“Gaijin kusai yo ne!”(foreigners smell)

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

PNN reviews “Raptivism” at the Oakland Museum

a narrative essay

by JOSHUA MCVEIGH-SCHULTZ /PNN Poverty Studies Intern. Mentor; Dee Gray

“Gaijin kusai yo ne!” [foreigners smell!] I screamed out the window of my friends’ car.

“Kamanberu no you” [like camembert cheese], I added as we passed a group of young Japanese men. They laughed and pointed, giving me the thumbs up sign as we sped away. If I could say what they were thinking even before they thought it… then I win, I had convinced myself. Undermining all those furtive glances and muttered insults, I could beat the whole damn country to the punch!

But I was drunk.

And on Monday I would return to my weekly nervous breakdown, drinking 10 cups of coffee a day, faking a perfectly sculpted smile, and living in my own head.

It has been a year since I left Japan, and I still have trouble thinking of myself as anything but a gaijin. The term translates roughly as “foreigner,” but the reality of this word’s usage is more complex, because depending on context, the label gaijin can be either demeaning or complimentary. Usually, both positive and negative connotations are woven together into the same utterance. Part of learning to be a foreigner in Japan is learning how to exhume these layers of meaning and discern multiple intentions… without going crazy.

A peculiar form of self-centeredness tends to take over—imagining oneself being watched by all those eyes. A year after leaving Japan, I still find myself returning to that familiar sensation.

On Friday August 1st, I attended a show called “Raptivism, the New Social Activism” at the Oakland Museum. Adjacent to the garden venue where the show was presented was an exhibit called “Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography.” I was an intern that night: a journalist and political activist in training. I was going to write about hip-hop, and activism, and black photography.

I got to the museum early and took some time to wander through the “Reflections in Black” exhibit. For these first few minutes, I was alone. Silent faces stared back at me: strong, serene, black faces with a personal history all their own. I was moved by the images, but the political subtext of the museum space disappointed me. A dearth of references to any current political struggle seemed to undermine the power of the photographs. There were some important exceptions, though, including Lou Jone’s collection from his book “Final Exposure: portraits from death row.”

At 7:00 o’clock, many black families started to wander into the exhibit to peruse the photographs. As they entered, I experienced a sharp twinge of self-consciousness. I wondered what I looked like through their eyes, a white male taking notes on black photography. Up until now, my notes had been highly critical of the exhibit, but as these black families continued to filter in, I began to doubt myself. I started to pay more attention to the people around me. Playful children began to explore the museum from new angles. They ran under cloth partitions that I had thought to be solid walls. I was reminded that things are not always what they appear to be.

When I arrived at that Nakada junior high school in the summer of 2000, I had imagined that I was there to teach English. If I had a chance, now, to talk to the person I was then, I honestly don’t know what I would say. I don’t know what advice I would give, or how I would explain my experience in Japan. I feel like words would fail me.

On the surface, Japanese seems like such a respectful, cautious language. Foreigners usually coast through their first year assuming everyone holds them in the highest esteem. At some point though, little signals start to accumulate and a foreigner in Japan begins to realize that politeness can mask venom. When you’re told “Nihongo jozu desune!” [You speak Japanese so well!], it usually means you’ve just made a grammatical mistake and need to study a little harder. By the end of my first year, I began to perceive these layers of subtext in every utterance I heard.

Soon my Japanese was good enough to decipher the subtle negativity of the staff room gossip, but not good enough to know when it wasn’t directed at me. In Japanese, the subject of a sentence can be left up to the imagination, and my imagination began to assume the worst.

I paused to read the headline from a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle dated April 5th 1968. “Dr. King slain by sniper—massive search for killer.” A white girl next to me looked at her friend. “Back in time,” she said, wiggling her fingers as if to represent the blurriness of a cinematic flashback. I stepped away, bumping into someone behind me.

A small boy circled around the room, only to stop suddenly, engrossed in a picture.

“That’s Martin Luther King,” he called out. “He got shot right here in the chest,” he continued, pointing at his own chest. The boy’s father looked down at his son.

“Yes, they shot him because they didn’t want us to be able to do all the things that they could do.”

Hearing this explanation, I winced a little on the inside, my mind reading—or perhaps misreading—the word “they” to also include “me”.

Sitting at my desk in the staff room, I shuffled papers and pretended to look busy. I hadn’t been assigned any classes that day. Around me, people were talking in quiet voices. I imagined the comments were directed, in some way, to my very presence in the staff room. Gossip about a lazy student was actually meant for the ears of a lazy foreigner. Later, during the school’s cleaning period, I would plunge myself into work, joining students to sweep a hallway outside the staff room. I greeted people as they passed, my face smiling widely… giddy.

