Someone different

23May08

The town I live in has a population of around 20,000, of whom approximately 19,990 are Japanese. By now, therefore, most people who live around here know me by sight. But visitors to this little corner of rural Japan are sometimes surprised to see a tall blonde girl in the supermarket.

Today’s surprised visitor was about 6 years old, and chasing his sister past the fruit and veg when the sight of a foreigner caused him, literally, to fall over his feet. Bless.

“Ehhhhh? Amerikajin?”

I’m not actually American, but it still made me smile. Usually my appearance prompts a comment of gaikokujin, foreigner, or its more derogatory abbreviation gaijin. This child at least knew of the existence of at least one foreign country with a name – not bad for someone used to an education system with a tendency to divide the world into “Japan” and “Foreign”. With the former, of course, more important.

Few if any students (of any age) have been able to identify my map of the UK (amongst my favourite responses: Finland, Russia and Japan.) Today I had to gently disabuse an elementary school student of the notion that this mysterious place Igirisu (the UK) was a prefecture of Japan, perhaps bordering Wakayama. When I brought some British coins to school, one of my elementary school teachers explained them to the students as “foreign money”.

This attitude doesn’t just extend to the UK. A junior high school that I visit had, until recently, a line map of Europe with East and West Germany neatly marked. Kangaroos come from “Foreign”, but there’s an endearing belief that McDonalds is native to Japan.

So this boy’s knowledge of America was in some ways impressive. But he’s still shocked to see a real life foreigner, in a supermarket of all places. In my town, there has been a stream of foreign English teachers for a decade or so, and it shows. We visit kindergartens, elementary schools and junior highs, and so the local kids know me as “Laura sensei” and, grinning, point me out to their parents. But foreigners that they don’t know, doing everyday things like shopping and renting videos, are still strange and confusing. Though they still get a “herro!”, I imagine.

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