Looking back on my life, I realize that I have lived as an outsider for a large portion of it. I have spent many years living among people of different cultures, who speak different languages and have different customs and traditions from myself. I used to think this somehow made me more worldly and savvy than someone who never left their hometown or traveled abroad, but now I am not so sure. Being different has had a positive effect—but not in the way you might think.
I was born and raised in the American southwest. I moved from the southern California coast to the desert of Arizona when I was in first grade, and although I never quite got used to the heat, I grew to love the dramatic cacti-dotted landscape, the wide-open spaces, and most of all, the mind-blowing sunsets.
I attended Catholic schools most of my life, which set me apart from other kids in my neighborhood, especially because I wore a uniform. Green pants and a white collared shirt—not exactly a fashion statement, then or now. My school playground was separated from the public elementary school playground next door by a chain link fence. Like a lot of property in that area, the school occupied grounds that had formerly been acres and acres of grapefruit trees. Sometimes during recess, we would get into a grapefruit-throwing war with the public school kids on the other side of the fence. The trees were on our side of the fence, so we had all the ammunition, but the kids on the other side would either catch them or pick them up off the ground and fire them back at us. For this reason, the best grapefruits were those that were rotting and would disintegrate into a sticky mush upon impact.
This was all good fun, until you had to get on your bike and ride home after school. I had to pass right by that public school as its kids were streaming out, and seeing my uniform, I would get yelled at, sometimes even chased, by kids whose clothing was stained with sweet-smelling rotted grapefruit. In fact, the sight of me in my uniform usually drew the unwanted attention of all kinds of kids, who were quick to yell names at me simply because I was different from them.
Later, I attended a Jesuit prep school where I studied Spanish, although I also had the option of learning Latin or Greek. I figured that, since I lived in a part of the United States with a large Hispanic population, studying Spanish made sense. Also, my school had an annual spring break trip to Mazatlán, Mexico. My mother was an acquaintance of the Spanish teacher who chaperoned this trip, and he convinced her let me go. The trip ostensibly focused on community service, which consisted of collecting used toys and children’s clothing to be handed out in poor areas on Easter Sunday. For the remainder of the week, we were basically on our own, free to explore the city, practice Spanish and get into all kinds of trouble, which naturally, we did.
My first of several trips to Mazatlán began in 1986. We took a train from Nogales, Arizona all the way down to the central Mexico coast. The overnight train ride took about 24 hours, and I will never forget how it felt getting off the train the next morning, piling into a taxi and driving down the hill to our beachfront hotel for the first time. Everything was different: the sights, the smells and the sounds. It was really exciting. Except for the smells.
Soon after arriving, I began getting used to a word we didn’t use much in our Spanish class: gringo. In Mexico, this term refers to foreigners in general, and White Americans in particular. According to Urban Dictionary, “Folklore says it was generated when the U.S. invaded Mexico, wearing green uniforms, and the people shouted at them ‘Green Go Home.’”
Unfortunately, the ugly reputation of the gringo preceded us. I naively assumed that, as Americans, we would get special treatment and that the girls would throw themselves at us (I was only 16 years old, mind you). While I found the people to be quite warm and friendly, I was also aware of a slight disdain for us gringos. The city of Mazatlán is a popular spring break destination for U.S. college kids who, I would find out later, are a financial boon as well as a giant headache for the locals. Although gringo is not a derogatory term, it is a way of verbally indicating someone who is an outsider.
Back in Arizona, I was never called gringo by anyone, but when I was older and went to college, I became aware of how some Hispanic people felt about us gringos inhabiting what they considered to be land stolen from Mexico. I experienced this most while living Tucson, Arizona. Back in the late 80s, south Tucson was almost exclusively populated by Hispanic people, and I admit that I never felt entirely welcome (or comfortable) going down there, especially at night. At that time, I was a liberal ignoramus who figured White people deserved whatever disrespect or mistreatment they received.
In college, I ended up studying Japanese, and after my first year of classes, I traveled to Tokyo on a three-month internship and homestay. It was a great experience, and as soon as I got back to the States at the end of the summer, I was dead set on returning to Japan. I secured a job teaching English before I even graduated, and returned to Japan in the fall of 1995. My days of being a gringo were over, and my new life as a gaijin was just beginning.
Japan is a small island country, and because of its geographical isolation from East Asia, has enjoyed long periods of natural (and self-imposed) seclusion. Japanese society is organized according to a vertically structured in-group hierarchy. Imagine a pebble dropped in a perfectly still pond. The concentric circles caused by the ripple are a good analogy for Japanese interpersonal relations. You are the pebble, and the ring around you is your family. The second ring includes your close personal friends. The third ring outside includes your classmates or coworkers. The fourth ring, perhaps your neighbors or other people you see on a fairly steady basis. The further out the rings, the weaker your relationship to those people. On the outer rings are all Japanese people, with whom you share a common language, history, customs, etc. And totally outside these rings, not even in the pond, are the gaijin.
In Japanese, gaikokujin literally translates as “foreign country person” and since the Japanese are fond of shortening words and phrases, they tend to drop the word “country” (koku) and simply call us gaijin or foreign person. The two Chinese characters used to represent this term are “outside” (外) and “person” (人) making all foreigners “outsiders.” Like gringo, the term gaijin refers almost exclusively to White people, most of whom are assumed to be American. As you can imagine, a lot of foreigners in Japan are very sensitive about this term, especially when it is used without the honorific suffixes “–san” or “-sama.” The Japanese are extremely polite and as rule tend to use these suffixes to show respect, so when someone calls you gaijin-san, it is less triggering than if someone calls you a gaijin.
