Sunday, March 27, 2005

A theory

This post might make some people hate me.

I was talking the other day with The Man about life in Japan, in general, and about how I've realised recently why it would be very difficult for me to live in NZ again.

Despite all the crappy things about life in Japan, and there are many, I really am in an enviable situation, especially since I have a Japanese spouse. I RARELY HAVE TO DEAL WITH STUPID PEOPLE.

The reason for this is that foreigners who live long-term in Japan tend to be brighter than average. They have to be. First, you need a visa to live here, and for a visa you need at least a university degree. For most university teaching jobs you need a masters degree or higher, and that is where most of the foreigners I know work. I know that university degrees don't guarantee cleverness, but at least they filter out the totally incompetent. And the people without the relevant qualifications at least have the brains to organize fake qualifications somehow. That requires some cunning not to get caught, so even the ones without qualifications are pretty bright. (And sneaky. Let's not forget sneaky.)

Secondly, to live here you have to have a certain amount of common sense and a certain amount of tolerance. Without common sense and tolerance you can't survive. For example, we once had a Kiwi housemate, for about four months, who was a lovely guy but he had no ordinary survival instincts. He was exasperating. He was a darling, and we loved him, but he just could not survive here. He got lost almost every day despite the detailed maps and instructions we gave him for how to get home, and found everything puzzling and difficult. He was not resentful or upset about this - he seemed to more or less expect it - but I think he was relieved to go home when he got sick. He had no common sense AT ALL. We tried and tried with him. We wanted him to stay because we liked him and it was hard to find a good housemate. (One of the OTHER things about expats is that they're often hard to live with, although they make brilliant friends. Strange, but true.) He was a good housemate, easy to get along with and to live with, but he just couldn't cope with life in a foreign country. In the end we were glad to see him go, too, for his own sake. We thought he'd be better off at home where things were familiar and he wouldn't get lost quite so often. We were getting a bit exasperated with the phonecalls most evenings:

"Hi! It's me again. Somehow I've ended up in a place called Shin Sanda, heh heh. How do I get home from here?"

He managed to end up in places we'd never heard of. We had to keep a train map and timetable by the phone just for him.

You don't need as much common sense to survive when you're in your home country. Ordinary things are automatic, or at least doable, whereas when you're in a foreign country you have to cope with little differences all the time and learn how to accommodate them. He didn't seem able to do that. It wouldn't have mattered how long he'd stayed, this would never have been home for him. It would have baffled him forever.

So there is a kind of ex-pat filter that starts working when you live in a foreign country. The incapable and unintelligent are filtered out. You are left with only the ones who can cope, which means that they are either hopelessly eccentric (too eccentric for their home countries), or intelligent and full of common sense. Or both (most frequently). And because they also need a fair dose of tolerance to survive in this mad country, they're quite likely to get along with you, too.

Of course you also have to cope with the unfiltered Japanese, but if you are clever enough to have a clever Japanese spouse, like me, then you don't have to deal with the stupid people very often. You just pass them along to your spouse, whining about 'cultural differences' and 'language problems,' and he deals with them for you. So you end up thinking that Japanese people are mostly clever, too, because the bright ones are the ones you deal with the most. Most Japanese people don't want much to do with foreigners so they filter themselves when they see you coming. We're too much trouble. So the ones you get to know tend to be unusual people - the interesting and different ones on the fringes of society, who actually want to know foreigners and will tolerate and even welcome different ways of thinking.

There are exceptions, of course. The people you have to work with are occasionally stupid. And salespeople and so on. But they are the only contact you have with unfiltered 'ordinary' people.

As an example, I always answer the phone in English, because we often get telephone salespeople calling. When they hear the English they ask me (in Japanese) whether I can speak Japanese. I answer (in Japanese) that I can't, and 99% of the time they hang up! See what I mean? It's brilliant.

If I went back to NZ to live then I'd have to deal with unfiltered stupid people all the time, and I don't think I'd cope with that very well after all this time.

The danger is that after too much time here you end up thinking that Kiwis (or Australians, or Americans, or Poms, or whatever) are all fabulously intelligent and interesting and full of common sense, because all the Kiwis (and Australians, and Americans, and Poms, and so on) that you meet are, on the whole. But this is not true, of course. Reading blogs tells me so. (This is the bit where you get indignant, by the way. Bite me!) The blogs I read regularly are the good ones, but I have seen some DOOZIES out there, which prove once and for all that ANYBODY can start a blog. And if I went back to NZ to live I'd have to deal with people like that ALL THE TIME.

