Life in Rural Japan: When Foreigner ‘Rockstar’ Status Goes Wrong

Awkward handshake

Before coming to Japan, I’d heard from a variety of sources that foreign people living in Japan often experience an almost ‘rock star,’ celebrity like presence. Naturally, this isn’t because foreign people are exceptional. It’s on account of Japan being one of the most homogeneous countries in the world – a country where spotting someone who isn’t Japanese is still a rare opportunity outside the major cities.

In my own experience of living in rural north Japan for 16 months, I can confirm this is absolutely true. I live in a town with over 100,000 people and only six or seven ‘western’ foreigners.

The benefits come in many forms. From being invited into Japanese people’s homes and shown fantastic hospitality, to having things bought for you, such as beers in a bar, or even cherries in the supermarket. You’ll also have more confident strangers approach you when you’re out and about, ask where you’re from and practice their English along the way.

Admittedly, 80% of the time, it’s a pleasant experience and there are many fantastic opportunities if you’re willing to embrace the role.

–        But of course, it’s not all a sunshine buttercup rainbow.

The unwanted attention can be intimidating and unpleasant, especially from children in supermarkets, who are brought to a stand-still as you plod towards their horror rid faces down the aisle. In the first week of living in my town, I even witnessed an elderly woman run a red light and nearly crash a car, after having her eyes transfixed on me bumbling along the street. So transfixed that she seemed to forget she was operating a vehicle.

Then there are the encounters with the overconfident, but weird strangers; strangers with the potential to make or break your day. Last week, I was privileged to meet such a character, who sought to test my patience to levels.

To set the scene, the day had started to go downhill in the afternoon at school, during a class with 40 laddish boys. We were working our way through another awful English textbook and had just finished an ‘uplifting’ chapter about an elephant who’d had its leg blown off by an improvised explosive device.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when we turned the page to reveal the words “DICK BRUNA” written in huge letters. It turned out the 40 boys all knew the word ‘dick’ was more than just the name of a Dutch artist (and the subject of the chapter) and consequently for the next 50 minutes, I faced an onslaught of dick related queries.

One student even summoned me over to his desk, where he’d dedicated vast resources to looking up the word in his dictionary and felt his discovery was worthy of praise. The already energy draining class had been turned up to ‘super drain’ and I left work feeling tired but optimistic at the prospect of a relaxing evening.

Then after work, I had to go to the bank to deposit a check. I envisioned a quick, get in, get out trip that would last no longer than 3 minutes.

–        But it took over 90 MINUTES.

–        To deposit a damn check.

The moment I handed the woman behind the counter the check and saw the puzzled expression emerge, I knew I was screwed. I watched the mayhem ensue as confused looks started to spring up, as more and more staff began to get involved. The check had single handedly brought the bank to its knees.

Having spent the first 45 minutes waiting, whilst riddled with guilt at having ever asked to cash a check in the first place, the second half of the 90 minute ordeal would now take on the form of a Japanese ability test, filling in endless amounts of documents in kanji characters, whilst simultaneously holding a conversation in Japanese using complicated financial terminology that I would have struggled with even in English.

In those 45 minutes I concentrated harder than I’ve ever concentrated in my life to fill out the endless amount of documents.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of all this, there little was left of me.

Gone was my energy. Gone were the smiles. Gone was my sanity.

As I stumbled out of the bank, trying not to fall over on the icy street, I cursed the day I would ever have to deposit another check in Japan.

By now my energy levels were dangerously low and I was a ticking time bomb of stress, anger and tiredness. My plans to return home for dinner were in tatters. I wasn’t even sure I was fit to drive in my current state.

But fate had thrown me a lifeline. There was a McDonald’s across the street. McDonald’s would be my salvation.

However, there was one final test in store.

First of all, I’d forgotten that after school, my students make the pilgrimage to McDonald’s to consume McFlurry’s and copious gossip.

I’d barely got through the entrance before I was charged by a fleet of girls from my school, phones in hand, asking if they could take photos of me in ‘real life’ (a.k.a. outside school). And as I stood there, held at camera point, alongside the smirking cardboard cut out of Ronald McDonald, drained both physically and emotionally, I thought I might just snap.

Yet, it turned out the whole afternoon had been a mere training exercise for what was to come next.

Because there, lurking on the other side of the McDonald’s, was a scruffy looking man, with the face of a 30 year old, the dress sense a 15 year old and the overexcited facial expression of a 10 year old. His unshaven face was barely visible underneath his baseball cap and army-camouflage coat, which had been zipped up so as to cover the lower half of his face. But if there was an award for most shocked facial expression when seeing a foreigner, this guy had won the gold fucking medal. Thrice.

As the shock gave way to excitement, he shot up from the table where he was sitting and exclaimed “Ee! Ee! FOREGINER!” in Japanese loudly, so the 30 or so customers, students and staff were suddenly watching the spectacle.

In my head I the words “Oh fuck” were played on repeat, as the man began waving his arms around and rushing towards me like a human cruise missile.

At this point I was second in line at the queue, which meant escape was truly impossible. I turned my head away, praying he was walking towards someone else – even though I was second in a queue of just two people. I knew whatever that was about to happen wouldn’t be fun. Especially considering he’d already thrown basic etiquette in the rubbish alongside his half eaten box of chicken McNuggets.

Two meters from where I was he raised his arm, pointed and shouted “Ee! WHERE ARE YOU FROM!?” (in Japanese), stunning the restaurant into an awkward silence.

This was truly the definition of fucking nightmare personified, because now everyone in McDonald’s was watching to see how I’d react. Worse still I would have to use my Japanese yet again, except this time it would be in front of everyone in the restaurant and my students, meaning I’d have to think extra carefully using the energy and concentration I didn’t have, to pull it off without looking like a fool.

