Here are five awkward, bittersweet moments that’ll make you realise you’ve finally become a seasoned expat…

Japan is a country that has many unique cultural characteristics. And, while there’s a steep learning curve to getting used to life here, it’s perfectly possible to become what’s known as a “seasoned expat” (or, as we like to call it, the Secret Ninja!) even if you’ll never really become “Japanese”. While the path to seasoned expatdom is long and fraught with cultural misunderstandings, there are a few special moments in every Japan expat’s life that will be familiar to any who’s hung around long enough — moments when you stop and say “Aha! Not so gaijin now, am I?” Let’s check out the list!

(Disclaimer: the following is written from the perspective of a western foreigner living in Japan. Those from other countries and cultures may of course have different experiences.)

1. That awkward moment when… Japanese people stop being interested in you and focus on “greener” foreigners

Some people in Japan really LOVE foreigners. In their eyes, we’re exotic, exciting, and interesting. We could teach them English (or alternatively, some other language), we could, uh, provide those adorable half-Japanese babies some so desire, OR we could just tell them all about how awesome we think Japan is and make them laugh with our inept chopstick skills. Man, those types of foreigners are just SO MUCH FUN! But once you become a seasoned expat, it’s like all your gaijin glitter washes off and those types of Japanese people suddenly lose interest. If you can speak Japanese to a high standard, have lived here for a while, and have lost your wide-eyed enthusiasm for all things Japanese, you have, conversely, officially become an unremarkable foreigner. But with this realisation also comes the reassurance that the Japanese people in your life are there because they really like you as a person, not because of your magic gaijin pixie dust.

A true friend wouldn’t even care if you were a bear; it’s what’s inside that counts! (Except when what’s inside is a nearly-nude RocketNews24 Japan staff writer…)

2. That awkward moment when… you lose your “gaijin pass” and suddenly no one wants to give you a break

Fresh Off the Plane (FOP) foreigners in Japan are often given a free pass when it comes to committing cultural faux pas and generally doing dumb gaijin things, like walking on tatami mats with shoes on or talking loudly on the train. But once you’ve been here a while and people know it, you’ll find your Gaijin Pass suddenly revoked and realise you’re being held to the same strict social standards as everyone else. If you can speak Japanese reasonably well, nobody’s going to offer to help you with the tough stuff like doing your own taxes in Japanese, and crabbing about things being different from how they are back home becomes even more intolerable with each year you rack up in Japan. Some people, (aka the Bubble Dwellers) manage to remain in a perma-FOP state by refusing to learn Japanese or integrate into society, but for most seasoned expats, realising that your Gaijin Pass has expired, however awkward at first, is a rite of passage — you’re now considered a legitimate member of society and expected to pull your weight.

If you lose your train pass, someone will probably hand it in to the station staff for you. But once your Gaijin Pass expires, it’s gone for good…

3. That awkward moment when… you can’t English so good no more

Spend enough time in Japan and learn enough of the language, and you’ll start to notice that your English (or whatever your native language is) is getting a little muddled. When you spend so much time reading, writing and speaking Japanese, you’ll start forgetting English words, you’ll start mixing both languages in one sentence, and you’ll find yourself speaking English in Japanese sentence patterns. This tongue-muddling can be downright embarrassing whenever you return to wherever your native language is spoken, because it makes you sound totally pretentious even though you truly can’t help doing it. Sometimes you’ll also notice that both languages blend into one in your mind, and you’ll actually start to forget that not everyone speaks both. For example, I’ve made the mistake of asking non-Japanese speaking friends to “meet me under the sign that says ‘izakaya'”, not remembering that said sign is actually written in kanji and they can’t read it. Another example would be when you find an amazing show/movie/game and want to tell friends from home about it. First you spend ages bigging it up, then you remember at the last moment that it’s in Japanese and unsubtitled. And you sound like SUCH A JERK.

Even when your own English starts going downhill, “Dride Noodies” will never not be funny.

4. That awkward moment when… people stop complimenting your Japanese!

Having your spoken Japanese pass for native is a rarity, but boy does it boost the ego when it happens! If you have a good grasp of Japanese pronunciation (and perhaps also a fuzzy connection) then sometimes you’ll find that when speaking on the phone, the person on the other end might actually *gasp* NOT NOTICE that you’re a foreigner. Once, I got a taxi in Kyoto, and at the time I’d picked up a little Kyoto accent from living there. It was also dark so the driver didn’t clock my foreign face until he turned around to accept my money at the end of the ride (which was spent enjoying a lovely extended chat about the weather). “Oh my gosh!” he gasped. “I didn’t realise you were a foreigner!” Oh, how we laughed. :P Nevertheless, when people stop being impressed by your Japanese and stop telling you “your Japanese is very skilful!” as soon as you open your mouth, that’s when you’ll know you’re  both a) passably fluent and b) suitably seasoned as an expat.

But first… you must memorise 2,136 kanji!

5. That awkward moment when… you forget you’re a foreigner

We’ve spoken a little about the “Gaijin Reminder” before. It’s a Japanese person who seems to have trouble getting past the fact that you’re a foreigner and who feels compelled to constantly bring it up in case you’d somehow forgotten. What’s funny is that sometimes you actually DO forget that you’re a foreigner. When you go to work in a Japanese company, have Japanese friends and a Japanese boy/girl friend, speak Japanese, eat Japanese food and basically live a normal life in Japan, you’ll reach a point where you’ll stop feeling so much like a foreigner (especially if you never really enjoyed being a special gaijin snowflake to begin with). Then, someone will “remind” you, possibly by loudly speaking rudimentary English to you and asking you where in America you’re from, and it can be a massive shock to the senses. Sad times.

We’re all the same anyway, deep down. Er, except for this fellow perhaps…

So, there you have it — five awkward moments that make us realise we’ve become seasoned expats! Is there anything you’d add to the list? Let us know in the comments section!

All images © RocketNews24

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