I come before you today, readers of RocketNews24, with a confession. What I am about to tell you may shock you, but it’s eating away at me and I need to get it off my chest. You see, yesterday afternoon on my way to lunch, I did a fellow foreigner–a fellow gaijin, if you will–a tremendous injustice. It was not my intent to do so, but at the very moment this gentlemen, this benevolent stranger, put himself out there and sought to make a minor connection with another foreigner, I turned away.

That’s right, gentle reader, I accidentally ignored a Gaijin Nod.

Allow me to explain.

I had been working from home for most of the week, meaning that each day I would get up, eat breakfast, wash, dress, and then and settle in for a day of bringing the hardest hitting cat and zombie news to the people of the world. Aside from occasional trips to the convenience store and visits to the bathroom, I was pretty much sitting on my arse all day, staring at my monitor and tapping away at my keyboard. So in an effort to get even the tiniest modicum of exercise and take the strain off my aching posterior (and to think I used to scoff at the idea of doughnut cushions!), I decided that rather than whipping something up in the kitchen I’d take myself out for a bite of lunch.

I was not 200 metres from my home (this, my metric-phobic friends, is twice the straight bit of track Usain Bolt usually runs at sporting events, not that I’m bragging), scrolling through the list of to-do items on my phone as I walked, when I noticed a man on a bike coming from the opposite direction. I shifted over on the pavement slightly so as to ensure that we wouldn’t end up colliding as I moved “Respond to boss about late report” to the bottom of the list, and continued on my way towards grub.

It was only when he was a couple of feet away from me, however, that I realised the man on the bike was in fact a fellow foreigner; a relatively rare sight in my town, which is a good 30 minutes outside central Tokyo. He looked a lot like me–tall, white, slim, slightly larger than average nose–but somehow much healthier and lacking the fixed expression of guilt and concern that comes from growing up in the north of England and being taught by Catholic school teachers that you’re probably going to hell for eating the last chocolate biscuit during the class Christmas party. In the fraction of a second it took for my brain to process this information, however, he had already passed me by. Worse still, I then realised, was the fact that the man had–during that brief moment when I had looked up from my phone and met his awaiting gaze–given me small but distinct a nod of recognition. A Gaijin Nod. And I had simply looked away, my eyes cold, like a slice of ham left on a plate in the fridge next to an expired pro-bio yogurt.

The Gaijin Nod, as I like to call it, is something that foreigners in Japan (and most likely other places too, but I don’t live in other places) offer one another as a polite courtesy; a quiet recognition that “You and I are not from here, and yet, look! Here we are!” You don’t know the other person and they don’t know you, but in a land where not being a native can mean anything from being spoken to like you’re a child with a build-up of earwax or having your application to rent an apartment flatly denied.

There are many different ways to give and respond to a Gaijin Nod. Most people will make eye contact for the briefest of moments as they pass, perhaps even tacking on a smile, and keep walking. This, for the record, is normal behaviour unless you happen to live in a town whose population is anything less than a few thousand people or you’re one of about a four foreigners on an island the size Tokyo. To ignore a fellow foreigner, or any polite gesture, for that matter, would just be rude.

▼ As would nodding like this.


But then there are the people who, upon seeing your foreign face in the crowd, will immediately make a beeline towards you, introduce themselves in a loud voice and insist that the two of you immediately become Facebook friends and go for a drink. True, they might just be lonely, but there’s also a good chance they’re either a) deranged or b) want to talk to you about the salvation of your soul, and when you live in a city like Tokyo where there are literally thousands of non-Japanese wandering about, meeting a person who demands to have your contact information thirty seconds after having come to know of your existence, based purely on the fact that you look a bit like them, can sometimes feel a bit like this:

Finally, there are the hardcore weeaboos, the people who came to Japan with the intention of acting as Japanese as possible and who would rather step in front of a spiky bus than acknowledge another foreigner’s existence for fear of it breaking the illusion that Japan is the land of sushi, anime, martial arts, and NOTHING more. You don’t have to worry about nodding at those guys as they pass you in the street because their eyes will either be fixed on the ground directly in front of them or have glazed over as they loudly hum the theme song to their favourite anime.

Yesterday wasn’t like that, though. My failure to return, or even acknowledge, the nod was not intentional, and as I sat eating my MOS Burger and onion rings (all pretence of trying to be healthy had gone out the window once I caught a whiff of grilled beef), the moment played back again and again in my head; the split second I looked up from my phone to see the face of a fellow gaijin staring at me waiting to deliver the cordial “hey, we’re a bit the same” greeting, his eyes shining as if to say, “Alright, Harry!” (yes, in my mind he spoke like Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter films), his actions motivated by naught but basic human compassion and generosity of spirit.

Perhaps we could have become friends over time. Perhaps Ron–let’s call him Ron–despite being married to a beautiful woman who once tried out for the Japanese Olympic swimming team and does charity work on the weekends possibly involving blind kids, is desperately lonely and in need of a friend in this strange land; someone who’ll go for a beer with him and listen to the trouble he’s having settling in, about how he misses his own country and how he’s pretty sure his boss at the English conversation school he works at (Ron used to be a graphic designer, but with his wife now pregnant and unable to keep her job at the ice cream factory, he has had to put his own dreams on hold) is a pervert who sometimes smells his neck from behind. Maybe this was him reaching out.

But I’ll never know. Because instead of returning that nod, I looked away, too busy with my shiny plastic toy and thoughts of stuffing food into my stupid face.

If you’re reading this, Ron, know that I’m sorry. If I could have that moment again, I’d make sure to return the nod. I might even say “alright mate” in that way all British men feel obliged when meeting strangers of the same sex and not wanting to appear immediately hostile. I hope that wherever you are, you, your wife and unborn son (I have decided in the course of writing this column that they’re having a boy) are all well. My rejection of your Gaijin Nod was not intentional, and I hope that my penning this column and drawing that crappy doodle at the top of page (I had originally intended for it to be the two of us, but bikes are hard to draw and my boss doesn’t like it when I mess around on Paint all afternoon) will suffice as proof of my profound regret.

Nod on, sir. Nod on.

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