China via Japan pt.1

I wish I had gone to China without having lived 6 years in Japan. Living here almost ruined my trip to China.


Have you ever spoken to a Japanese person about China or Chinese? Have they ever uttered a single positive thing about either, or something that didn’t have a big ass but attached to it? Chinese food is delicious, but…. China has an incredible history, but… Chinese people are clever, but… If you have, please let me know in the comments. I’d be curious  to know what it was.

Once I told this guy I met in Shibuya, who happened to be from Spain, that he reminded me of a friend of mine who just happened to be from Puerto Rico. He’d have liked to kill me if his face was any indication of what was in his heart. Just last week, while I was in China, I mistakenly asked one of  my tour companions, who happened to be Irish, which part of England was he from. If looks could kill… Hell, one time I met this girl in Yokohama and she asked me was I from Ghana…Who? ME??? She almost caught a bad one. I don’t even know why it vexed me so much, but it did. If she had asked me was I gay it wouldn’t have bothered me half as much. It’s the same with many Japanese. I learned early on in my time in Japan that a good way to get under a Japanese person’s skin (if you were so inclined (-:) is to suggest that they looked like, behaved like, or reminded you of anyone Chinese. Think I’m kidding? Try it!

I was a Chinaphile before I came to Japan. If you’ve read some of my previous posts you know why. China was actually the place I wanted to end up. Japan was supposed to be just a pit stop… A place to get acclimated to life in Asia before I made the big leap of faith.

I was actually a little afraid of China, to be honest. It’s like admiring a famous actor or a historical figure. You don’t really want to meet them…I mean, what if Denzel Washington is a real prick? Or Martin Luther King wanted to take you to titty bar in Roppongi? That would just fuck me up. I didn’t want China to fuck me up, so I came to Japan first. A place I also had illusions about but I wasn’t a Japanophile so I haven’t been disillusioned so much by the reality here. And, part of that reality is  I’m forced to endure the Japanese attitudes towards my beloved (albeit from afar) Chinese.

Some of my Japanese friends, students and co-workers talk about Chinese people the way Nazis talked about Jews…no, I don’t want to overstate it…more like the way snobby benevolent rich people talk about shiftless ungrateful poor people…no, I don’t want to understate it, either…anyway, clearly there is an undercurrent of contempt in most everything they say…only it’s said, I don’t know, politely…sometimes. For example, this conversation took place a week before I left:

Me: Did I tell you? I’m going to China next week! I’m so excited!

Student: Really? Why?

Me: What? What do you mean why? Why am I excited?

Student: No, I mean, why are you going China? Is it for business?

Me: No…it’s my vacation.

Student: Oh. Ohhhh. That’s nice. But, why China?

Me: Why? Have you been to China before?

Student: Oh no. I went to Hong King and Taiwan, though.

Me: Okayyy. Is China very different from Taiwan and Hong Kong? Wait a minute…Isn’t Hong Kong in China?

Student: Hong Kong people are not like Chinese people. And, Taiwan people love Japanese people.

Me: I see. Chinese people don’t like Japanese people?

Student: China is a very poor country and Chinese people are…very different from Japanese people, I think.

Me: Okaayyy.

Student: China is very dangerous. So take care.

Me: Is the whole country dangerous? Or, are there certain places I should avoid?

Student: I don’t know. Maybe everywhere is dangerous.

Me: Maybe I shouldn’t go? Maybe I should go someplace else…like France…or Australia maybe?

Student: Oh, yes, France is soooo beautiful! Europe is beautiful!

That was one of the nicer conversations…

There are a number of Chinese students in my school, only I can’t say much schooling is taking place because most of them cannot speak Japanese (nor English) and only a couple of teachers can speak Cantonese (which is the Chinese language spoken by most of the students.) Most of these bilingual teacher’s efforts are spent trying to drill the Japanese language into obstinate Chinese brains. So, mostly, the Chinese students sit in my English class amusing themselves or sleeping, totally ignored by the Japanese teacher…and the Japanese students.

Back in the teachers office we’d meet to discuss the lesson. I’m always trying to figure out ways to include them in the lessons, to get them more involved, mingling with their Japanese counterparts. The Japanese teacher would listen to my ideas, politely and patiently, and then respond with something to the effect of: They don’t have much in common with the other students, do they? Or, they aren’t very bright, are they? Or, some of them are troublemakers, aren’t they? They have a whole slew of excuses. Being Chinese is treated like a handicap. Personally, I think it’s unacceptable but I’ve learned from experience not to muck with Japanese school policies and office politics too much. I’ve had a knife thrust into my back by a polite and patient co-worker before and it hurts more than when it’s done by the person who makes it clear they’re out to get you. But, nevertheless, during class, I’d go up to a Chinese student and try to engage them, get him or her to participate in the lesson, and, to my dismay, they’d look at me like: what’s your problem? Save your energy, pal! You think I want to learn English? Hell, I don’t even want to learn Japanese!

Of course, what they are really thinking and feeling I have no way of knowing. The true reason they appear to have absolutely no interest in being in that class room beats the hell outta me. I believe, however, it has as much to do with the language barrier as it does with the low expectations of the teachers. I mean, if they were expected to do well, I know they could and I believe they would. I suspect my negative assessment of their facial expression and behavior has been heavily influenced by the over-abundance of negative critiques they’ve received from my co-workers over the course of the past three years.

