Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bumpers and Bumpees

If you experience something long and often enough, it eventually stops leaving an impression on you consciously. One of the problems with having been in Japan for so long is that there are a lot of remarkable things which no longer have much of an impact on you. Some of these things are positive, some negative, and some benign. Recently, I had an experience which I've had thousands of times before which has become so common-place that it has, for the most part, stopped registering consciously with me.

I was shopping for food in one of several tiny markets I often go to and, as is often the case, another shopper bumped into me in the narrow spaces. During any given excursion to purchase our daily bread, this will happen at least once and in the smaller places, as many as five times in one visit. About eighty percent of the time, the person who bumps into me will mumble a casual "sumimasen" (excuse me) and about two percent of the time say a more polite "gomen nasai" (I'm sorry). The other eighteen percent of the time, I get the "gaijin (foreigner) exclusive" treatment.

The "gaijin exclusive" occurs when the other party turns around to say they're sorry for bumping into you, but suddenly realize that it isn't a fellow Japanese they've buffeted but a foreigner. The process comes in several stages rapidly occurring in mere seconds and can be read very clearly in the eyes and mouth of the offending party. In stage one, they have the same bland look and slightly parted lips that preface a perfunctory expression of apology in a random encounter with a stranger. Stage two sees the eyes widen and the mouth drop open as they realize they've bumped into a gaijin and not a Japanese person. Stage three sees the eyes narrow and the mouth draws into a tight-lipped line. No apology is given and one gets the distinct impression that a 180 degree change in attitude has occurred wherein the blame has now shifted squarely onto the bumpee instead of the bumper.

In times like this, I get the feeling the other person has decided that it's my fault they bumped into me because I had the audacity to occupy space in the same country as them. The looks in these situations are almost always disapproving and a little angry. I guess it's possible that the party involved has simply decided I'm insufficiently versed in Japanese to understand any perfunctory apology they offer, but the eyes and mouth say otherwise.

Of course, on occasion I bump people accidentally (though honestly, I try very, very hard never to do so) and I always say "sumimasen". If the person doesn't see me because the bump is from the side or behind, I get a nod or no reaction. If the person does see me, I sometimes get a massively exaggerated response to the tiniest collision. Sometimes the party acts as though a little bump with my back-pack has nearly knocked them over. Sometimes they act as though I've nearly propelled the basket from their hands by tapping it gently with mine. This only occurs when they see me coming.

The thing that occurred to me a few days ago when this happened (yet again) was that it's happened so much that I don't really think much about it anymore. On the one hand, that's a good thing since I don't get angry about it (though I used to). On the other hand, it seems wrong to not take note of it as it can be seen as a way of accepting it by taking it in stride. Of course, it's rather pointless to do otherwise since there's nothing I can do to change it. It's these sorts of experiences which I find comprise the bulk of the racial discrimination I experience in Japan. They're small and don't really do any serious harm, but they're everywhere you go and are like a constant low murmur that you don't belong and that your presence makes people uncomfortable.


Anonymous said...

I often read your blog and felt that I would like to comment. I remember the same experience happening to me when I resided in Japan. Thank you for your take on this experience.

Shari said...

Hi, and many thanks for taking the time to comment!

I wondered when I posted this if only I noticed this and am strangely reassured that someone else noticed it as well. I think you have to be watching their faces pretty carefully to see it happen, and I think a lot of people don't pay much attention to what occurs in these situations.

mjgolli said...

It is very rare that I get bumped into at the grocery, even when I was on the larger side. What I notice, and is a big pet peeve of mine is people that do not say excuse me when passing in front of you.

Every aisle has a person that stands on the opposite side of the aisle from what they are looking at, surveying the vast selection of cereals, breads, canned veg, etc. If I come upon these people, I always make a conscious effort to say excuse me if I have to go behind them or in front of them. It is only polite. I, too, often scan the selections in this way and would expect a normal person would say excuse me if they go in front of my field of vision, or need me to moove so they can get by. I am only too happy to oblige, since grocery shopping can be a chore, especially for the mildly anti-social like myself.

Only about half the time do I receive an excuse me. People just walk in front of me, oblivious. Even more irritating are the people that see me looking for what I need or want, and they stop directly in front of me and do the same.

Another annoyance are the people that park their cart in half the aisle and stand in the other half looking for their item, and they don't move for any one, even if the person wanting by says excuse me.

Perhaps I am too sensitive on this issue...

Shari said...

Hi, Mark, and thanks for commenting. :-)

I don't think you're too sensitive, but I think the level of politeness is generally affected by the number of people. If the store is crowded, people may be less polite because they don't want to be saying "excuse me" dozens of times as they are forced to walk around people. If it's sparsely populated though, there's no good excuse.

In Japan, people also linger in front of the aisles to gawk (or in many cases, attempt to check for microscopic defects in a vegetable or piece of fruit before deciding to buy it). It drives me crazy, too, especially since they block my selection entirely!

I would love though to be in a store large enough for a U.S. shopping cart, let alone for people to freely walk around people! I guess department stores might be about that size in Japan but they're too rich for usual shopping.