The directions to the dinner party in downtown Kobe include an underground stroll through a pedestrian tunnel and an elevator ride to the 34th floor of a business highrise. Since some of the best meals I’ve had in Japan were in unlikely locations hidden from passersby–an unmarked restaurant in an apartment suite, an Okinawan buffet in an obscure corner several floors above a department store–I’m hoping that the route is an indication of the dinner’s calibre.
The Japanese guests, whom I had already met at my friend’s afternoon wedding reception, are already seated on tatami mats at a low table in the dusky, intimate room when I enter wearing a yukata (summer kimono) I’d just purchased on the way at Comme Ça Du Mode (a Gap-like Japanese chain). The group utters a choral expression of amazement, “Hehhhhhhhhh“.
Amidst the laughter, the first plates of food arrive.
“Dozo,” I say, offering kinpira (braised burdock root) to my fellow guests.
“Wow, you seem almost nihonjin (Japanese)!” a fellow to my left observes.
As plates circulate around the table, slowly, the conversation swerves toward a dreaded subject.
“Where is your girlfriend?” a gregarious girl asks.
I shrug and say I don’t have one.
“Well, Chiyoko is single,” a guy offers, presenting her as if she were a dish.
The table bursts into laughter. Chiyoko covers her mouth as she giggles nervously. Caught off guard, I smile back shyly. But perhaps my hesitation is too perceptible, or there may have been unwitting resignation in my expression. A faint look of puzzlement washes over Chiyoko’s face. An uneasy lull settles upon the conversation. It’s not the first time I’ve stumbled into such an awkward situation; several Japanese hosts have tried to play matchmaker for me. Alas, I’ve become no more adept at handling the predicament.
How do I leave an issue politely unspoken without resorting to lies? Explaining that I’m gay to Japanese friends has always required education and discussion that it’s not a mental illness, a choice, or a result of faulty parenting.
Often, it seemed to be an uphill battle that I wasn’t well equipped for. The lack of understanding has always made me feel uncomfortable, and removed from fully feeling a part of things. I busy myself passing the arriving plates of food and the guests occupy themselves with murmuring the sing-song “Itadakimasu” (an expression of gratitude before eating).
There’s a saying that Chinese food pleases the stomach but Japanese food pleases the eye. On visits to Tokyo, I loved perusing the food floors of Japanese department stores–just looking, not buying. There was so much to take in: artfully displayed wagashi (Japanese sweets), orderly bento boxes stuffed with gorgeously arranged seafood and rice, neatly stacked rows of tempura, all presented so carefully, so thoughtfully. On subsequent trips to Japan, I’ve spent most of my time just window-shopping, devouring every detail and curiosity–from oden (hot pot) in convenience stores to the clamour of pachinko parlours. Just looking and not touching is emblematic of my overall experience of Japan.
Although it’s my family’s country of origin (four generations ago), there’s an invisible barrier I doubt I could ever penetrate.
A Japanese American second cousin who lived in Japan for years had once told my mother that after working piously on becoming fluent in the language and culture, picking up the nuances, and assimilating as best he could, he had never felt accepted.
The reverential treatment that most gaijin experience in Japan isn’t necessarily bestowed upon me–my foreign identity remains invisible.
While I’ve experienced the impeccable manners and selflessness that Japanese people are renowned for, I’ve occasionally taken the brunt of jarring impatience and intolerance by those irked by my slow uptake with Japanese customs or language, apparently because they were unaware I’m from Canada.
When opportunities for teaching English in Japan had arisen in the past, my enthusiasm for living there had always been tempered by anxieties. I was reluctant to relinquish what gains I’d made by shedding the residual Japanese etiquette I grew up with that had impeded me in Canadian society: learning to speak up, becoming more assertive, taking initiative. Not to mention coming out of the closet. I feared that moving there would feel regressive.
If I had to, I’m sure I would learn to adapt. A lesbian family friend had done so. She had to evade her students’ questions. “Why are you single, Miss Nishi?”, “Why don’t you have a husband, Miss Nishi?”
“You just have to put up with it,” she advised me.
I could–for a limited amount of time. But I’d miss the social freedoms I enjoy in Canada.
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