This was a particularly difficult period of time for me. The more depressed and paranoid I became, the fewer were the classes assigned to me (or so ran my logic). And being forced to overhear the staff room conversation was my well deserved punishment for not working hard enough. It was a vicious cycle, and my trip home at five o’clock provided little respite.

Everywhere I went, people were watching me. Eyes followed me at the supermarket. Neighbors peered through my windows. I became convinced there were cameras hidden in my apartment. I wished more than anything else that I wasn’t a gaijin. I wanted to be anonymous.

After DJ Apollo’s set, many people wandered outside to catch the Evarise Fashion Parade. Wearing Erica Varise’s eclectic designs, models strutted one by one across a promenade and down a wide staircase to stand staggered and defiant on the steps—each model occupying her own unique space. While music played and models strutted, Colored Ink performed spoken word poetry:

“We are women. We are unforgettable… free from oppression and translation.” The words conjured up an image of transcendent feminine identity—something beyond history, beyond the shackles of racism. Perhaps importantly, the phrase was not “We are black woman.” Blackness was a given, the default category of this performance space.

I envied that kind of anonymity.

For the next event, people turned around to watch a slide show projected onto a museum wall. Digital photographs of graffiti art were presented by the Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society while a voice narrated the history of inner city art and hip hop culture.

“This new form of graphic communication served as a vehicle for self expression in a society where freedom of speech was, and still is, primarily reserved for those with wealth and power… Aerosol culture is an answer to the propaganda assault that has been waged on everyone.” I began to see more and more white people in the crowd. They crept closer to the images, trying to get a better look.

“This is a social movement… that crosses all social barriers,” the narrator explained. All races and ethnicities: blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians… “all can be included in this struggle against oppression.”

I was confused. I remember thinking to myself, if all consideration of race is erased, what exactly are the artists struggling against? What is their message?

A member of Felonious would later remark: “Times is changing!… It used to be a crime, but now we’re paying to look at this [aerosol artwork].”

Is the only thing political about graffiti that you’re not aloud to do it? What happens then, when it becomes valued—and therefore co-opted—by a museum? I’m not sure I have an easy answer.

By 9:30 the crowd had dwindled from 200 to about 100 people or less. Those left were mostly white. Felonious, the headlining group of the night and the focus of “Raptivism: a new social activism” energized the crowd. A unique hip hop group that uses a live band instead of a DJ, Felonious has risen to prominence in recent years helped in part by their association to another live instrument group, the Roots. Following the Roots’ philosophy of positive hip hop, Felonious ascribes to the idea of “One Love”—a notion that hip hop encompasses multi-ethnicity within a single culture. Felonious consists of a white MC, a Latin MC, a white keyboardist, and a black drummer.

Interestingly all white members of the band wore headgear of some sort—be it a baseball hat with a low brim or a hooded sweatshirt. In contrast the black and Latino members each sported naked heads. I suddenly was aware of my own dark hoodie and realized the pattern.

A part of me was jealous of foreigners at other schools who had never learned Japanese. Oblivious of anything beyond the steady flow of compliments showered upon them in stilted English, they were… so lucky. I hated them.

We invented a name for gaijin who hadn’t been in Japan long enough to understand the subtle codes of Japanese culture. We called these people: nama-gaijin. Nama meaning ‘fresh’ as in nama biiru [draft beer] fresh from the tap. Nama-gaijin were foreigners who couldn’t sense the quiet scrutiny, who couldn’t see themselves through others’ eyes. “We” were the experienced gaijin who knew better.

An important, though unspoken, caveat of this arrangement was that to be a nama-gaijin you had to be white first. Any non-white gaijin inherently escapes classification in the nama-gaijin category. Perhaps one reason is that non-white foreigners in Japan aren’t treated with the same blend of unconditional esteem and condescending distance as their white counterparts. Non-white foreigners are more often exposed to harsh and demeaning criticism. In other words, they can already see the other side of the coin. They’re not so fresh and naive.

Now I’m back in the States. I’ve been here for half a year, but I still feel suffocated. Nama-gaijin are everywhere: sweating, talking too loud, eating while they walk, asking too many questions, showing off without even realizing it, speaking in mock-ebonics, going to hip-hop shows and claiming to understand non-white cultures because they dress the part. And I am becoming one. I can feel the nama-gaijin creeping back into my skin like a Sunday hangover in reverse. By Saturday, I’ll have completely forgotten.


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