Foreigners can be a pain in the ass. I know. I am one.
I’ve been a foreigner for the last 4 years of my life. I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve been repeatedly battered by different cultures. Cultures that make no sense or seem weird or are just downright despicable. My amygdala has probably swollen to the size of a coconut given how many times I’ve had to learn new directions for new homes each and every year.
Now that the starry-eyed world wanderings have ceased, I’ve settled down in Japan for good. And I’m still a damn foreigner (people shout it when they see me walking around) . For a developed country, Japan must be the most startlingly different culture from the one I came from (England).
So when I say that foreigners can be a pain in the ass, it’s not because I’m a racist devil. It’s because I’ve seen what my fellow foreign brothers and sisters do in strange lands with my own eyes. I’ve seen what I did. But, luckily, I’ve learned a few things.
If you’re a foreigner, living in a country different from that of your birth right now, take this as a mini-guide for fitting in better. I’m writing this to myself almost 4 years ago after landing in Japan for the first time. I could have used this kick up the backside. Here are 4 things you need to know if you’re a foreigner living in a foreign country.
1. You can (and should) become culturally fluent before you become linguistically fluent
Let’s be real. If you are a monolingual English-speaker trying to live in Japan, China, Vietnam, or any of those Category V countries, it’s gonna take you a hell of a long time to become linguistically fluent.
But, even if you’re applying yourself to your language studies and going balls deep in the textbooks, language exchanges, and all that, what are you supposed to do in the mean time?
Just because you can’t even order a coffee in your host country’s language yet does not give you an excuse to be culturally ignorant.
Lack of language will almost always be forgiven if you apply yourself to becoming culturally fluent.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how deftly you speak the language if you flounder all of a country’s social rules – you will be considered a rude foreigner.
So how do you become culturally fluent?
Study what the locals do, find patterns, and then mimic them.
- In Japan, learn to bow. There are many different varieties of bowing. Learn how to perform them and in what situations to use them.
- In Iran, don’t give a thumbs up if you like the food in a restaurant. That’s the same as giving the middle finger and you will be met with extreme venom.
- In Thailand, don’t lift your rice bowl from the table to eat. That will elicit ridicule. And definitely don’t show the soles of your feet. That’s extremely rude.
In Japan, a lot of foreigners like to complain that the Japanese are racist. These are the same people who barely speak the language. They are the same people who forget to take their shoes off when entering a house. They don’t know how to separate the trash (it’s more complicated than in many Western countries). And when they walk down the street, rather than keeping their arms tucked in and conservative, they swagger around as though they’re in the Wild West.
That shit might fly in London, New York, or Sydney but it don’t go down well in Tokyo and only makes you look like an arrogant, ignorant gaijin (foreigner).
If you want to ingratiate seamlessly into a foreign country, learn the cultural quirks in advance, and practice them from day one.
2. Learning the language is a matter of life and death
If you’re planning to stay in the country for a period of a year or long, learn the damn language.
Every major country has a foreign community that exists in its own bubble.
- In Tokyo, Yanks, Aussies, and Brits will hang out exclusively with expatriates and never learn more than ten words of Japanese (biiru hitotsu kudasai).
- In Toronto, try asking directions from the locals living in Chinatown. You might as well be in Beijing, not a major Canadian city.
- In England, the second most spoken language is Polish. And many of those who speak Polish, do not learn more than extremely limited English vocabulary.
- There are states in America that are home to entirely Spanish-speaking communities. You might as well have crossed the border.
There are always exceptions to the rule.
As an English teacher, I met hundreds of hard-working individuals who battled to get their English up to native levels.
Though I was always at risk of experiencing confirmation bias (after all, most foreigners I spoke in depth with were learning English), these individuals really are the exception rather than the rule.
I know why. Learning a new language is extremely emotionally and mentally draining. It’s a lot easier just to “get by” and live in your own little bubble.
Assimilation is a nice idea but many foreigners refuse to assimilate.
I say “refuse” rather than “fail” because “fail” implies they tried.
Believe me, the ones who don’t assimilate never even tried in the first place.
When I was working in Tokyo for an English teaching company, I met Brits, Americans, and Canadians that had lived in Japan for 10-20 years. They were married to Japanese women. And they STILL could not hold a Japanese conversation.
They drank with English speakers, got their wives to fill out official documents, and mimed what they needed when they went to the store.
Not good enough.
Lazy. Arrogant. Pathetic.
Sorry if that sounds harsh but remember I’m talking to myself here too? I’m a fan of tough love.
You lived in the country for 2 decades and you’re still illiterate? You should be ejected from the country.
From a practical standpoint, not understanding something could lead to death.
