If you’re as old as me, maybe you remember that Sesame Street segment called “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” Here’s an old clip on youtube. It was a chance to meet the butcher, the mailman and maybe even the milkman (who incidentally had the same nose and smile as your best friend in first grade… everybody in the neighborhood was talking about it. But nobody dare ask.)
That’s what the neighborhood was like growing up. But things in Japan are different. (Maybe not for the milkman) The neighbors are just as nosy, but they don’t say much to each other – directly. They don’t look at each other much either, they just keep their gaze down and give a slight bow as they pass each other. That is, unless you stand out. The butcher or mailman don’t stand out. Neither does the lifeguard, the carpenter or the fireman. It’s the foreigner that stands out here. That’s me. And that’s why I get a lot of looks.
I don’t mind the attention. It’s usually not mean-spirited, although occasionally stares from the older generation get a little icy. Mostly, I guess, they’re just curious. I am too, so I look back at them. Then I bow slightly and say Konnichiwa. They usually give me one back, sometimes well hidden under their breath.
It’s not surprising that I attract people’s interest. Aside from my uncommon good looks and charismatic demeanor, I just look different–and different is interesting. Back in LA I didn’t look different at all. Nobody paid attention, so I don’t mind an occasional double take or extra long glance in my direction.
I knew a French guy in college. He was an exchange student from Paris. He told me: “You wanna be popular? Move to France. Speak with an American accent and wear American clothes. Look American. Be different. the French women will eat it up.” He went on to tell me that no French woman would so much as look at him, but in Nebraska he was Monsieur Popular. Damn. I missed my chance in France.
I suppose I’m a little beyond the age to attract the interest of the fairer sex, and my wife might have something to say about it if I did, but one thing is certain: Different is interesting. Different is compelling, and different is cool. I like being different. And like that French guy in college I recommend it.
I have more to say on the subject of neighbors and staring, so keep an eye or two peeled…