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First Time Foreigner

Time flies when you’re having fun, folks, and I’m reminded of that old adage every day that zooms by. I’m going to be home before I know it, and that thought is a little bit scary!

The thought of home has me thinking this week about one of the big differences for an American living in Japan versus the United States, and that’s the ethnic demographics. You see, whereas the United States has long been categorized as a “melting pot,” Japan is 98.5% Japanese, and Americans make up only 0.00037% of the population.


As a 6-foot-3, blonde American male, this translates to me sticking out a little bit.

Back home, I’m a dime-a-dozen white kid in a predominantly white city. Here, my presence is essentially akin to a 50-foot blue alien yelling at inanimate objects in another language. It’s an interesting change of pace.

Kids have looked at me with mouths agape in amazement and terror. Random college-age girls have stopped my friends and I to take a group picture with them. A mother and her son spotted us in a restaurant and snuck cell phone pictures of each one of us as we walked by. Random kids yell hello to me from across the street. All the students at Kansai Gaidai University spend hours on campus doing nothing more than chatting with us foreigners.

Pokemon Center
In lighter news, I got to go to the Pokemon Center in Osaka. Awesome.

The whole thing is quite odd, and makes me feel like I’m somewhere between a celebrity and the Elephant Man. I’m more than happy to talk to a bunch of Japanese college students in a campus lounge because they find Americans new and exciting. But constantly being stared at in public and having constant reminders that you’re different is a wee bit alienating. If I was here by myself and not with a few hundred other foreigners feeling the same way, I don’t know how well I would be dealing with it.

But I think this constant alienation has taught me something, and that’s how it feels to be a foreigner. Being a white male in America automatically grants you a certain privilege minorities do not have, so moving to another country where I am easily the minority has been eye-opening. It’s given me the opportunity to step into another’s shoes for a few months and see what it’s really like to be an outsider.

It’s easy to judge the woman sitting on the bus wearing a hijab for having differing values from you, laugh behind the back of an exchange student for having slightly wrong English, or treat someone different than you as a sort of pariah you’d never associate with.

But put yourself in their position for a while and it’ll get a lot harder.

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  • B

    BarbSep 24, 2013 at 6:04 am

    I learned the same thing when I travelled to both Hungary and Brazil for work Zach! Keep up the stories…I am enjoying reading your perspective on things!

  • J

    JanineSep 24, 2013 at 5:08 am

    Had similar experiences in the Peace Corps and it gave me a whole new perspective on what it must feel like to be an immigrant or refugee. You don’t often hear about how stressful the immigrant experience can be. Receiving a smile really does lift the spirits. Thanks for the reminder!