Japan has a bunch of earthquakes. And nukes pointed at it from Asian Cartman.
What if you don’t understand warnings? What if you can’t read important information? Or maybe you think you can “figure it out” when something bad happens but you end up doing something that completely goes against what others are doing and ends up endangering everyone?
Yes. It’s hard to learn a new language. But, if you’re living there, it is the absolute least you can do. It is your duty. Refuse your duty and you lose your right to complain about “discrimination towards foreigners”. Which leads me to my next point.
3. Stop bitching about racism until you’ve spent a few years being linguistically and culturally fluent
I spent the last couple of months searching for an apartment in Yokohama, Japan.
It was a tiring process. But I was lucky that my process was waaaay easier than what most people experience.
The real estate process here is set up to be incredibly difficult and unfair to locals. You need 4-6 months worth of rent upfront just to move into a place. And you don’t get most of that that money back. Nor does most of it actually go towards any of your rent.
You also need to be traditionally employed, earn “enough”, and have a guarantor who will sign a contract saying they will take over your mess and pick up your tab if you can’t pay – and this has to be a Japanese person, preferably a family member who is making bank.
There are a lot of hurdles to jump over when renting an apartment in Japan. To top it all off, if you’re a vanilla face like me, you’ve just made things a lot harder for yourself. Many landlords will flat out refuse and say “no foreigners”.
Turn to internet message boards on the subject and you’ll see they are all filled with losers complaining about the “no foreigner” thing. Waah! Japan is racist! I should sue them for discrimination. Blah blah blah.
Firstly, most of these people complaining don’t speak Japanese. They also don’t have a friend who speaks Japanese who can negotiate on their behalf.
What world do these people live in? They think a landlord is going to let them stay in their place when they can’t even understand them? What if they have to tell them something important?
Secondly, they ignore the fact that the “no foreigner” rule has basis in practicality rather than racism. I’ll allow that there are racists in Japan. They’re in every country. But most of the time, a place that does not rent to foreigners has had a negative experience with a foreigner. I’ve read a lot of stories about Brits and Aussies (for example) who fled the country after 7 months, bailed on their rent, and left the place a mess with mouldy furniture the landlord has to pay to remove.
Foreigners are hassle. Not all foreigners. But as a blanket statement, if a landlord adheres to the belief that foreigners are a problem and acts accordingly by refusing them, he is going to save himself hassle in the long run.
It is a shame because it’s a case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. For every foreigner that sets up shop in a foreign country and then pisses everyone off by neglecting the code of society, there is a foreigner who actually wants to ingratiate but is then lumped in as one of the “bad ones”.
Want to bitch about “racism” in the foreign country you’ve decided to live in? Learn the language and the culture first. Then tell me how you’ve experienced racism. I’ll be more likely to get a nuanced and accurate description of racism.
4. What’s projected is reflected
This was my mantra when I first came to Japan.
I spent a bit of time hanging out with some Americans but they left a sour taste in my mouth (and not in a good way) because they could not understand how their behaviour was making locals uncomfortable.
One girl made aggressive faces at Japanese men and complained about “racism” because they were staring at her. Um… They were staring at her because she had been speaking loudly on the train. That’s a massive no-no in Japan.
Instead of taking a clue from how the surrounding environment was responding to her, she interpreted it as “racism”. Ahh. I’m a white girl and I’m experiencing hateful prejudice. Why do so many white Americans have such a hard-on for racism? I feel like they actually want to experience it because they feel left out from the hate party in their own country. Quit making drama and try to unravel what’s really going on in your life.
Sometimes it’s black and white. Many times it isn’t though.
A lot of foreigners in Japan complain that locals won’t sit next to them on the train. I’ve actually experienced this too. I’ve had empty seats either side of me but Japanese choose to sit cramped next to other Japanese. Instead of interpreting this as “racism”, I realised I was sitting in a way that was threatening. A lot of people from outside of Japan, naturally take up more room in public spaces. Even if you think you’re being considerate, you’re still probably not being as considerate as a local. Wide legs, eyeballing people, putting your massive bag in the aisle. These are things that Japanese don’t do on public transport. If you do this stuff, you’re not being avoided because of your skin colour, you’re being avoided because you seem threatening.
See what is reflected in your world and ask yourself: “Am I projecting something to elicit this reaction? Are my actions being reflected?”
Are You A Fellow Foreigner Living Abroad?
Let me know your experiences. Have you learned anything being a foreigner? How did you adapt to your new country? Did it take you a long time?
I find the subject fascinating because the world has become much smaller in the last few years. Being able to uproot oneself and live on the other side of the globe is so easy now that this is a topic that should be talked about.