But, that’s just one aspect of how my trip to China was affected by my life here in Japan. And, to be honest, it wasn’t a very impactful one at all. I mean, the same reason Chinese students aren’t excelling in Japanese schools can be said about African Americans in public schools across America (except for the language barrier, of course). I grew up in schools where some of the teachers had similar attitudes about me, and little to no effort was made to incentivize or inspire…I think students pick up on the attitude of their teachers and schools. If the teacher doesn’t care why should they? So, I didn’t go to China thinking they were stupid, or lazy, or shiftless, or troublemakers, per se. No, my trip to China was impacted more by something  altogether different.

As a non-Asian foreigner living in Japan, the one thing you slowly begin to take less and less notice of is ironically the most obvious one: Virtually everyone around you is Asian. Seems silly, right? Of course they’re Asian. Duh! This is Asia. And, more specifically, and importantly, they are Japanese. Don’t get me wrong. You never forget you’re in Japan, and trust me the Japanese will never let you forget you are not Japanese. They are simply incapable of doing so. But, slowly and surely, (and if you’re like me and don’t get around Asia much) you start to think that this is life in Asia. You think you’ve learned a great deal about Asians and about yourself…and, it’s true…you have. You’re a genius with regards to Asia compared to your friends back home who’ve never left the West, and maybe even compared to some of your friends here in the East. You’re a friggin’ connoisseur. You’ve been there, and you’ve done that. You’ve seen it all.

So, what happens? You get off an ANA flight in the China you’ve been waiting a lifetime to see and you’ve been hearing so much about from your Japanese compadres, and you step into the cleanest, most spacious, most beautiful airport you’ve ever seen…



…and somehow you just know: You ain’t seen nothing yet.


to be continued


10 Responses to “China via Japan pt.1”

  1. August 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I am eager to read more about your China trip. Great introduction here of the distance between Japan and China.

  2. August 10, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I’m Ghanaian, what’s wrong with that LOL. I understand, if someone asked me if I was Nigerian I would be surprised, even shocked. The views Japanese people express about China probably goes both ways, in that Chinese people don’t think too kindly of the Japanese either. I think it’s to do with World War II and the history of it. Unlike you my aim is and has always been Japan but China sounds good too, I have always thought that the Chinese were better or found it more acceptable to express their emotions.

    Your blog has a different style about it, I like, I like…………..

  3. 3 Moogiechan
    August 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Once upon a time, of course, the Japanese thought more highly of the Chinese. It’s where their writing system came from, it’s where a lot of the vocabulary comes from, and they imported a lot of the fine art techniques from China. And once upon a time all the best scholars wrote in Chinese and studied in China. So, maybe you’ve come a few centuries too late!!

  4. 4 Alphonse
    August 11, 2009 at 4:18 am

    China is almost a continent so its hard to caregorize china if you only went to HK , guangdong , beijing and shanghai. For example the beatiful girls that are in sichuan province or the easy going people of yunnan province . Ive been in japan and china and its like compare USA and Mexico, but anyway i hope the hk impact didnt dissapoint your image that u had of china

    • August 11, 2009 at 4:26 am

      Thanks for the shout Alphonse. I’ve never been to HK…maybe you misread the post. I went to Beijing.
      Moogiechan, yep, you slow you blow ne..(-; thanks for the shout
      Sayjapanese, no offense my British African sister- hehehe Glad you like my style (-;

  5. 6 XYD
    August 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    SayJapanese has got it somewhat correctly. The mainland Chinese tend to not like the Japanese so much. The Koreans are a little bit more tolerable with the Japanese, but they still harbor this little hatred towards Japan. Having to talk about a Chinese person in front of a Japanese person or the other way around is a bit tough I might add. A few years ago there were riots all over China on Japanese businesses alone. The conflict is still about World War II. While people may assume that World War II is the past, and that people should get over it. It IS a hard thing to do in the East, especially with China and Japan. Their roots are their ancestors, and for some, they pay their attention to their ancestors everyday (in the form of incense burning.) The main hatred is towards the Japanese and the teaching system, curriculum about anything much to do with World War II is either skewed to small bits or non existent. People are saying that Japan is denying a part of history.

    Taiwan is a mixture between Chinese and Japanese people. That said, it is expected that your student may say that Taiwan is better to visit than China would be. Places like Taiwan, and a couple cities in America still carry the KMT flag. Taiwan still carries on with the KMT flag only while the ones in America and throughout other places have both the mainland China and KMT flag. A Taiwan friend of mine say he is neither Chinese or Japanese, he is Taiwanese. This is another reason why Taiwan doesn’t want to assimilate with mainland China.

    I won’t get into detail because I don’t want to get into a big debate that will create conflict, but just know that there are tensions between China and Japan. There is bound to be skewed opinions from one side or the other.

  6. August 11, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    How the tables have turned, one would say. I mean, the Japanese writing system came from China. The upper echelons of Japanese royalty paraded around copying anything and everything Chinese as they thought that it was better than what Japan had managed to produce. And then of course, Japan turned cocky and decided to invade, which is probably where a lot of the grief comes from.

    In the UK, you get the same kind of thing, as you say, between the English and the Irish. And if somebody calls you Welsh, well, you’ve had it. Of course, these are only true of certain people, but you’re right, the quasi-racist attitude that you sometimes discover in Japan is an intriguing one and always goes back to the ‘in group/out group’ way of thinking. It’s so ingrained, even the language is geared up to be like that.

    It’s something that’s changing, of course, but hey, c’est la vie. Hopefully it hasn’t tainted your perceptions too much, as both Japan and China are truly magnificent countries.

  7. August 11, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Jared-san, sorry I overlooked your reply )-; Thanks as always for the shout and the kudos! (-:

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