October 25, 2011

Six Degrees of Gaijin

Foreigners are a small community here in Tokyo and bad news travels fast. How many degrees am I separated from you?

As someone who always likes to plan for the "what ifs" in life, I was pondering something that may be the most tactically difficult situation ever; cutting a friend out of your social network.

This all came about after a talk with a friend who was a little fed up with someone she knows. Her acquaintance is sometimes rude, childish, and an embarrassment to be out in public with. She asked me, "What would you do?"

This isn't an easy question to answer. Even in your home country cutting someone out can be tricky, and it's rendered even more difficult in Japan because we have such a small foreign community. If you haven't noticed on the trains by now, we are seriously outnumbered.

Let's talk a little bit about relationships in Japan.

Spending time with sexy Japanese people is nice and all, BUT sometimes you feel lonely for native English conversation. You want to chat with someone about Tim Horton's, or the Simpsons, or how George Strombolopoulus was the hottest thing to come out of Canadian TV, and Canadian heritage commercials where you can quote, "Doctor, I smell burnt toast!". Eventually you want to be with someone who doesn't keep asking you to clarify cultural statements every two minutes. There will come a day where through chance meetings, or even Internet assistance, you meet a few cool people in your area. Like osmosis, you then join their various groups of friends until you have quite a network going for you. Everyone is friends with at least one of your other friends.

Herein lies the dilemma; if you want to stop being friends with one of these people, what do you do? You're all related through this web. If you cut off one friend, the other mutual friends may take sides. And if you are the newest friend to the group, you may lose out to seniority.

Now, if you are a strategic planner, and kept all your groups of friends separate you may only need to cut about, say, 5 to 7 people from the net. If you made the rookie mistake of introducing them all, you may lose an entire friend ecosystem. This would be a tactical error of epic proportions since all those foreigners, by some method or other, know all the other foreigners in your area (think the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, but for foreigners in Japan). If you cut out the whole network of friends, you may be blacklisted and no other foreigner will have you. This is especially true in smaller cities.

Let's kick it up a notch, shall we?

You live in Tokyo, which has a population of approximately 12.369 million 
people in the core. 353,826 of them are foreign residents, as of the 2005 census, only 25,628 are native English speakers. Seems like a lot of numbers, doesn't it? You would think with over 25 thousand English speakers in Tokyo that meeting them would be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. Unless two of you are stuck waiting in the same line, sitting next to each other on a return flight from somewhere, or hook up through the internet, you are shit out of luck because foreigners in Japan rarely acknowledge each other's existence.

So, in reality the max amount of native speakers you will probably run into (including friends' networks) is more in the ballpark of about 1500 people. That may seem like quite enough people for anyone, but you still have to think of the six degrees of gaijin relationships.

My theory is that every foreigner in Tokyo knows each other by approximately 6 degrees of separation. Friend A may not know friend K, but A will know K's friends H and B which means that indirectly they have a relationship with K. If you cut K out of your network, you will lose all friends from A to J (possibly the whole alphabet), as well as any future relationships with their friends and acquaintances.

 Most people give up hope after considering the 6 degrees and just decide to put up with the annoying/backstabbing friend until one of them leaves the country. Others, in a banzai suicide rush, cut out everyone and try to start afresh. The wisest people slowly put up a wall between them and the offensive friend. They keep in contact less and less, using work or other social obligations as an excuse until that person is no longer a part of their lives. If you have a very large social network, this is an extremely satisfactory way of ridding yourself of the undesirable. Unfortunately, if your network is on the smaller side, other friends may rat you out unintentionally by mentioning that no, you aren't that busy, and were in fact dancing on tables in Roppongi just the other night. Here is my suggestion guide for limiting the effects of the six degrees of Gaijin relationships:

1) Be a naturally sweet person everyone loves and never fights with. Okay, this one is impossible for like, 90% of the earth's population so lets just move on.

 2) Do not introduce one group of friends to another. First off, this doesn't even work well in your home country. Different groups share different interests and bringing them all together can blow up in your face. Just because we all live in Japan, doesn't mean we came here for the same reasons.

3) Try not to majorly offend anyone. If someone is out on the hunt for your head, it will be harder to avoid them.

4) Don't assume that just because Tokyo is huge, you won't run into people you dislike. If someone was an ex-friend, they know your hunting grounds. They will run into you eventually. I recently ran into an ex-friend in my home subway. Turns out she just got a job teaching at a school RIGHT BEHIND MY APARTMENT.

5) Don't have a Facbook page, or at least don't update it with what you're doing or where you are. Stalkers will use it as a tool to track you down.

6) If you have a blog, don't get too detailed when talking about people. If you have an irritating friend, having them read through your blog that you dislike them won't make it easier to faze them out. You will just open up a big can of shit disturbing that you will have to deal with later.

7) Learn Japanese and just start hanging out with Japanese friends more. You will have the added bonus of more insight into a foreign culture as well as a much, much larger network where the six degrees no longer apply.

Those seven steps should help with the damage control in times of trouble. If all else fails, I hear teaching English in Korea's quite profitable these days. Maybe you should consider moving there?

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