Every time I visit NZ I get horribly disillusioned, because it's not true that all Kiwis are intelligent, and I always forget. There's my family, for a start. You can't filter family. You're stuck with them. Whenever I'm in NZ I notice all the things I miss (my friends, the sky, the coastline, the weather, the general friendliness, SOME of my family) - but I also remember why I like my life here. Here I get to take advantage of automatic filtering of the expat community (courtesy of the Japanese Immigration Office) and I can easily ignore the stupid people. Expats who stick it out here are mostly somehow special. I will freely admit that some of them are special in ways I'd rather not know about, but you learn to sort those ones out pretty quickly. And I don't have any Japanese relatives except the ones The Man landed me with, and most of the time he deals with them for me.

So there you have it; why I like being an expat. Don't you envy me?

(Incidentally, I explained this theory to my expat Tuesday night friends, and they laughed, looked thoughtful, and then started saying things like, "Well, it's a good theory, but what about...?" and naming famously stupid people in the expat community that we all know. I had to shout VERY LOUDLY to get them to shut up. "BUT EVEN THE STUPIDEST PERSON YOU KNOW HERE ISN'T AS STUPID AS THE STUPID PEOPLE YOU MEET AT HOME, RIGHT?" I shouted, and some of them looked doubtful, so I changed the subject quickly before they exploded my theory completely.)


Paula said...

Funny. Lately I haven't had to deal with too many stupids either. First, I work with three smart lawyers who have sophisticated clients (once in a while I have to talk to an idiot in a billing dept., but not that often). Second, my daughters are in honors classes, which means they mostly choose friends from those classes, and consequently their parents are brighter than average. Third, we hardly see extended family anymore cuz they're too annoying.

The thing about stupid bloggers is that they probably represent the brightest and most literate of whatever group they're in. That's really scary, especially when you consider the mommybloggers.

Megan said...

Once again I feel like I've learned something from your blog. I love when you talk about life in Japan or NZ (since I've never been to either place). You got me thinking a lot about immigration, too (since, as you know, I work with all immigrants). The US immigration system/policy/whateveryouwanttocallit is very different. Probably close to half of my students are all illegal immigrants (we have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy at my school). The majority of the current immigrant population is from Latin America (I won't get into the whole trend of immigration over the years), most of whom are uneducated and produce more children on average than most US citizens.

So, what's my point? I think I lost it in my brain somewhere. But I sure want to travel abroad some more! I bet Japan might take me in: I have a Masters and can teach English too. I actually have a friend living there again now so he can finish a documentary film he was working on when he lived there the first time.

I'm losing my train of thought (obviously). Happy Easter (it's just now Sunday morning over here)!

Anonymous said...

I think that all the stupid people were born in my area, got lost on their way out, and just decided to stay! ;^)

I agree about the blogs. I can't believe some of them. I'd be embarrassed to put out such crap!

melinama said...

you make me want to come visit but I would be one of the stupid ones. I'm great with a map but too shy to make it in such an alien environment. I'd like to have a laugh with you and your eccentric brilliant ex-pat friends. we don't get too many of those here in North Carolina.

callieischatty said...

Well I can hear you, but I think that there are stupid folks wherever one goes.
glad you are happy tho!
I don't mind the new yorkers here, smart folks here too...
Jews are smart, so are Italians, and Americans are not as dumb as Bush looks amigo.

Badaunt said...

One thing I probably should have made clear in this post is that I am now on vacation, and aside from a handful of friends I have hardly seen any other expats for a few weeks. No doubt when classes start again and I'm seeing them every day I'll start noticing the flaws in my wonderful theory.

But still, they are wonderful people from a distance!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE being a stupid kiwi.
The only thing that would make me happier would be to have my own blog site, where I could tell you wonderful people about my kids making meat pie sandwiches,the colour and texture of my dogs' crap, etc etc.

Tran Sient said...

Speaking English works for getting out of tickets too.

The nice thing about Japan is that the people are usually very polite about not wanting to have anything to do with you. Korea is another story.

librarianguish said...

What a great theory! There is really no filter here, that's for sure. In fact, I think there could be a funnel that sends the dum dums directly to my town (it's called the military). Oh well. It must be delightful to mostly deal with intelligent people!


Lippy said...

Fortunately, I'm a smart Kiwi. Unfortunately, I'm surrounded by stupid people. Fortunately, I have my blog to console myself with. I reckon I'd make an excellent expat. Or a really, really annoying one.... bwahahahaha ;-)