Archive: The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan


If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

1. Why don’t you like your country (and are you all this aggressive)?

An afternoon tea party

“To be frightfully honest, I’d much prefer coffee…” (Federico Andreotti, via Wikimedia Commons)

Well now, do you see what you’ve done here? You’ve painted me into a corner, haven’t you? Taken me for a Union Jack-waving, scone-munching, knife-and-fork-requesting stereotype with no mind or personality of her own, then kicked me into the nearest open pigeon hole when I refuse to conform.

I don’t hate my country, no. There are things about it I hate, yes, and miraculously you’ve managed to touch on most of them in the space of this short conversation. But they wouldn’t make me anywhere near as angry if I didn’t care.

I arrived in Japan wide-eyed and full of youthful hope, keen to prove that I was more than the sum of my gangly legs and comically large nose, to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the deep and abiding similarities in our souls. But I also knew that here, not saying was the flower. And so I tried to keep my mouth shut and smile, smile, smile – the only advice I’d received before embarking on my educational mission.

I was to be thwarted in my bid for silence. Mere days in to my new role, I found myself sitting on a stage in front of an expectantly assembled junior high school, trying to answer the question “Do you like Margaret Thatcher?”. The above is not the answer that I gave, but it is the answer that I wish I could have given. The answer that I did give was something mealy-mouthed about how Thatcher’s policies divided people in Britain to this day (usually into opposite corners in which tables are upended and used as ad hoc missile cover), and that many people didn’t agree with them, myself included. But, I added, to soften the blow, that was just my opinion.

An awed hush descended. Seconds later, mutters broke the surface of the silence like tiny fish coming up for breadcrumbs. “My opinion… my opinion…” Yahari, said the headteacher, iken ga tsuyoi desu ne. As expected (being a foreigner), you have strong opinions.

It was a reaction I was to meet time and again, and one not entirely without reproach. There’s a fine line between having opinions and being opinionated, and my very existence seemed to make waves even when my mouth was firmly shut. For the first time in my life, I was considered to be representative of something. I had become An Ambassador For My Country (Whatever That Might Mean). Everything I said was interpreted through a lens – Christian, opinionated, aggressive, mouth-frothing feminist, tea-sipping English lady – that I barely recognised, and had no intention of perpetuating.

But how to escape becoming my stereotype? People listened the hardest when I was most like what I was expected to be. When I tried to fit in, I fell flat on that comedy nose of mine. Every time I hit the stereotype wall I’d blame myself and my language abilities, and hit the textbooks harder. We local gaijin bonded over furtively exchanged textbooks, gathered in dimly-lit family restaurants to squint at flashcards battered and tea-stained with use, huddled together for warmth, protection and linguistic input at the town’s premier (only) watering hole.

I soon reached the point where I could communicate day-to-day. There I could have stopped, but something wasn’t right. I noticed one day that when I spoke Japanese my voice was high-pitched, exaggeratedly feminine, about an octave higher than it should have been. I listened more closely. My words, too, they were being spoken to order, to fill the space in the conversation as expected, not because they belonged to me. In short, I had lost my voice.

Clearly, I was playing a loser’s game. I realised that if I was going to reconstruct myself in this very different culture, there’d need to be a core person there, and many of my values would come from my own culture. And that meant being more than a cypher, more than a brainless smile, more than a high maintenance ambulant steak. So began the mission to reconstruct Caro-chan.

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation at this point, because it seems like everyone else is at it and I don’t like to miss a par-tay. Britain is a nation that has fought tooth and claw for political representation. It has been ruled by the rich, for the rich, for centuries, and this has fostered an oppositional, them-and-us, two-party system where everybody knows which side they stand on. It’s not only OK to have an opinion: it’s not OK not to.

I was brought up to have an opinion on most things. I was also taught to be critical of things I did not agree with, with the possible exceptions of nine o’clock bedtimes and cod liver oil. I believe there is a damn good reason for this, and it is that the world does not tend toward fairness or equality; quite the opposite.

I understand that Japan has followed a very different path, its upper classes voluntarily dissolving their privileged position to establish a modern democracy. I also understand that they did so partly to preempt vile class consciousness infecting the minds of their citizens. I understand this because I’ve bothered to find this out, and kept my mind open while doing so. So the next time I give the wrong answers to the right questions, perhaps you could try listening before you make up your mind.

It’s not aggression. It’s not hatred. It’s because I care.

And if it seems doubly shocking coming from a woman, you’re getting just the shock you deserve.

From here on October 28th 2012.


Archive: An unnamed land

Bagan; around every corner a temple.

Around every corner a temple.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about a country that you don’t know what to call. In February 2011, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I visited the country known to some as Burma and to others as Myanmar. 

While both names refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, “Burma” remains associated with the British colonial era, a troubled era and one that I, a thoroughly reconstructed sort of Brit, have no great desire to associate myself with. Burma was something of a sideshow to the British; governed as a province of India, its civil service was largely drawn from India and from other non-Burmese, preventing local people from benefitting from the country’s prosperity. The country never seized the British imagination in the way India did, and there was little attempt to conform to its customs. A particular sticking point was the “Shoe Question”, the refusal of the interlopers to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples and other holy sites. Spotless as the colonial socks may have remained, this had the side-effect of focussing nascent Burmese nationalism on Buddhism, a focus that remains today.

So what of Myanmar? The country’s name was officially changed in 1989 by the reassuringly-named
SLORC (State Law and Order Committee), the ruling military junta perhaps best known for keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and overturning her party’s election victory in 1990. Despite a move from Soviet-style central planning in the ’60s and ’70s to a capitalist model, the junta has been in place since 1962 and shows little sign of going away. It is considered to be one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes, and its mismanagement has seen the country become one of the poorest and most corrupt in the region. Despite continued unrest, the junta rolls on, its access to natural resources and the willingness of neighbours to buy them allowing a ‘select’ few to line their pockets as the poor become poorer.

“Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s postindependence history”
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps

Eating lunch in Bangkok airport before the flight to Yangon, a man asked me where I was flying on to. Hearing the answer, he asked, shocked, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” It is true that there are challenges to travelling in such a place – no ATMs, no official currency exchange, creaking (if any) infrastructure, limited press and internet, and the difficulties of travelling ethically and giving money where it is most needed and most deserved (which is to say, not to the government). But it’s also true that with a people so warm and welcoming, a history so diverse, and a country so breathtakingly beautiful, the current regime is selling its people very, very short indeed.

British surveying pagoda, 1825

The British survey their latest acquisition.

From here on June 2nd 2011.