One day during my second month in Japan I was waiting for my turn at the doctor’s. A mother with a very young child, I guess just a few months old, entered. When the little boy noticed me, his eyes became very wide and round, and for minutes he didn’t look away. The mother seemed a bit embarrassed, and when I asked her confirmed that her son had never seen a foreigner before. Other young children gave me similar looks, and a primary school age boy at church poked at my arm as if to make sure that I’m real. I feel as if the children couldn’t have been more surprised if I had green skin and antennae growing out of my head.
Later I told a Japanese friend about this, adding “It feels like they wanted to ask ‘What planet are you from?” Her reply was “The grown-ups feel the same, but they don’t show it.” And she’s right: While the face doesn’t show it, the adults are no less curious and surprised than the kids.
When I did sightseeing around Kyoto, teachers who where visiting the same places asked if they could take photos with me and their students. Most of the students were too shy to talk to me, but some said “Hello” as if to test their courage.
When I entered a restaurant in Osaka, the waitress started to ask all her coworkers if they’d speak English, although I kept telling her that I was able to speak Japanese. It took four tries for her to get my point, which was after she had run out of coworkers to ask.
Japanese often ask me what I can (or like to) eat like they’re studying a strange animal’s feeding habits. Some want to hear how to say something in my native language (though they don’t know it at all), tell me they never saw “a real European” and so on.
I don’t want to complain. People are very nice, after all. I don’t mind telling them about life far away from their home, and I ask a lot of questions myself. It just feels a little weird: I’m not a visitor from outer space! However, if I was visiting another planet, I’d like to land in a place as friendly as Japan.
This is a minimally changed version of an essay I wrote for the Tohoku University Student Exchange Division about my experience in Japan.