For many “foreigners” in Japan, the title carries with it almost a celebrity status, particularly for those with typically “Western” features (light hair, colored eyes)- my own experience was little a bit less so because my dark hair and eyes sometimes made it easy for me to blend in. When I was found out, however, the reactions ranged from clandestine stares to outright gawking to timid but friendly attempts at conversation usually in broken English and/or Japanese. While I am once again living stateside and the term “foreigner” no longer applies officially, the process of coming back, or “repatriating” has made many once-familiar experiences feel a little “foreign” to me. These incidents are sometimes are painful- like my near panic attack in a crowded, noisy barbeque restaurant in Austin- while others are pretty harmless- like when I forget which side of my car is the driver’s and accidentally block someone from trying to enter through the passenger’s side.
First things first, using a public restroom in America is easily one of the most uncomfortable experiences ever. I know it’s been lamented by countless others before me, but I just really wanted to reiterate that, ok? There’s gaps all over the place, everyone can hear your business, and subsequently you can hear theirs; it’s just overall unpleasant compared to a public restroom experience in Japan. To be fair, I’m mostly talking about Japan’s ‘western’ style toilets, and not their ‘Japanese’ style toilets, which are kind of like an oblong-shaped commode/hole thingy built into the tiled ground that one must squat over. That style of toilet going experience can also be quite uncomfortable, but for completely different reasons.
Back to their ‘western’ style toilets; they are marvelous. First of all, the toilet itself is in its own legit little room- not some plywood stall- completely enclosed with floor to ceiling coverage and an actual door, with a latch that reads “vacant” or “occupied” so nobody has to knock and interrupt someone else’s private toilet experience. Furthermore, in some of the restrooms I used, once one shut the door, soothing water sounds could be heard, I’m assuming, to help one ease into the process of toilet going. If that didn’t make you automatically comfortable, then I have two words for you: heated seats. And I’m not talking about suspiciously warm seats that one happens upon when one is forced to enter a stall that was very recently occupied by another; these seats were heated electronically by hot water passing through tubes under (or within, I don’t know the mechanics behind it) the seat, and they are a godsend in the middle of winter- trust me. And if you’re STILL not impressed, let me leave you with this: the bidet. I’ll be honest, at first, the concept of a stream of water suddenly hitting one’s tushy did not sound appealing, but, like a Japanese toilet seat, I quickly warmed to it. You just feel cleaner and fresher after using it, and it’s really nice- plus, you can control the water pressure, so it’s not like it’s going to blast your backside. And on that uncomfortable note….
Of all the words I’ve had to use to describe myself over the years, “Foreigner” quickly became one of my favourites, and now it’s kind of a downer to be back in my “home” country where the term no longer applies. But the funny thing about having spent an extended amount of time as an outsider in a foreign country, is that now I carry the feeling of being out of place wherever I go. It has its ups and downs, but I know wouldn’t trade any part of this experience for anything. It’s given me a unique perspective on things both in my home and host countries, and, for better or worse, I now know that I can handle a whole lot of weird and unfamiliar.