When I was growing up, anger was a normal part of my everyday experience. My mother, who loved nothing more than to say I was temperamental because of my red hair, was probably the angriest person in the family. Any small hiccup in the day's activities could set off a screaming fit of verbal abuse. This could be quite irrational at times. For instance, she would be ready to go off somewhere in her car and discover that she'd misplaced her handbag. As her frustration escalated at lightning speed, she'd start screaming at my sister and I saying that we hid it from her to intentionally frustrate her.
My mother's wrath was so frequently let loose on us that I remember an incident as a child which sticks with me to this day. We were camping and she gave me a bar of soap and told me to go down to the river and wash up. She sternly told me not to lose the soap. Of course, if you have soap in a large body of water and you're a child with small hands, the bar slipping from your hand is a very predictable occurrence. After the inevitable occurred, I stood in the river and cried because I so feared the tongue lashing I was going to get. My father asked me what was wrong and I told him I lost the soap. His response was, "it's only a bar of soap," but I was sufficiently conditioned by my mothers verbal abuse over little uncontrollable things that I was completely neurotic about making such mistakes.
My mother wasn't a bad person, mind you. In fact, she could be a wonderful and giving person but she had her problems and one was that her life was very hard and there were many bad things going on which she couldn't control. When just one more thing broke the camel's back of her ability to cope (and that happened a lot because she had so much stress and difficulty), she'd let loose on my sister or I because my father would just walk off and go to a bar to get away from her and we were far easier to intimidate into cooperating or at least offer the illusion of effectively controlling our future behavior with a heaping dose of verbal vitriol.
When I first married (which coincided with when I first came to Japan), my husband experienced some of this type of irrational anger only this time it was coming from me. He'd do something thoughtless or careless to upset me and I'd say he was doing it on purpose because he didn't care about upsetting me. My husband is about as sharp as they come and he knew my history with my mother so he let me know that I was following in her footsteps. He also pointed out something which I knew from my days with my mother. Why would anyone intentionally anger someone who turned into a shrieking harpy when her hackles were up? Anyone who knows how much daughters hate to be the same as their mothers when their mothers have issues that made their daughters miserable can imagine how much of a motivator this was to change my emotional responses.
While I could, with a great deal of self-reflection and effort, learn to control my anger about all the little things in life that tended to send me off the deep end, I couldn't control my anger about a lot of things I experienced early on in Japan. To a limited extent, I still can't. Mainly, I'm talking about the rudeness I experience almost daily which either is because I'm a gaijin or because I live in a metropolis full of dreamy-eyed wanderers who rarely look where they're going and carry on their daily activities as if no one else existed. The staring, pointing, and animated talking as bugged eyes point in my direction or the tittering conversations which are bald-faced conversations about me which I'm not supposed to understand because I'm not Japanese continue to be the hardest part to tolerate though I am getting better at just ignoring it.
After I passed through the honeymoon phase a year or so after coming to Japan, I spent several years saying really ugly things about the Japanese. I'm not talking about racist sentiments but just general angry comments about how "stupid", "ignorant", and "rude" they were. I had a big "me against them" attitude. The thing is that some people can be rude, stupid, and ignorant. It's not as if my feelings had no basis in reality but my anger was disproportionate and my sentiments too generalized. At times, I'm sure that it was also misplaced. If you are subjected to something frequently enough and it makes you defensive, you will eventually start seeing these "attacks' everywhere, even when they're not really going on.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of anger. People commonly feel that anger is based mainly on fear but I'm not so sure that I'd agree it's at the root of all anger. I think some anger is based on feeling out of control and acting out on your anger is a means of attempting to gain control. If you can bully or intimidate someone into ceasing the actions they are undertaking which are causing you distress or pain, then you have gained a measure of control over them. If a Japanese person rudely gawks at me and I can intimidate them into looking away by tossing them a dirty look, an angry word, or an intimidating gesture, then I've taken control of the situation and stopped the behavior.
This sort of control is, of course, an illusion, just as my mother's verbal abuse gave her the illusion that she could control my sister and I by yelling at us. While one can use anger and acting on it to put people momentarily in their place, it won't change the underlying thoughts causing that behavior or prevent future incidents and all it does is end up making you walk around conditioned to react defensively all the time and to have a perpetually sour look on your face. If you read other Japan blogs, you'll sometimes see people comment that they often see foreigners walk around looking very unhappy. I can say that I can understand why those people look the way they do and I don't really blame them. When so much around you is overstimulating you and often rubbing you the wrong way, you've got to cope anyway that you can.
I don't mean to imply that foreigners should walk around mad all the time but just to say that it's understandable. In fact, I think the best thing you can do is develop an understanding and tolerance of the ignorant behavior of people. In some ways, it's a little like learning to tolerate the way children are always screaming and shouting and carrying on in a nerve-wracking fashion. Before someone takes that the wrong way and says I'm saying Japanese people are like children, let me say that I mean that we come to understand that kids don't mean to annoy anyone and are just acting on impulses they can't control and never stop to think about how they affect others much in the same way Japanese people don't really stop to think about how their actions toward foreigners may be perceived when they behave rudely toward them.
I wish I could conclude this post by saying that I've mastered my reactions and allow bad behavior to roll off my back but the best I can say is that it's a battle I consciously fight every time I fail at being sanguine about it. It's been a long time since I tried to intimidate someone into pointing their gaze in another direction but it's been far less time since I've wanted to do so.