The Face Behind the Foreign

I turn off a sunny thoroughfare into the fish market of Kanazawa, Japan, and immediately smells of fresh seafood greet my nostrils: the bounty of the nearby Japan Sea brought right downtown. As my eyes adjust to the dimness of the arcade, I begin to take in the crowded stalls: the bright reds of cut salmon and boxed strawberries, the deep greens of towering seaweed and leafy spinach. Fishmongers call out "Irrashai, dozo!" - "Welcome, how about it?" - while their king crabs duel on beds of ice.

I begin to lose myself, wandering through the colorful maze. The assault on my senses takes my mind off the workaday worries that troubled me on my way over. The vibrant, fast-paced world of the fish market seems far removed from the world of bureaucratic roadblocks that complicate my work at a nonprofit international-exchange organization.

Thinking about my office, where it often feels as if I can hardly excuse myself to go to the bathroom without a group consensus, I look enviously at the blue-aproned men and women behind the stalls.

One middle-aged woman's "Irrashai!" rings out louder than the rest, and I turn in the direction of her stall. Plastic bags of surprisingly cheap apples are arranged on the table, and I move in for a closer look.

Noticing the approach of a light-haired, light-skinned foreigner, the fruit-seller assumes I speak English. She turns to her co-worker and quips, "This is a pen." It is an English phrase that many school-age Japanese are taught first, so they remember it well into their adulthood.

THE woman probably sees me for the American that I am, though not because of anything decidedly American (as opposed to, say, European) about my appearance. Many Japanese assume that all foreigners come from America, the country that has had the strongest postwar influence on their small island nation.

With me, that assumption just happens to hold true.

In the minds of most Japanese, "foreigner" equals "outsider." A word often used for "foreigner" in Japanese is gaijin, literally, "outside person." While I've grown accustomed to this way of thinking in the nearly two years that I've lived here, the prejudice in the woman's remark still stung me a little.

I don't back away, though, because I'm still interested in those apples. I confirm their price by speaking to the woman in Japanese, and she compliments me on my language ability. She tells me she regrets her lack of English fluency (although, in fact, she has no proof that I speak English, either).

My spontaneous response surprises me: a sarcastic, "Well, you've certainly mastered 'this is a pen.' " Sarcastic humor is not popular in Japan. For one thing, the Japanese language relies more on grammatical variation than intonation to convey emphasis - and the few times I've been tempted to be sarcastic here, I've held myself back, afraid of offending someone.

Yet in this particular case, I must have sensed that the woman invited my bold remark when she called out, "This is a pen."

Even more surprising is the full-bodied laughter that follows. The fruit-seller's apron strings jiggle in merriment, and her head shakes in amused bewilderment as she hands me my change. She shows a generous appreciation of the joke made at her expense. Feeling grateful, I smile and bow. Her laughter still rings in my ears as I walk away.

AS I exit the fish market and blink in the bright afternoon sunlight, I realize that in this small encounter I had revealed myself to be more than a foreign caricature. The stereotypical gaijin grins out at Japanese people from English-school billboards or glamorous TV commercials for cosmetics. But I had surprised that merchant.

Then I remembered how caught off-guard I had been when a geisha smiled at an infant. In that moment, she had changed from being a life-sized porcelain doll to a living, feeling, human being.

I scold myself when I realize that the way the fruit-seller initially looked at me was exactly the way I first saw the geisha: different, inaccessible. With the merchant's smiling face still fresh in my mind's eye, I reflect that laughter is certainly a great equalizer.

A shared laugh is a window into another's soul, proof of common humanity ... and, come to think of it, a group consensus of sorts!

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