Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.
I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea–that people treat gaijin this way because they are different–I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.
He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.
Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past. It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.
Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?
I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills. For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!
In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.
What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better– change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.
Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah