But to me, a young woman standing alone on a busy street in a still strange country, the word gaijin changed the tone of this encounter. For the group of teenagers waving and shouting at me, the word gaijin was merely a way of identifying their rare and exciting discovery. For me, a citizen of a country whose history has its share of prejudice and violence, the impersonal identification of me, based solely on my appearance, sounded like the racial and ethnic epithets hurled at Italian immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Irish immigrants, Jews and millions of other people in the United States.
The word gaijin simply means "foreigner." It is not a derogatory term. But in Italy and the United States, two countries rich with immigrants from all over the world, the act of impersonally identifying a person's racial or ethnic background based solely on the person's appearance, is considered insulting. In Italy this is because foreigners are usually tourists and insulting tourists means losing money. Also, the population in Italy has been growing rapidly over the last decade thanks to massive immigration from the surrounding European countries and Asia. Today, about 7% of the country was born in another country or was born to a foreigner. Before the immigration boom in Italy, the population was rapidly shrinking.
In the United States this is because the country prides itself on being a "melting pot," which meant that any race, ethnicity or culture was accepted in, as long as one's name and appearance looked and sounded "American" or white and of Anglo origin. This compelled thousands of Jews, Italians, Poles, Russians, and other Europeans to assimilate by changing their names into more English-sounding monikers: My friend's grandfather changed his last name from Zlotniki to the English translation "Gold," for example. Another friend of mine changed his family name back to the original Italian name and he is now "Fantigrossi" instead of just "Fanta."
Many immigrants came to America to escape difficult conditions in their native countries. Once settled on American soil, many new residents worked hard to assimilate into the new American culture and shed their old ways. To point out someone's difference, therefore, was to point out how one had failed to become accepted into American society. The newest wave of immigration in Italy has not had the same effect on its newest citizens. Instead, Italy is more like a salad where different cultures and backgrounds keep their distinct traits, but they all work together to make a great country.
Another reason I reacted so strongly to being called a gaijin was because of the history of racial discrimination in the United States and around the world. For centuries Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Aborigines have suffered from discrimination in employment, housing and education. Down in the southern United States, Jim Crow laws made it illegal for a people of one race to use bathrooms designated for the other race or to sit in the wrong place on the bus or at a lunch counter. Despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act and numerous other laws that strive to provide equal rights to all races, genders, religions and creeds, people today still discriminate based on appearance. In South African, Apartheid made it legal to discriminate against Black Africans and New Zealand and Australia are just beginning to treat their aboriginal citizens better.
The Japanese teenagers calling out to me were blissfully ignorant of all these offenses. Unlike the United States, it is nearly impossible for a non-Japanese person to gain Japanese citizenship. And few foreigners choose to live for more than a few years in the country as it is difficult to feel settled in a place where the language is difficult to learn and one's appearance is so different from the general populace. The Japanese do have a history of discrimination, but it has been directed primarily toward other Asians: Koreans, Chinese, and Philippinos. I was merely a curiosity to the group, not unlike being a celebrity. The calls of "haro!" And "gaijin, which sounded to me like taunts or even threats were really just the excited identification of me as an exciting new discovery.
New to Japan and equally ignorant of its citizens' views on foreigners, I took the shouts badly. I ducked into the shop and hid there until the group moved out of sight. During that time I tried on and bought the sweater. The clerk in the shop was polite and spoke English. I almost asked her opinion about the encounter, but at the time I was still feeling ostracized and critical of any insight from the natives.
Several months later I complained to an American teacher about that and subsequent incidents of Japanese strangers calling to me. I told her that their use of the term gaijin was synonymous with the racial epithets Americans used to direct at African-Americans. My older and wiser American friend smiled and reassured me that I was overreacting. She explained how my round brown eyes and brown hair struck the Japanese as unusual and interesting. She explained how unusual it is for most Himeji residents to see foreigners and that the use of the word gaijin was to identify me, not to insult me. She then asked me what I would do if I saw a Japanese woman in a kimono and traditional hairstyle walking down the street in the United States. I admitted that I'd probably look, but I would so discretely.
"I wouldn't shout 'Japanese lady!' At her," I remember telling my friend.
"That's because you know what it's like to be a foreigner," she pointed out. "Those teenagers have probably never stepped foot outside Hyogo prefecture, much less the country. They have no idea what it feels like to singled out simply because of the way one looks. They had no idea what that kind of action means to non-Japanese people."
After that conversation I started feeling a lot better about being in Japan. Instead of frowning or hiding when strangers greeted me, I waved back and said, "Hello!" In return. After awhile many local people, particularly young people who had picked up a few English words, would continue the conversation and ask me questions in halting English. I would answer back slowly and simply. In one encounter, I was jogging on a bicycle path when two schoolboys rode up alongside me.
"Are you jogging?" one of them asked.
"Yes!" I replied enthusiastically.
"Oh, good," he said. And the two giggled a little and rode on. I felt happy. It was spring, the azaleas were in bloom and two Japanese boys had just had one of their first successful conversations in English with a foreigner. The main reason I moved to Japan was to experience living in a foreign country and learn another country's language, customs and views. In order to truly understand this country, however, I had to let go my own prejudices and learn to see the world through another person's eyes and hear it through another person's ears. It was a life-changing experience that I will always…