By Mark Guthrie
These have been worrying times of late. Worrying times indeed. Now, whilst I am not necessarily the sharpest chopstick in the pack at the best of times, it has to be said that lately, my brain has been going to mush. Like blancmange really, only not as delicious with ice-cream. It started at work. First I would forget to set my alarm. Then I would prepare the wrong lessons. Three times this month I even turned up at the wrong school. These were times of concern all right. Was this the onset of an early, alcohol-induced Alzheimer’s? Was I to spend the next fifty years of my life shuffling the streets clad only in a dirty bathrobe, calling everyone Geoffrey?
“You’ve probably just got a touch of Gogatsubyo,” comforted a colleague of mine after, once again, I had forgotten to send her some important paperwork.
“Huh?” I was intrigued if not particularly eloquent.
“May sickness,” she replied. “Japan has so many holidays in May, that people tend to forget work related things. Hopefully you’ll be over it soon.”
I’d never heard of Gogatsubyo, but I was worried. Would I have to sweat it out and wait until June to return to my old self? What would happen if I left it untreated? Would it continue into full-blown Rokugatsubyo? In hope of allaying my fears, I decided to look it up in the British Medical Journal. Nothing. So, I began to wonder. Perhaps this was an illness that affects only Japanese. And if this were indeed so, how the bloody hell had I contracted it? Is it possible that, like The Vapors, I’m turning Japanese
This really put the fear of God into me. Now, please don’t misunderstand, there is of course nothing wrong with being Japanese. Just as there’s nothing wrong with immersing oneself in the local culture. My issue is with the terrible transition that so many foreigners make when visiting a new country. We all know someone it’s happened to. You may have even done it yourself. Have you worn Fisherman Pants on a two-week holiday to Thailand despite never having left Khao San Road? Maybe you have adopted a Mid-Atlantic twang when visiting friends in New York. Or perhaps you have, despite having designer label clothes buried in the bottom of your rucksack, worn a sarong whilst touring the Taj Mahal (a particularly dark time of my own and, looking back, even accompanying it with a Belle & Sebastian t-shirt didn’t make me post-modern and cool. I looked like a twunt).
I am of course talking about ‘Going Native’.
Ugh, just typing those words makes my skin crawl. Reading them should give you much the same effect. But then, as you twist your face, have a think about your life. How long have you been in Japan? What changes have you been through since your arrival? Are you, in fact, going native yourself? Now, it is often difficult to tell. Often the changes are so incremental, so imperceptible, that you may not notice. Unless you are completely certain that you can feel the rivers of your home country coursing through your veins, that you wake every morning full of patriotic pride as you belt out your nation’s anthem, it may be best that you take the test below.
Test number one. You have a cold, what do you do? Do you down some orange juice, neck some ibuprofen and head to work? Do you pull a sickie, and sit around watching Family Guy in your pants, sniffling into an ever-growing pile of dirty tissues. Or do you, as if it were Halloween, slip on a mask and carry on with your day as if there was nothing unusual or creepy about looking like a surgeon on Dress Down Friday. If it is the latter, then you have taken your first step towards Going Native. Would you do the same were back home? Would you get on the Piccadilly line, head to the mall or hit the bars and endure the withering looks of hipsters, Businessmen and tourists alike? No? Then cut it out!
The next test. What do you have on your mobile phone? Is it free from adornments as nature intended? Do you have a plain black or clear case to protect it from the elements? Or do you have a Hello Kitty case complete with bunny ears and a ridiculous assortment of dingily-dangly decorations? If it’s the third option you are on dangerous ground. I mean, what’s the point? You can no longer put your phone in your pocket. The bunny ears will break off for a start. And all of those bits and pieces hanging from it get caught on your keys, either ripping them apart, or causing you to drop your keys into the busy road every time you answer the bloody phone. A mobile phone is meant to be the labour-saving device of the twenty-first century, not a contributor to death by a speeding Prius.
Another indication of how native you have gone is what you had for breakfast. Toast? Cereal? A Full English with all the trimmings? Or was it natto and rice? Actually, don’t answer that. I can smell it on you from here. The all-pervading stench of fermented soybeans wafts from you like, well, a really stenchy wafty thing. If Going Native is a real worry for you, remember these three wise words: Beanz Meanz Heinz. Beanz does not mean scent of tramp scrotum.
Hang on a minute. Was that a peace sign you just pulled in that photo? Okay, fair enough, everyone does peace signs. In fact, there is something about landing on Japanese soil that makes everyone want to flip the Vs the second they stand under that “Welcome To Japan” sign at Narita Airport, before being whisked off to a holding cell by security for taking pictures in a no-photo zone. But wait. Was that peace sign ironic? Was it in a post-modern ‘ooh, look at me I’m in Japan’ kind of way? Or has the peace sign become your pose de rigueur each and every time a lens is wheeled in your direction? How about getting off the subway in rush hour this morning? Did you simply squeeze past as normal, or did you hold your hand to your forehead like an apologetic shark at an elementary school play? And what about when the guy in 7 Eleven offered to heat up your bento? Did you shake your head as a regular gaijin, or did you waft your hand under your nose as if you could smell your natto breakfast returning? Beware the hand gestures, my friend. They are the gateway drug to Nativeism.
The final indication, perhaps the most infuriating and damning of Gaijin-gone-native affectations, is how you say numbers. Whilst it is no doubt impressive that you have some mastery over the Japanese language, a feat that to my shame I have not been able to emulate, there is still no need to flaunt your Nihongo whilst conducting conversations in your mother tongue. Why is it that, when holding a conversation in English, with me, another English speaker, do you have to slip in that you “spent ichi man en last night”? If we’re talking Japanese, then fine. But we’re not, are we? I can speak Swedish, but I have never told you that the beer we are currently drinking costs sjuhundra yen, have I? Why not? Because you wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and I would sound like a pretentious dick? Exactly. Also, if as you rattle along in your Japanesey way, I give you a confused look, don’t just repeat the Japanese, only slower. English, m*therf*cker, English!
So, how did you do? Are you just a normal gaijin, or have you gone well and truly native? Either way, beware of the warning signs. Beware of cravings for home comforts as well. On the face of it, these seem like a simple hunger for once beloved things, but maybe, just maybe, it is your mind giving your body a physical manifestation of its metaphysical craving to err away from the dangerous change that you could be about to make. Maybe you are on the tipping point of the seesaw that leads to the point of no return, to Nativeness. Be afraid, be very afraid.