If there’s anything I don’t know about Japanese history, architecture, culture or politics, I find the longest answers often come by asking a random gaikokujin a completely unrelated question, such as “Is this the bathroom queue?” A certain kind of foreign resident can be a wealth of information on myriad topics, though typically wrong. Given an excuse, these drippy little factoids dribble off their tongues like the frothy saliva of a rabid hound.
Rabid, because that fact-spittle is the point of a long and insecure spear. It’s the chance to showcase their obscure knowledge before feigning shock. You mean, you weren’t already aware of how many penguins Japan had in captivity, the birthplace of Japan’s mythical first emperor, or where the best hamburger is? How long have you been here? Sometimes the person becomes angry about it. I’ve experienced the spittle-heavy accusation of having “incomplete knowledge,” a favorite phrase of the pedantic expatriate, because I didn’t get into the history of missionaries in Japan while discussing trash cans.
When my fellow English-language instructors and I are realistic about our lives, we can usually agree that Japan bestows “teacher” status on any English-speaking schlub with the wherewithal to purchase a ticket to Tokyo. This should offend actual Japanese teachers who bother with quaint pastimes such as certification, exams, and university training for language education. This undeserved title of “teacher” is attractive to personalities for whom showy displays of pedanticism based on minimal effort are considered cool—the kinds of expats Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou refers to as “socially awkward, tech-savvy nerdy dorks.”
If I were one of these people, I might say—based on absolutely no research of my own—that the largest percentage of English-speaking foreigners are imaginary “senseis” working for English schools or as ALTs. The problem comes when expats take the title as affirmation of their intellectual superiority, which is sort of like getting ordained as a priest for $20.00 on the Internet before taking the world to task for its lack of spiritual values.
There is a flip side to this, which is the wide-eyed curiosity of the newly arrived, pink newborns who have yet to be jaded by the mechanics of daily life. These bright innocents have real questions, share their knowledge with enthusiasm and are the most widely reviled class of expats in Japan. Or are they the most needed? These innocents listen to what the old fogeys have to say, making them perfect victims for condescending knowledge-hazings by the pseudo-intellectuals.
Don’t get me wrong. Japan is a terrible place to be an educated foreigner. As someone with a limited grasp of Japanese, I spend every day looking stupid. I’m not proud of it. A lot of what I’m ridiculing here are my own habits: I’m a Japan blogger. I went to school for nine years. I teach English (sort of) and I get frustrated by the perpetual stereotype that I don’t do any work. Obviously, I want to be more than a monkey using chopsticks. I feel a little too dumb too often. Showing off helps take the edge off of that insecurity. I’m always trying a little too hard to look smart, funny and awesome. The trouble is, everyone around me sees me trying a little too hard to look smart, funny and awesome.
The difference is, I can recommend a decent bar to a tourist without name-dropping Oda Nobunaga, or passing off arcane etiquette advice that expired during the Meiji Restoration.
Since most expats face the same pressures and insecurities, what frustrates me about expat pedanticism is that it preys on those very pressures and insecurities. We all want to look like capable people. It seems silly to fight over who is the most capable. Surviving as an expat in Japan doesn’t rely on your exhaustive knowledge about the Battle of Shiroyama. Seriously, everybody, I’m illiterate. I’m impressed if you can tell me there’s shrimp on the menu at an izakaya.
I want to learn about the country I’m calling home, but I want to discover it for myself. I came here to explore and solve problems, to follow my curiosity about the world. I want organic learning experiences. I don’t want to learn about the world from another foreigner with an iPhone and a condescending sigh. Put it away. Let’s have a pint and vent about microaggressions.
by Eryk Salvaggio
USA / English Teacher
Eryk writes weekly at thisjapaneselife.org. Check it out!
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn163, July 2012)
Opinions expressed here are our writer’s and not the publisher’s.
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