I have recently been spending a lot of time around (white) foreigners in Japan, much more than usual, and a recent experience with a particular pair of them has helped me to understand a kind of increasing discomfort I have with the way westerners interact and the way they perceive Asia. I guess being largely removed from the brute force of western interactive style, I notice it more when it is laid before me in its full glory. I want to report on some of my feelings about this here.
I have been travelling – not by choice – with a German man and his wife, in their late 20s. The woman is shy and the man won’t shut up, but not just in an annoyingly tiring way. He speaks over and for his wife in a terribly obvious way, even about things asked directly of her about her. But worse still, if you try to short-circuit this behavior by addressing her directly, she looks to her husband and waits for him to speak. For all the presence she has in the group, she might as well just be veiled and sat behind him. His behavior is really depressing and irritating and her quiescence – I would like to guess it is due to exhaustion but I am worried from her manner that it may actually be a preference – is saddening. Furthermore, this man feels himself an expert on Japan having read some stuff before his (first) visit, and needs to prove himself knowledgable on all things. He is also very convinced of the importance of expressing his own opinion, and me and my friend being not averse to bloviating ourselves, the time we spend together is a constant frustrating round of opinion-exchange and fact-boasting. I can’t help getting sucked into this but I get so tired of it. Of course being a westerner myself I’m really at home in and good at this type of conversation, but 7 years out of the loop means I now look down on myself engaging in it and don’t reflect well on myself.
I believe this style of fact-boasting interaction is just a form of empty chest-beating, it doesn’t change anything about the world or each others’ opinions – it isn’t communication in any sense that the word is really understood. A phenomenon I notice a lot around foreigners and that I think is related to this is their complete inability to take in other cultures (most especially Asian cultures) without judging them. In sum this behavior has me thinking: I really hate Western so-called “enlightenment.” This guy has mentioned once or twice Japan’s reputation for sexism, in the usual tone and context as to imply that we Westerners are so enlightened and over that shit (his country even has a female Chancellor, for god’s sake!) but all of his behavior stinks of sexism, classic unconscious sexism of the patriarchal ignorance kind. He’s not alone in this: I can’t count the number of times western men and women have spoken to my partner and I as a couple but looked only at me when talking; the number of western women who completely blank my partner and only engage with men, or worse still friend me but not her after a meeting; the western men who speak on one side of their mouths about how sexist Japan is while bragging out of the other side of their mouths about how sexually and domestically submissive their Japanese woman is; the number of foreign men here who have no use for Japanese men and never engage with them; the number of foreign men whose Japanese wives are “not like other Japanese women” because they aren’t “weak”; the number of foreigners who judge anyone who is not loud and opinionated to be stupid.
I hate the way westerners have to judge everything around them as if everything around them is waiting for their shallow, half-considered opinions to affirm its validity. I hate the way every half-baked racist trope that they conjure up to misinform them about the value of behavior they witness but don’t understand is reinterpreted as proof of their own superiority. I hate the way this happens as they blow their noses; stand in the way of patient, polite Japanese people; put their dirty feet places they shouldn’t; speak too loud; and generally explode into every space they are currently judging like a cloud of massive, usually fat and underdressed obnoxiousity.
I hate the way every time anything untoward or unexpected happens white westerners immediately start wondering if it might be because they’re foreign and experiencing racism. Invariably they aren’t, but it reveals so much about their implicit recognition of how hard it is to be foreign in a white country. I hate how they project every seedy element of their own culture onto others and then when the confirmation bias kicks in, interpret it as proof that their own culture is superior. Spare me this self-aggrandizing cultural blindness!
I’m sure many of the feminists are familiar with and quite irritated by this kind of hypocrisy. Over here I see it leavened with racism and colonialism, and I am thoroughly and heartily sick of it. Westerners aren’t enlightened or any more advanced than much of the rest of the world, we’re just full of our own self-righteous opinionated rubbish. And so much of what is constantly passing for opinion and argument in our much-vaunted “individualist” culture is just ill-informed, hypocritical cant with a healthy side serve of colonialism. I really, really wish that as a culture we could just shut up and listen for five minutes of our incredibly short, dirty and plague-ridden history. I would like to parley this into some kind of set of rules for westerners visiting Japan – not rules about how to treat the locals, but about how to understand them and how to take away from Japan something more than just “ooh, cute shrines and everyone’s polite but oh hasn’t everything I already ‘thought’ about Japan just been confirmed in spades!?”
I can’t though, because this is just a rant.