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To Blend Or Not To Blend; (Is It Even A Question?)

The most frequent question I am asked by friends and family is, “How do you fit in?” I have many responses to this question. The most truthful is, we don’t.

The average Japanese male is slightly shorter than I am. The average Japanese female comes up to my ears. Chas is 8 inches taller than I and some of his friends are a couple of inches taller still. By definition, westerners do not fit in.

In a conversation with a friend prior to moving to Japan, I was advised to choose clothing and outerwear in dark colors; black, brown and grey, rather than pastels, so I would “blend” in with the Japanese people who tend to wear clothing in subdued colors. I laughed. At 5’6”, with blond hair and blue eyes, I have no hope of blending in; regardless of the colors I choose to wear.

Soon after arriving in Japan, we began to notice that, being the only westerners in our section of Koriyama, we drew stares. We expected that. What we did not expect was the strange effect we had on small children, Chas more so than I. A rambunctious trio of brothers running amok in a depato (department store) suddenly skidded to a stop at Chas’s feet (see dust flying and hear rubber squealing). In predictable cartoon manner (the roadrunner comes to mind), 3 small heads slowly looked up and up and up to confront the bearded, gaijin (foreigner) face. Shrieking in terror they seemed to catapult themselves back down the aisle and onto their mother’s back. My guess is that their mother is still laughing and using the specter of the giant gaijin yokai (loosely translated as scary things that go bump in the night) when the boys misbehave.

Toddler after curious toddler seemed to alternate between open expressions of awe when we were not looking and becoming one with their mothers when we faced them. A smiling infant laughed and enjoyed our attention from a safe 10 foot distance; only to burst into tears when we took a step in his direction. An awestruck little girl froze in fear and let her ice cream cone melt in her hands; such was her shock at encountering strange looking (to her) westerners on a train. Preschoolers scrubbed their fists into their eyes to make us disappear from sight. Second graders became our stalkers, appearing at every turn in the grocery aisles to boldly wave and say, “Allo”. Giggly 13-year-old girls boldly declared their love and their desire to practice their English and 13-year-old boys cast suspicious glances in our direction.
 Every day, we are reminded of the extent to which we do not blend. Seats in busses, trains, classrooms, and theaters are too narrow and too low to the ground for western comfort. Counter tops, sinks, and toilets, both public and in our home, are set too low. Even when we find clothing in our size, sleeves and pant legs are too short and shoes are too small. The bane of Chas’s existence has been the doorways in our home. He has about a 75% success rate in remembering to duck before entering or exiting a room. The consequence of forgetting is a sharp whack to the head quickly followed by a string of rather salty expletives that are better left deleted.
 Although we still leave a trail of curious stares in our wake wherever we go, our adventures and misadventures in Japan have been the source of more joy than consternation. We have made sweet friends and we have come to feel, mostly, at home here. In a couple of months, we will move back to the US. Knowing what re-entry has been like for us during our brief vacations, I anticipate that we will have some blending issues, once again.

As crazy and unpredictable as is Japanese driving, we will face the even less predictable and dangerously crazier road rage of the Tucson streets. As comfortable as relative ethnic anonymity might be, we will miss the many friendly Japanese who have offered us assistance, engaged us in conversation and simply stopped to practice their English.

We will greatly miss the time spent with our Japanese friends and treasure the many acts of kindness they have shown us. It will not be easy to leave the extraordinary quality of the Japanese service quarter and go back to disdainful US clerks reluctant to leave their conversations to take our money. Such is the paradox of our lives. This has been an experience we are ready to leave and an adventure we will be forever grateful to have had.