The question of questions. The timeless conundrum and forever unsolved mystery: why on earth did you end up in Japan?
This is the single most asked question to foreigners according to unempirical observations made by me et al. in the past decade. After the 10th time someone asked me why I came to Japan, I was quite flattered that people seemed interested in me. After the 50th, I accepted it as a standard ice-breaker. After the 150th, I was fed up hearing my own monotone voice repeating the same words with crumbling enthusiasm. So instead of questioning my life choices, I decided to add some colour to the mundane truth. Making lemonade, I believe it’s called.
The name of the game is story-telling and its simple: make up answers of varying believability and see if someone calls your bluff. Worst case scenario, you’ll have fun. Best case scenario, you’ll have fun and also avoid getting annoyed. Win-win.
It was a cold day, and I was just late enough to make a bad impression on the three men sitting in front of me. I introduced myself and the conversation took off into beaten tracks (nihongo ojouzu desu ne), but I could sense the Question boiling under the surface. And suddenly, the moment was upon me.
“But, why did you come to Japan?” asked one of the yellow-toothed salarymen.
“Anime?” his friend grinned.
“Yeah, a lot of foreigners like anime ne,” the third guy chirped in.
They looked at me expectantly, begging me to fulfil their preconceptions of foreigners. Little did they know how badly triggered I was.
“Well you see,” I said, smiling sheepishly. “It was all a mistake.”
A brief wave of confusion rippled across their faces, followed by polite, inquiring smiles.
“You see, I had signed up for a Chinese course at university, but they accidentally put me in the Japanese class. So well, I just stuck with it.”
Now the confusion was back – with vengeance – tinted with ill-concealed outrage. But I did not stop, oh no. Gotta ride the self-destruction train to the last stop when you have a premium ticket.
“I mean, since Japanese culture and language is based on Chinese, I thought it would be interesting to see how it had evolved here. Although Japan’s history is not as diverse as China’s, it is interesting in its own way. Besides, the China course was too popular anyway. So yeah, here I am.”
Now, I realize this might not have been the best thing to say at a job-interview. But to be honest, I kinda didn’t want the job anyway (and I’m quite sure the feeling was mutual). The moment they tried to box and seal my entire personality away as “anime loving foreigner” I was out – figuratively and physically.
The story-telling game
I play this game mostly with strangers I instantly dislike and/or will never speak to again. I have managed to convince a pink-clad Harajuku girl that I came to Japan because of my keen interest in ear cleaning cafés. A douchebag date got to know that I came here because I am crazy about the submissive nature of Japanese men. An idiot teacher and his idiot teacher gang now know that I came here because I wanted good grades, which is just too easy in the sub-par Japanese educational system.
Wise men say that the why is more important than the how or what. Maybe because whys tend to be complicated, or perhaps just because humans are curious beings. What do I know, I’m not wise, nor am I a philosopher. But I can tell a genuine why from a fake why. One is based on genuine bafflement: oh my god, why are your pouring ketchup on your pasta? (if you read that in an Italian accent, well done). It can also stem from genuine interest: oh, you like studying Latin? Wow, that’s epic! Sapere aude, friend.
The other why is a smug way of confirming a belief you have: why don’t you go clubbing more often? (it’s because you’re a boring person who sucks at dancing, right?) Or even better: why have you lived in Japan for 10 years? (it’s because Japan is so cool, special and awesome, right?) Yes, it is awesome, but frankly I don’t wanna waste my breath on validating your little assumptions.
Hand and on heart though, if you’d studied Swedish and lived there, I’d probably ask you why. Was it because of Aviici, Volvo, or your unquenchable thirst for assembling IKEA furniture in the öriginal långuäge?
Anyway, I guess the reason this particular question has become a pet peeve of mine is because it reminds of TV shows like “Why Did You Come to Japan?” There is a prevailing image of foreigners being a certain way that is compounded through public outlets from where it seeps into peoples minds…to finally reach you. And if there is something I really hate, it’s having stereotypes forced upon me.
But I digress.
The reason I drown my pasta in ketchup is because it tastes better that way.
And why did I come to Japan? Well, that’s a story for another time.