Tuesday, January 13, 2004

What is the best way to make foreign friends?

One of the most frequent cultural "shocks" that I get lving in Japan has to do with the fact that such an overwhelming majority of the population shares the same ethnic background. At home, it is a very natural thing to question what "kind" of name a person has - Irish, German, etc - but in Japan it is a pointless question since 99% of the time the answer would be the same. And there are all kinds of other little things you run into that culturally, just wouldn't have any emphasis back home. Like this "question of the day" in Japan Today. Can you imagine in Canada being asked what is the best way to make foreign friends? In Japan, where often people are so unfamiliar with non-Japanese, sometimes to the point of fear, the question is a pretty fair one.

Similar things have happened to me lately that make me smile. I was walking out of my yard one day when a Japanese schoolboy was going by on his bicycle. When he saw me, he was surprised and said, "gaijin, kowai!!" which translates to "a foreigner, I'm scared!!". I called out after him, "why are you scared" but he was pedalling away as fast as he could.

And then a couple of weeks ago a salesmas came and rang my doorbell. When I opened the door, he bursts out, 'E! Gaijin da!" which means "Ah! A foreigner" (if you hadn't already figured that out). I responded in polite Japanese, "yes, I am a foreigner." There was an awkward silence.

The situation struck me as so funny when I translated it into a Canadian context. Can you imagine being in Canada, and saying, out loud when the door was opened to you, "Ah! An immigrant!" I am pretty sure that could get you into some fights. Lucky for them nobody fights here.

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