I am a gaijin.
That’s the Japanese term for “foreigner, outsider, alien.”
I am those things.
Sure, I can speak a word or two, I can say ‘arigato goizamasu’ and I know when to bow and I know to keep eye contact with the floor while bowing, but I also know that I really know nothing.
Dr. Hirade, a good friend of my father, agreed to meet me for dinner tonight. He is seventy years old but doesn’t look a day over fifty. He says that his wife limits him to one can of beer a night, and that is how he remains young.
I first met him when I was eight months old, in a zoo in Beijing. I was a blond speck of a human being, resembling more a sausage than a person then.
Walking into his hotel, I barely recognized him, obviously, yet his grace and charm made him fee like an old friend immediately.
"Do you like Yakitori?" he asked.
I told him that I would go wherever he liked and we got in a taxi and headed to Hachi-Bei Roppongi, an offshoot of the original restaurant in Fukuoka.
Meat, vegetables, and other items on skewers, placed by an old man, and fanned and monitored by a young apprentice: a very traditional Japanese meal.
He told me about what I was like as a young man. He told me about coming to America many years ago and being startled by how casual we were in meeting each other. Not just me, obviously. Everyone.
The doctor has been married for 45 years. I asked him to tell me the secret of the successful marriage and he laughed heartily before answering:
"I don’t know."
We began the meal immediately with a bowl of edamame and another bowl of cabbage dressed in vinegar. Simple, clean, and without pretense, a combination of words I would use to describe his marriage.
The first course arrived and it was something very foriegn to me. Raw horse meat. These horses had been massaged and fed wheat beer for most of their lives. I asked the doctor if the horses ever fell down, but he did not quite understand the meaning of my question. Sure, I understand that most people would find eating horses objectionable, but I am not one to question an elder, particularly in a foreign country.
I am a gaijin.
The skewers arrived, one after another. Wagyu beef, chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken skin. I took it all in as I took in his stories, one after another.
He explained the changes in culture he has seen in the last 30 years. Young people don’t have to get married anymore. When he was a young man, trying to become a doctor, a wife was crucial, because there as no other way to get through the day to day.
I asked him a thousand questions and he responded, time and time again, and I thanked him: “Arigato Goizamasu.” And every time he gave me a gentle head nod.
Then I asked him to explain to me what people in his country thought of me on first sight. He was honest and said “People will see you and they will fear you. You look homeless and hungry. People will think you will take from them. They will think you want money. They will not understand. If you spoke Japanese, you could explain, but you do not.”
So I asked him about my limited Japanese, the Hais and the Arigatos and the Desu Kas and that was when I learned the greatest lesson of all.
"Be who you are."
No one cares if you know a few Japanese words. You’re either Japanese here or you’re not. Don’t try to fit in. Don’t say Arigato. Say Thank You.
"That’s who you are and people will be polite and respectful of your ignorance. They will be thankful of your ignorance. You are gaijin."
Dr. Hirade is a brilliant man. We spoke of Fukushima and of Chernobyl and of radiation and of cultural divides, but the thing I learned the most from is the simplest lesson of all.
You are an outsider. We accept that. You should do the same.
I spent my first days here trying in earnest to fit in, but that’s never going to happen.
Be a gaijin. Be an outsider.
It’s so odd, because in my day to day life, back in America, I take great pride in my “otherness,” but here I feared it and I tried to blend in as best I could.
I was fooling no one.
Be a gaijin.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a white man in Japan, a high school student in Georgia, or a black man in Utah. Be who you are.
Be a gaijin.
Hello. My name is Elan, and I am a gaijin.
Come be a gaijin with me.