What you aren’t prepared for, after the initial wave of culture shock has subsided and you have begun to settle down in Japan, is how much you become like the people who stare at you in this most homogenous of lands.
The kanji (Chinese characters) that make up all the signs seem less intimidating, even if they make no more sense. The strange game boy like pop music that erupts at midday from speakers littered across town no longer makes you feel like you’re about to run head first into a Pokémon and you’ve even stopped converting yen into pounds. But what you’re not prepared for is that you will begin to stare too. Not at the odd intricacies of life in the far east of which there are plenty, not at the random items of food you cannot even begin to identify, but at something quite similar to yourself; the other foreigners.
First you become more immune to the occasional whispering of (or downright yelling), ‘Gaijin da!’ Which can be translated roughly as, ‘Holy crap! Look, look, it’s a foreigner!’ However, the far, far more regular occurrence is staring. People in passing cars, folks in the supermarket, everyone in whatever bar you’ve just walked into will stare at you, or perform what they consider to be a surreptitious glance.
Then it happens to you. Walking along the street, minding your own business until another foreigner rolls into view and you find yourself doing pretty much everything other than shouting, ‘Gaijin da!’ It’s awkward for both of you really, because you’re both attempting the same surreptitious glance.
Still just occasionally this sense of shock that one’s own pale skin can induce in others has its perks. I had just finished teaching a lesson when the mother of one my students took her other kid, a one-year-old boy, of off her little backpack contraption as he was crying his eyes out. Once she had laid him down for only an instant on the desk to fix his little jumpsuit thing he stopped crying immediately. His eyes were wide, quite bewildered and fixed firmly upon me. I smiled and looked back, ‘Gaijin da.’ I said.