Observations of a Gaijin

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the fledgling nation of the United States shortly after its formation to get cultural insights into what was taking place in the Petri dish of the early formation of the country.  From his travels he wrote the book “Democracy in America”.  My anthropology professor in college discussed at length the concept of objective neutrality of the observer.  Alexis looked at the nascent trends of American society from the perspective of a neutral and non-judgemental sociological journalist.  It was his impartial perspective that allowed the French to see, with an academic view, what was happening in the Americas at that time.

As a travel-blogger, I like to think that my pen can carry the weight of a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville.  While I may not see things particularly accurately from the perspective of the people of the cultures I visit, some of my observations might be useful to other travelers who could dig under the surface further in their own travels.

Now that most of the countries I’ve visited have been described from the purely journalistic perspective in preceding posts, I’ll be shifting the framing of my posts on Leaping Around the World to the the vantage points of the sociological and anthropological observations.  So they will be less about places, and more about people and things that happened during my travels.

My professor of Japanese sociology in college had a lecture about the term “Gaijin” (a Japanese term derived from the Chinese characters “Outside Person” used to describe a foreigner akin to the Hebrew concepts of Goy/Gentile.)  He shared the view that Gaijin is not a derogatory term so much as it is the concept of a person who doesn’t have the perspective of the insider, because they don’t come from the cultural upbringing of the insider.

As someone who has lived several years in various countries, (Japan, Germany, Austria, Australia) I came to understand the attitudes of foreignness that are inherent in each of the cultures where I lived.  And naturally, like Alexis, I observed endearing aspects of the societies which were distinct and fascinating from the perspective of their difference from my own culture.

My Japanese, German and French instructors have, over the years, given me advice on how to speak their respective languages properly in spite of the fact that I could never speak them perfectly.  Along the way, I have had some very humorous experiences as a foreigner who is in various stages of trying to “go native”.  Like the myth of Sisyphus, it is a never-ending quest at a semi-futile endeavor that one still decides to persist with.

In early photography there was the discovery of the effect of the pinhole-camera which uses a small aperture to create an artificial lens which bends light to create an inverted view of the outside world.  (See the description of the Camera Obscura, an an example of the pinhole effect at the San Francisco Camera Obscura pictured above.)  My tales, while based on my travels, are just interpretations from an observer.  They will be relatively imprecise because of the narrow perspective from which I observed them and because I cake so much personal interpretation on top of them.  But I hope they’re fun to read.

Thank you for reading Leaping Around the World over the years.  I hope these next dozen essays and forays will be fun as well.

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