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Embrace Being an Outsider

27 November 2020Rancho Bernardo, San Diego

When I was younger, I aspired to make others feel like I was one of them. I wanted to be “all things to all men”. But that’s hard — honestly, I usually failed. Sometimes this strategy backfired: people would look at me skeptically, as if to say, “Look at this poser. Who does he think he is?”

Perhaps this comes from the American idea of itself as an immigrant nation. If you come live here and participate in society, you’ll become an American. So we imagine that we can do that elsewhere: if we live somewhere long enough, we’ll become a person from there. It’s even glorified in pop culture, comprising the central arc of movies like Avatar and The Last Samurai!

The idea that you can become a native is true to greater and lesser extents in different places, but perhaps it is nowhere less true than in Japan. No matter how long you live there, how well you speak the language, how deeply you understand the culture, you will never become Japanese. Many young Japanophiles learn the language and the culture and live there a few years, and then are crushed that in spite of their effort, in spite of the way they might view themselves as fitting in to Japan, they are unequivocally seen as foreigners.

One way around this is to give up on trying to be a native, a strategy I learned from an American who’d lived in Japan for a decade1. Accept that becoming a native is an unattainable goal and embrace your role as an outsider who appreciates Japan and its culture. When someone compliments how well you speak Japanese, don’t proudly explain how long you’ve studied it — instead, tell them why you find the language beautiful. When someone is surprised at your familiarity with the tea ceremony, tell them about how you feel it exemplifies Japanese culture. This strategy, the American said, is not only more feasible, it’s also more honest: instead of trying to be something you’re not, you are showing your authentic self as someone who isn’t from Japan but did decide to move there because you actually do love the culture.

Japan is an extreme case, but the same strategy works for many cultures and groups of people. You don’t even really have to love the culture; an honest curiosity is enough. If I find myself in the company of hip-hop aficionados, saying “I’ve listened to Hamilton a lot” won’t endear me to them! But I can ask about the songs2 they mention and what they like about them. When I’m at a party with wine connoisseurs, I’m upfront about not really knowing anything about wine. Most wine lovers are more than happy to proffer recommendations.

For me, attempting to fit in is stressful. I admire the people who can move from group to group and be accepted as a member of each one. But when I try, I feel a constant pressure to say the right things, and a constant fear I will misstep — a fear which, sadly, is often realized. Now I try to let go of my desire to be all things to all men, and instead embrace being an outsider. It's more honest than pretending to be a native. And it’s a relief.


  1. I am fairly certain I first heard this idea from Colin Marshall’s excellent podcast, Notebooks on Cities and Culture, during Season 3, which he spent in Japan. But after going back and listening to four episodes I gave up on finding the original interview and wrote this instead.

  2. Do hip-hop musicians even call their recordings “songs”? Are they “tracks”? I don’t even know.

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© 2020 Noah Tye