At the same time I’d now finally made it to the front of the queue, with three members of staff on standby, ready to unleash burgers upon my order. Awkwardly positioned between the timid staff awaiting my order and the world’s loudest man, I realized I’d have to quickly kill off the conversation before moving ahead with the order.

“London, England,” I replied, with an obvious hint of “Now fuck off”.

Instead however, he grabbed my hand and shook it so aggressively he nearly snapped it off, before barking “I’M HALF FILIPINO!”

Under the watchful eye of the entire restaurant, my students and McDonald’s staff, all anxiously spectating this bizarre performance, I somehow mustered the energy to deliver a fake smile and reply “Oh! Wow, really,” hoping my lack of interest would show and the conversation would die quickly.

But before I could turn back to order the preciously needed energy, he again tugged at my hand, which he was still trying to snap off and delivered an incredible punch line.

“NO! HAHAHAHAHA. I’M JAPANESE.”

It was a groundbreaking joke.

So funny was the joke, that he was the only one who could truly appreciate its magnificence. And as he continued to laugh, deafening everyone in his vicinity, I mumbled “Haha, I see…” freeing myself from his eternal hand shake and turning to finally order my meal.

“Will you be eating in or taking out?” asked the staff.

“Definitely eating out please,” I blurted. I’d intended to sit inside and eat, but to do so under such circumstances would have been a fate worse than death.

I looked over my shoulder to see if he’d gone.

Having already displayed his unconventional greeting method, I wasn’t remotely surprised to find the man had grabbed a nearby chair and was now straddling it in reverse behind me in the queue. He was waiting for me finish my order.

“It’ll be about a 5 minute wait,” gulped the woman, fully aware of the fate she was sealing me into. She knew as well as I did that for the next 5 minutes I’d have to stand there and deal with round after round of questions being barked at me, when all I wanted to do was eat some food and collapse into a tired heap on the floor.

The moment I finished the order and moved away to the side of the till, the man stood up, drop-kicked the chair aside and rushed over once more to resume his onslaught of shit.

“HOW OLD YOU THINK I AM?” he screamed.

It was genuinely a difficult question. Taking into consideration the combination of the 30 year old looking face, the dress sense of a 15 year old and the personality of a 10 year old, even God would have had a hard time putting a figure down on paper.

“Err…..22?”

He began jumping up and down and clapping his hands loudly with delight, making sure anyone who’d stopped paying attention was now once again engaged in the never ending pantomime of failure.

“37! I’M 37,” he cried with glee, slapping me on the shoulder.

“Wow” I nodded, “that’s great.”

“YOU’RE FOREIGN!” he roared again. “WHAT DO YOU THINK OF JAPAN?”

But before I could open my mouth to answer, he interrupted, shouting “I DON’T LIKE JAPAN. DO YOU HAVE A JAPANESE GIRLFRIEND! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE FOREIGN! WHY ARE YOU IN JAPAN?”

With our McDonald’s audience engaged once more, but my energy finally depleted I couldn’t even be bothered to talk. I patted him on the shoulder and gave an obvious fake smile. “You’re an interesting guy” I said, turning back to the counter and slumping over it in the process. With my slurred words and droopy head, I looked nothing short of a drunkard.

And yet somehow the message just wasn’t getting through.

“Let’s eat together,” he beamed, walking over to a nearby table and clearing it off, as if preparing it for a horrific date.

I continued to stand there in disbelief, hoping and praying for the McDonald’s to come. I started to examine the straws and wonder if I might be able to use them to take my own life, should he succeed in dragging me to his table.

He sat down at the table whilst laughing loudly, like a crazed madman. “THIS IS FATE. THAT I SHOULD MEET A FOREIGNER,” he cried loudly once more, as my students sat in the corner giggling at my misfortune.

Too hyper to sit down for more than 5 seconds, he stood up once more and raced over again. By now however, he was so excited I couldn’t understand his Japanese any more.

Looking to bring an end to humiliatingly speaking in awful broken Japanese using my energy reserves, I asked if he could speak English, expecting a resounding no.

He laughed and patted his stomach with delight, before delivering his only English of the day.

“English…” he said (in English), instantly grabbing my attention. Maybe there was hope after all.

He looked at me thoughtfully, before smiling and delivering his closing English remarks.

“English, fuck.”

And with that he resumed back to speaking indecipherable Japanese.

Just then my order was slammed down in front of me. The woman at the counter nodded and smiled. It was more than just a McDonald’s. It was freedom.

“Do you want any sauces?”

“That won’t be necessary,” I blurted, grabbing the bag and turning towards the exit. The humiliating ordeal in front of my students, customers and staff was over.

The man was now between me and the exit, although he seemed to have the impression I’d be joining him at the table.

“Let’s sit down,” he beckoned.

By now I was so tired I didn’t even bother using Japanese.

“Nah. Home. I’m very tired,” gesturing my head against a pillow.

He pointed through the window to the snowy scene outside and smiled.

“You should eat here. You’ll catch a cold out there.” Only now was he choosing to be indirect and polite.

I forced a smile, “No problem, I have a car.”

He laughed thinking I was only joking before it dawned him it wasn’t a joke. His face sank.

“Nice to meet you I said,” before storming out as quickly as I could, leaving him standing there once more with a shocked expression upon his face.

And as my car got stuck in the snow filled car park back in front of my apartment just 15 minutes later, I couldn’t careless. The worst of it was over.

I prayed to God I wouldn’t meet him again any time soon.

After all it’s a small town and it would be bloody awkward.

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