Earlier this week, I wrote a blog about how I don’t really feel like I am a foreigner in Japan–at least not the kind that clogs up major cities sightseeing, uses gestures to communicate, and eats with a fork. But at the same time, I am obviously not entirely Japanese either. I mean, look at me. For starters, I apparently have a rocking high nose that constantly earns admiration and praise from my nasally-challenged Japanese friends. I must admit that I had never pondered the shape of my nose until I came to Japan, and it is nothing that I can take credit for, but I am still proud of my stately nose. I also have the body structure of a foreigner. I am skinny on top, well-proportioned below, and have the tiniest face around. You would be surprised to know that my head is huge, so huge that I cannot buy hats anywhere. Must be the big brain taking up too much space in my skull. Lastly, regarding my appearance, my skin is pale and my hair is blond, well, maybe. I have dyed my hair so much I am not really sure what color it is–although it has gotten much darker since I came to Japan, which I see as proof that I am indeed turning Japanese.
Apart from my appearance, though, I really do feel like I am assimilating into the culture more now than I ever have before in my life. I used to love to visit Taco Bell and other fast food restaurants when I visited my home country of the United States. This past February, I ate Taco Bell once, and that was enough for me. I didn’t need it anymore. In fact, I don’t really crave American food at all. When I do eat it, I find myself dreaming of brown rice and pickles. I make miso soup and rice balls for breakfast every morning, and most of the things I cook for dinner are Japanese, too. My family, like me, prefers Japanese food. That being said, it can all start to taste the same sometimes. When that happens, rather than whipping up some tacos or spaghetti, I turn to Korean food, or just pour a ton of hot sauce on my Japanese food. I have also decided to stop being such an annoyingly picky eater, and at least try things that I have criticized as being gross without ever even tasting. I found that during our recent trip to Kyoto that I actually liked a fish (nishin–Pacific herring) that I never would have even tried before. I also found that those little fish with eyes that Japanese people eat with rice are exceedingly gross, and I never want to taste them again. But at least I know that now, since I actually tried it.
But perhaps the biggest change I have noticed is my attitude towards stuff I used to detest–committee and parental-taking turns-responsibility stuff. I am aware that is not really the correct English phrase, but hey, it is what I am trying to convey. I used to hate it when my turn came around to collect fees and take attendance at karate, and the thought of the mandatory volunteer system of the PTA made me want to break out in hives. I found myself rebelling at the very core of my being. Why do I have to do this meaningless work? There are so many other things I need to be doing! Luckily for me, the PTA at my kids’ school has become entirely voluntary, which is a miracle of God in itself, right up there with Jesus walking on water. Just kidding. But it is an extraordinary thing. Change in Japan is slow, and the mandatory PTA duty, which can be very stressful and time consuming, has been a thorn in the side of Japanese parents for generations. It is ironic that just when I had resigned myself to doing it because it is the Japanese thing to do, that I no longer have to do it. Maybe I will volunteer anyway. Um. Nah.
But I am doing my part helping out with my kids’ karate. Every three months or so, I have to take my turn collecting money and taking attendance, staying at the practice for two hours from start to finish. I sit on my knees in seiza position like the other moms for as long as my American tendons can take it (about 12 minutes), I chat about the kids, about Japan, and about the U.S. I act like every other mom there. I usually dread having to do it, but always find myself enjoying it, like last night when I had a lovely talk with the other mom helping out (we work in pairs). I probably talked her head off, but that is okay. When I got home, I realized that my heart was changing. As much as I may not like doing something, as long as I live in Japan, and if I really want to love and know the Japanese people, I have to do my part by trying to fit in the best I can. The last thing I want is to be known as the annoying, selfish foreigner who doesn’t want to help out. That would not be a good witness of my faith or example of my country. There is a proverb in Japanese, “Go ni ireba, go ni shigau” which is very similar to our English proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I must admit that I am learning more and more these days how important that really is if I want to really understand the culture. Of course, there are areas where I can’t do that. I cannot follow any Japanese custom that conflicts with my Christian faith, which is more important to me that anything; I cannot spend every Sunday at some sports event or another because my family is in church; and I cannot do anything that is going to cause me to neglect my family, which is my number one priority. But as long as doing my part doesn’t conflict with these foundational beliefs, I have decided to do my part to fit in. For I cannot expect to be treated the same as other people, and be accepted completely into the society, if I only help out when it is easy and convenient for me. Besides, who knows? Maybe I will make a lifelong friend on a committee that I once hated.
So, it seems that I am not a foreigner, but that I am not Japanese either. But you know what? That is fine with me. I even embrace it. I am perfectly comfortable with my identity as a punk rocker, bleached hair, tattooed American who loves rice and pickles with her roasted green tea. That is who I am, and I like me. I think my Japanese friends like me, too.