2 September 2009

The Difference Between "Gaikokujin" and "(Go Home You F'ing) Foreigner"

One of the first things any ALT hears during orientation back in their home country is "don't try to change things." The system is what it is, the culture is what it is, and trying to change everything will probably alienate you further and cause you much frustration and gnashing of teeth. 99% of the time, this is true.

But back last winter, I was given a stack of essays to mark by students who made a trip to Asia Pacific University, a major international school in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. They met some of the foreign students there, of which there are many, and came back and wrote about their experiences. Most of them were okay, but maybe 20-25% of them kept referring to the full-time Japanese speaking students as "foreigners".

[Editor's note: In Japanese, gaikokujin (外国人) means "non-Japanese", though literally means "foreigner". It's applied very liberally, and has no particular negative nuance despite exclusion and generalization. Japanese people generally don't refer to people by race or nationality, for better or for worse. Most people here just think of people as being Japanese-- or not. So if you're a Canadian tourist, for example, you think of yourself as being a foreigner in another country. However, if you're a Japanese tourist, you might think, 'Ooooh look at all the foreigners here.' And just a side note, last time I went on vacation to Canada I said in shock and horror "God damn there're a lot of white people here!"]

So they kept calling these Chinese and Indonesian and Sri Lankan students "foreigners", and it kind of dawned on me how the students clearly don't know the difference in nuance between the benign word "gaikokujin" and the much more negative word "foreigner", so I showed them the distinctly negative definition in the Oxford English dictionary:

1. a person who comes from a different country
EXAMPLE: The fact that I was a foreigner was a big disadvantage.

2. a person who does not belong in a particular place
EXAMPLE: I have always been regarded as a foreigner by the local folk.

and left it at that.

Next essay, a couple of students talked about "the foreigners" [actually "foreign" fish from tropical "countries" invading Japanese waters], so I figured, yeah, I guess I really can't change anything. If Japan wants to be weird and xenophobic, they can do it without me.

But then when I got to school today the teacher from this particular class asked me to correct a draft of a speech one of these students wrote, and the whole thing was about the word "foreigner" -- about realizing through the experience at the university and my little lecture about it that the word "foreigner", or even "gaikokujin", can hurt or offend people. He went on to give his own opinion that this is left over from Japan's period of national isolation and said we should try to look at each other as being simply human beings before than anything else. Dude! I was absolutely floored, because, to be honest, I've been really sick of the whole "gaijin" issue lately. Sick of it being an issue. Both for recent depressing personal reasons, and broader reasons [for the latter, read the last two posts].

This is the first time where I know-- not hope, but know that I've made a difference here. So despite whatever you hear at orientation, if there's something that's really important to you, don't just do the whole "ALT gaijin clown" thing even though it's easier and it's what they want you to do, but do your duty as a teacher and as someone representing your country and at least try to tell people about your point of view. If you do it respectfully, it won't hurt the wa, and someone out there might just be listening.


William Milberry said...

Wow! That is encouraging to hear.

Who was it? What grade and class?


Furious said...

I can't post his name here, but one of my 中3 students.

Adam said...

This makes me feel a little bit better. :)