Mar 23, 2019

Microaggressions: the boredom of small talk

I have been an expat in Japan for eighteen years. I can honestly say it used to take a lot to offend, aggravate or irritate me. Note the past tense. Lately, I am feeling the microaggressions. A word that used to irritate me more than the meaning of it did. I'm sick of the knee jerk phrases some people pull from their limited repertoire of small-talk for foreigners; I am so over the same old conversations day in and day out. 

A microaggression as described by Psychology Today (just because that's the first result Google showed me on search engine pages!):

"Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership."

I must stress though, that in my experience, when people are saying things to me here in Japan that are formally considered microaggressions, they really don't intend to "slight, snub or insult". They are just trying to create conversation and / or trying to pass you a compliment the only way they know how. So I don't take any exception to the person at all, it is not them - it is me. I am just jaded by having the same conversations or things said to me, hundreds - no strike that - thousands of times, based on my foreignness.

The things people say here in Japan that are considered microaggressions, only started to bother me in the last couple of months. I don't know why there was a shift in my paradigm, maybe it really is just the tedium of repetition. But I doubt it because I grew up in a country perfunctory at making small talk on the same topics over and over. No, I think my ennui stems from the continuous focus of the fact that I am different. Why can't we just banter about the weather; that creates billions of conversations daily in Ireland between strangers. 

The two that are getting to me the most lately and, yes after 18 years of Japan you still get comments such as...

1. You speak Japanese so well

Of course I do. Not only have I been here for 18 years, I studied Japanese in university, worked in Japanese conglomerates, married into a Japanese family and have the level two in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test since my first year here. If I bothered to sign up for level one I'd probably get that too. What gets me though is that people say it after I've just said hello or just saying a sentence or two. Truth is though; my Japanese should be better than it is! 

However, what do I do when yet another stranger "compliments" me on my Japanese. Ever so politely thank them, even throw in a smile for good measure... through gritted teeth.

Microaggressions: the boredom of small talk photo

2. You use chopsticks so well

You should have seen me my first month here. This is truly a compliment I deserve in comparison to back then. But not the point. Yes I happened to come to Japan with zero chopstick skills, but I am the minority. I have cousins back home who have never stepped foot in a chopstick using country and can pick up green peas with post haste mastery.

However, what do I do; politely thank them, throw them that gritted teeth smile and for good measure - pick up the tiniest morsel on my plate, just cause I can. Although, just now I've decided next time I'm going to drop the largest thing on my plate, just for the fun of it!

I am happy here. And this disillusionment with the way some people opt to make small talk is probably only temporary. Even if it isn't, I will continue to smile and make polite. There is a lot worse that could be said to me and is said to some people. But microaggressions are a reality for foreigners living in Japan. And until such time that the underlying prejudices that shape them have been eradicated, we just have to suck it up and get used to smiling through gritted teeth at the boredom of repetitious small talk based on our foreignness.



Level 8 LocalGuide with Google. Blogging about life in Japan as an Irish WAHM to 4 kids on insaitama.com.

1 Comment

  • TonetoEdo

    on Mar 23

    I feel for you. I’ve been living in the Kanto area for about as long, and my tolerance for comments about me being different just for my appearance or foreignness is really getting me down. Just today, I saw a couple admiring two cherry saplings, and asked them if they were aware of the tree around the corner planted in the Meiji Era . First thing out of the guy’s mouth is, You’re good at speaking Japanese. Here I was sharing the pride of our town and this guy has to pull a micro aggression. I’m at the point where I want to ignore strangers.