Inside JET: The Outside-Outsiders

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series. Subsequent instalments will appear in future issues of the Hyogo Times.

“One day Roland Barthes strolled up the Champs Elysees toward L’Etoile and met an outside-insider. There are many outside-outsiders and a few inside-insiders, he would say, and there are even a very few inside-outsiders [. . .] but the authentic outside-insider is rare.” (Robert Rawdon Wilson, In Palamedes’ Shadow 48)

I first encountered these words while nestled under a warm kotatsu on a chilly Japanese winter evening. The book was about English literature, language and play. Admittedly a dry topic for most people, but nevertheless interesting reading for a graduate of Literature Studies. After finishing the chapter, filing the book away and settling down to sleep, I encountered the words again, but this time in my thoughts: am I, Emma Nicoletti, an outside-insider?  Or are my Japanese friends, colleagues and students outside-insiders? Is it me or them who is like the man Barthes met on the Champs Elysees? Or are none of us like him? Of course, to answer these questions satisfactorily, we need to know what is an outside-insider, and for that matter, how an outside-insider is different from an outside-outsider, and an inside-insider, and also an inside-outsider.

The outside-outsider: An outside-outsider is a person who doesn’t seem to understand their culture or group’s spoken and unspoken rules. They break taboos not because they are trying to be clever or rude, but because they don’t know any better. They are the person at the party who you try to avoid. They are often the person who hears what you are saying, but doesn’t really listen. Their comments often sound insensitive, and their manner seems rough. They don’t fit into your group, and you don’t think they can easily fit into most groups.

Emma: The Case of an Outside-outsider in Tokyo.

On the bus from Narita airport to Tokyo’s Keio Plaza, I was surrounded by other West Australians. I had met them once or twice in Perth before leaving for Japan, we were friendly, but we weren’t friends yet. I still couldn’t remember all their names, and I wasn’t familiar with their humour. Were they people I would become friends with? Or were they people I would quickly grow apart from? Right then, on that bus ride, I felt different from them. They all seemed to be talking quickly in excited discussions, full of hopes and dreams; all seemed agog, fingers pointing at every novelty and difference they could see. I felt I didn’t belong, I didn’t share their mood nor did I want to participate in it. I felt the absence of my parents and brother and close friends. I felt loss, not hope. Looking outside and seeing Tokyo’s megalopolis didn’t relieve my brown study either. There was nothing familiar. There were too many buildings, they were too tall, and the air was too thick with humidity.  I closed my eyes and wondered if I would ever fit in with these people, and this country.

As I write this, two and a half years after coming to Japan, and as I am starting to make preparations for my return to Australia in August, I struggle to quell the surge of emotions my JET friends and my Japan experiences have stirred in me. The first thought that comes to my mind are the tears I’ve shed for my dear friends who have already returned to their distant home countries. Indeed, they did become my new family, they were and will continue to be a group of dynamic, supportive and kind people, with whom I’ve shared invaluable experiences. As for Japan, my feelings are neatly summed up in my instantaneous reaction to a fellow teacher’s recent farewell. Teacher: “Emma, Japan will miss you in August.” Me: “Not as much as I will miss Japan.”

Mikage-sensei: The Case of ‘I Don’t Want My Mum to be an Outside-outsider Anymore‘, or, Please Come to my Mother’s House.

One day Mikage-sensei turned to me and told me about her mother, carefully prefacing the conversation with the warning, “It’s a secret, but my mother is a little strange.” It turned out that her mother was not afflicted with a behaviour altering illness, nor even so much as a twitch; her strangeness emerged from her dislike of foreigners. She had never been introduced to one before, and she’d had no desire to approach one herself. Mikage-sensei explained her mother’s opinion of foreigners, and it soon became apparent that she was well-versed in many unflattering stereotypes: foreigners are loud, inconsiderate, pushy, obnoxious and they think they are better than the Japanese. However, Mikage-sensei told me that none of her mother’s friends shared her prejudice, and Mikage-sensei herself felt ashamed of her mother’s irrationality. In an attempt to countervail her mother’s racist attitude, Mikage-sensei told me she often talked to her mother about me; in particular, she had told her mother that I was friendly and nice. In a recent conversation, Mikage-sensei had told her mother that I was interested in Japanese culture and that I was learning how to perform the tea ceremony. Her mother, who formerly practiced tea ceremony every week when Mikage-sensei was a child, became very intrigued and quite unexpectedly asked Mikage-sensei to invite me to her house so we could do tea ceremony together. I accepted the invitation and went to Mikage-san’s house in Kyoto. We prepared tea for each other, we both made mistakes,  and we both helped each other when we forgot the procedure. More often than not, we laughed.

The second part of this series will appear in the May 2010 issue.

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