Japan 101: Where Are You From?

出身はどこですか。/ どちらからですか

shusshin wa doko desu ka. / Dochira kara desu ka?*

Cab driver talking to me, and I’m like

One of the most common phrases I hear as soon as I get in a cab and before I can jam my headphones back into my ears is “Where are you from?” It took me a few times listening for the key words as, strangely, in my Japanese class, this is not one of the topics we spent a lot of time on.

I used to be able how to tell someone my major in perfect, formal Japanese, but after being out of university for over a year, I’ve even lost that ability. Best part is when I haven’t switched over to my Japanese-speaking-brain, I fumble for a second and they translate for me first. They know more English than I know Japanese! It’s just embarrassing. Sometimes I’m just sitting there in a morning daze like “Where am I from?”

It’s by far, in my experience, the most common question for a conversation starter from every Japanese person ever when you’re completely sloshed or stone-cold sober. They are never surprised to find out a white person is from America, though they have assumed I’m Australian when I wear my Koala hat in winter. Considering the current state of things, I prefer not to argue.

If you’re from great ol’ ‘Murica, you may get questions about who you voted for as president, which state you’re from (they always assume New York or California), and if you teach English. No matter if you say you’re from Wyoming, they will tell you all about their trip to NYC as a teenager, and you’re expected to know all about it even if you’ve never been there. I find it funny and play along. Besides, you can clearly see they’re happy to practice their English and connect with you, so if I’m in a good mind, I don’t mind helping a person out. Hell, I gave a taxi-driver a free “cheat sheet” for reading numbers because he had been nervous about his English and super polite to me. I’m a true saint.

How do you live for 50+ years and not know?

Now, while it doesn’t always happen, it should be noted that if you’re black, you should be prepared for some wonderfully inappropriate follow-ups. One of my friends told me that when she told a Japanese man that she was from America, that he said he “didn’t know there were black people in America.” and just assumed she was from Africa. Funny enough, the Nigerians in Roppongi assume the same damn thing, shouting at another friend “Hey girl! Which part of Africa are you from?” I have to give it to them, though, they go hardcore. She started speaking some Russian, and he switched to speaking Russian. Just don’t engage.

When the old Japanese women give you this look…

If you are of a different East-Asian descent and look remotely like you could be Japanese, congratulations, you’ll likely bypass the foreigner treatment and no one will ever ask you if you want a fork or a spoon no matter if this is your first time using chopsticks or eating katsudon. Unfortunately, you will not be given special gaijin privileges which include looks of pity rather than judgment when you catch your arm in a closing train door while trying to run them while they’re closing, walking around in your pajamas just to go to the convenience store, or having people take their Japanese down to toddler-level to convey bullet points to you. 

I like to ask them the question in return and watch as they say “Japan” like I’m the dumbass. “Which part of Japan?” Then they look at me as if I’ve grown seven heads and no foreigner could ever know that Japan has different parts! I personally think that the government has most Japanese people convinced that this is top secret information that they’re to protect at all costs.

This doesn’t even need a caption.

“Oh, I live in Nanporo. You’ve probably never heard of it before.” Acting all hipster as if I’ve never heard of Nanporo before. Just because I haven’t doesn’t mean you should assume.

I mean, sure, until November 2016, I didn’t know Kyoto was to the east of Tokyo and not north of Tokyo. Hell, I’ve never even been there for vacation (I know. I’m a witch. Burn me at the stake. I don’t deserve my gaijin title.) But AT LEAST I know what’s there and the gist of it. Temples, geishas, and a special style of okonomiyaki. I think.

It gets even better when the answer is something like Chiba, Yokohama, or Saitama. If you work in Tokyo, chances are your ass is living out there because rent is cheap and space is luxurious. Not this bitch, though. I wouldn’t trade my ten minute commute for 50,000 yen even if it means living off of Dominos leftovers and self regret.

What about your experiences?

If anyone is out there that lives in japan, have you had similar experiences? different ones? feel free to share! If you don’t live in japan, was this information useful? Let me know (but be nice. i’m a sensitive soul)!



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