effect is it leaves me feeling like such a ruiner; the rain on the Japanese parade, the fog creeping over the hanabi, the typhoon threatening the hanami season. It’s a disheartening feeling because you’d like to ideally have just the opposite effect or, after you’ve been here a while, just to be ignored. It’s also a sickening feeling because you know it really has nothing to do with you personally. It’s spawned from an ignorance you have very little hope of addressing and there’s little or no recourse. It’s an unavoidable aspect of life in Japan. One of those syouganai things that require patience to the Nth degree.
That’s why I resorted to keeping my head down as often as I could. And, you know what? It actually helped a lot!
Back in NY, people who walk with their heads down or avoid looking at people are flagged as shady, dodgy, and potential evil-doers. Or suffering from some kind of mental derailment. But, here it’s quite the opposite. People tend to avoid eye-contact as well as any kind of confrontation or conflict as a matter of course.
I found that keeping my head down served two purposes. One, it impacted the behavior of Japanese people significantly. A good number of Japanese people, it seems, feel better if they believe that they are flying below or above my radar; invisible as ostriches with their heads in the sand. The difference between those whose presence I acknowledge with even the merest glance and those I go out of my way to avoid acknowledging whatsoever is measurable. The behavior I mentioned above is reduced by at least half. They can walk past me with a reduced concern for their well-being.
The second purpose walking around looking like a mental patient (from my perspective) serves is if I’m not paying attention to them, then, if I really try hard, it is unlikely I’ll see the actions they are almost certain to take to indicate their discomfort with both being seen by me and being in my vicinity and, consequently, I feel a lot less like a pariah and a killjoy on a daily basis.
It works like a charm usually!
However, walking around like this did not come natural to me at all. I mean, I’m not a confrontational person per se, but I don’t shy from it, either. And, conflict…well, it’s my belief that the best stories are derived from conflict (at least that’s what my writing teacher used to say) so why in the hell would I avoid it when I’m endeavoring to be a solid writer?
As I walked around, looking like I’d lost my winning lottery ticket somewhere, I’d ask myself questions like if they’re ignorant and xenophobic then why should I care what they think and do? I’d have arguments in my head. Part of me defending them, echoing the excuses they always spew in my ear like: our culture is homogeneous and we are shy and we can’t speak English etc, etc. And another part of me would argue on behalf of my creative self reducing Japanese, by virtue of overwhelming evidence, to simple statements like: If it slithers and hisses and sheds its skin like a snake, then it’s a snake.
But, whenever I could stop playing the blame game and take a recess from the courtroom drama playing out in my head, I’d think seriously, and rather selfishly, about my life here and the impact it was having on my character. I’m a fairly proud person and a really observant one. So, I had to make a decision: shall I keep my head held high and endure, or keep my head hung low and evade?
The idea of keeping my head down, thereby denying myself the visual stimulation that spurs my creativity, in order to appease ignorant people, was not only stupid, I’d concluded, but worse: counterproductive and counter-creative. Like a paparazzi photographer scared to take pictures of people without their consent. So, little by little, I started lifting my head again, and every time I did I told myself, “you can handle this. This is nothing. grandma went through worse. Take it like a man!”
The bombardment of offenses would still disturb me, somewhat, but the knowledge that I was going to use these emotions to spur creativity soothed me. Yes, it took a bit of soul searching but eventually I decided that this kind of ignorance I would not encourage nor reward, nor would I let it mold me into a bitter, cynical person. I decided I would face it head-on. They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (god, I love cliches) so I started working on ways to keep my head up, to not let them beat me.
It was at this time that I stumbled upon something that made keeping my head up a little more fun.
I realized, quite accidentally, that I had the power to manipulate Japanese people into performing some pretty bizarre behavior simply by being near them.
One day, I was walking through Yokohama Station on my way to work, with my head held purposely up, exposing my chin, hoping it was not made of glass. A man was coming towards me. Our eyes met for a moment. I could see the recognition and the fear, the desire to evade, seize him. My temper flared a little. On his current path we wouldn’t walk into each other but he would pass dangerously close to making physical contact with me (our arms might brush or maybe our briefcases would brush one another’s) and this was apparently too close for his comfort. He suddenly stopped, looked around as if to non-verbally say ‘now, how the hell did I get here?’ Like he’d been beamed to his current location without his knowledge. Then, just as suddenly, he displayed the body language of “oh, I know where I am now! I need to go that way!” That way was out of my path…he darted that direction. I see this behavior at least 5-10 times a day so, though it vexes me, it hardly surprises me. However, in his hasty detour, he ran smack into a woman, dislodging her purse from her arm and almost knocking her over. I laughed out loud. This was something that happens occasionally but I never used to get much of a kick out of it. That day I found it hilarious, though. It felt like instant karma.
He apologized to her and kept moving. I tracked him visually, watched him make a another sharp turn back onto the path he’d detoured from a few feet past me. The woman had continued on her way, too.
That got me to wondering…if I shifted directions at just the right time could I cause the person trying to avoid coming near me to crash into another person? Could I actually cause a collision? Certain conditions had to be met for it to be possible, of course. First of all, it had to be a fairly crowded space. Secondly, the person had to be headed towards me at a fairly rapid clip. Thirdly, the person had to be of a mind to avoid me, as opposed to one of over a dozen other ways Japanese display their discomfort at the potential impending graze against me.
And, there had to be a third person…so the timing had to be impeccable.
I decided to give it a shot. The next day, as expected, I met eyes with an approaching salaryman…but he turned before I could find a third person. He only turned slightly, and not very abruptly, like if he were avoiding a puddle. A couple of days later a woman was coming my way and our eyes met. Fear. She stopped, and spun around slowly, timing her spin perfectly with my passing so that our eyes would never meet again yet she could confirm I had passed at the tail end of her spin, and that she was once again safe to go about her business in the gaijin-free world that existed only in her warped mind. It’s a pretty drastic maneuver I unfortunately know all to well. I get it at least 10 times a day, but that day I did the unexpected. Just as I was passing her I stopped. When her eyes came around to confirm that I had passed, there I was behind her. She liked to have jumped out of her skin! I looked off as if I had stopped to see something off to the left. I didn’t even acknowledge her alarm. Then I continued walking.
This was going to be harder than I had anticipated.
It was a week of practice and failures before I was able to get to the next level in this game I had created. Nintendo, step aside. It’s Ningendo! (ningen means human) A man was coming my way. Our eyes met. He becomes a mask of utter disgust. I looked for a crash dummy. Another man was approaching from his left…I veered right abruptly placing myself on a line that would take me to a kiosk and would make our passing that much closer. The disgusted man veered left suddenly and bumped squarely into the third man. I think their foreheads collided! Yatta ze! (I’d done it!)
I’d become a human joystick in a not-so virtual reality game!
Though I got a kick out of turning their xenophobia against them I didn’t like the idea of involving an innocent person. So, I wondered if I could make the offending person walk into an obstacle like a wall, or even stumble and fall, or something like that?
Well, it’s only been a a year or so since I started my game and I don’t play too often. Only when I need to release a little steam. And I’ve yet to make anyone walk into a wall or stumble or fall. I haven’t reached that level, yet. There have been several unintentional collisions, though.
And I relish each one.
PS: I’ve written, and am in the process of revising, a novel. It’s unrelated to my experiences in Japan. If you enjoy my writing and have a little free time please check out: Real Gods require Blood. I’ll be posting it chapter by chapter.
Thanks in advance