For years, I was hyper-sensitive to this seemingly minute distinction, but fortunately I got over it. You see, it doesn’t matter how well you speak Japanese, how closely you adhere to the cultural norms and unwritten social rules, or how much respect you show for all things Japanese. As a gaijin, you will never, ever, be accepted as a member of Japanese society. Of course, you can make close Japanese friends who don’t treat you as an outsider—you can even marry a Japanese—but these are people in your in-group. To the Japanese populace at large, you are a permanent member of the out-group—an eternal outsider.
For years, I tried to pretend that this did not bother me. I tried to live, eat, work and think like the Japanese. I withstood all kinds of criticism, insults (some intentional, some not) and being ostracized at work and in public. I tried to convince myself that none of this mattered. At one point, I was determined to to stay in Japan just to spite all those people who I perceived to be hostile to my very presence. I made every effort to speak, read and write Japanese so that I could express myself in an intelligent manner and (hopefully) gain respect. Unfortunately, none of these efforts panned out as I had hoped.
My life as a gaijin was no longer fun, and after more than a decade in Japan, I decided to move to Hawaii. A lot of Americans think Hawaii is just another state, like Rhode Island or Iowa, but they are wrong. People who claim native Hawaiian ancestry have a term for people like me: haole. Like gringo and gaijin, this term refers almost exclusively to White people, but includes outsiders in general. It literally means “someone without breath,” which refers to someone who is not from Hawaii/Polynesia and therefore is not able to recite the names of their ancestors, which is the traditional way people introduce themselves. It is not a derogatory term, but it really depends on the context and the tone of voice used. If someone refers to a “nice haole lady,” no offense is intended or taken. But if someone calls you a “haole fukah!” you better get ready fo scrap, brah!
I have heard lots of horror stories about haole getting hassled and even beaten up in Hawaii, but in all the years I lived there, I never had a single bad experience. I was referred to as a haole on a few occasions, but it was never used in a disrespectful way. At the same time, it was clear that my being a haole prevented me from being able to get truly close to many local people, but that was not always the case. In fact, the nicest, funniest and most genuine people I ever met were those I was blessed to have made friends with while in Hawaii.
Unfortunately, most haole don’t bother to learn the history of Hawaii and how it came to be a state. This ignorance grates on many local people in Hawaii. At the same time, there is a victim mentality among many native Hawaiians and non-haoles (Samoans, Tongans, Micronesians, etc.) that often results in a tendency for some people to blame everything wrong in their lives on White people from the mainland U.S. And, in some sense, they have a legitimate beef. After all, America did overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani and forcibly annex the islands for strategic military purposes. Later, the sugar cane plantations imported workers from China, Japan and other countries, which along with disease and other factors, ended up diluting and destroying the native population. Today, many locals are essentially indentured servants, working service jobs for minimum wage in support of the tourist industry. Like I said, it is a complicated history that has yet to be resolved.
At the same time, Hawaii is by far the most multicultural state in the union. White people are outnumbered by about three to one. I lived in rural Hawaii, and there was almost no crime, people were quite friendly and generous, and a lot of the trouble that did occur was fueled by booze and meth, which I managed to stay away from. I did a lot of reading and research before I moved to Hawaii, and I knew what I was in for. Also, I went out of my way to show respect for the native culture and engage in community activities. These efforts go a long way in terms of establishing your presence in a small community that is used to seeing outsiders come and go, which is another reason as to why it is so difficult to find acceptance among the local population. And, as with Japan, I think being wary of outsiders is an “island nation thing.”
I love Hawaii, it is the best place I have ever lived, and I will never forget everything I learned there and all the amazing things I experienced. But just like Japan, I came to realize that no matter how much effort I put forth, no matter how much I tried to act like a local (a dangerous proposition, actually; I don’t recommend it), I would never be fully accepted in Hawaii. I also recognized that neither Japan nor Hawaii were my traditional homelands. I was trying to identify with and gain acceptance in cultures where I was an outsider. Unsurprisingly, this led to difficulties and disappointment, since I was going against my nature.
The fact of the matter is, I am tired of being an outsider. I have gone from gringo, to gaijin, to haole and rather than gaining from these experiences, I feel like I have lost something. I am further away from my culture, my traditions and my ancestors than ever.
Having grown up in America, I was brainwashed by the Catholic Church, then by Marxist professors—and all the while, by Jewish media propaganda—made to believe in lies about the history of my European ancestry, the history of my birth country, and even lies about my own identity. I have spent more than half my life searching for who I am—but in all the wrong places.
Everywhere I have lived, there has always been a word for people like me, words that are both neutral and negative, and always denote my status as an outsider. I used to think I was most comfortable when I was among people who were totally different from me. I thought of myself as a “citizen of the world.” But if I am honest, I never felt comfortable, and I never was truly happy. At this point, I have gone so far afield that it is probably no longer possible to get back. Yet, I am uncharacteristically optimistic. Now I know, for the first time in my life, who I am, where I came from, and where I belong. Everyone should have a home in this world, even us outsiders.