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By NICK CURRIE

STAYING FOREIGN

THOSE OF US WHO REMAIN OUTSIDE A CULTURE CAN GAIN THE MOST FROM IT

Nick Currie has released about 20 records under the name Momus. He lives in Berlin, but spends several months each year in Japan.

SOMEWHERE IN HIS DIARY, Franz Kafka offers a cryptic thought. Happiness, he says, consists in having a goal, but not advancing towards it. As a “failed” pop star who finds failure increasingly interesting—perhaps even a blessing in disguise—I’m more convinced of that every day.

I suppose Kafka meant several things. That achieving one’s ambitions will only lead to disappointment. That the dream is better than the reality. That happiness is not a destination, but the journey itself. That perhaps happiness, as a static solid state, is unattainable. That happiness might consist in lowering one’s expectations and seeing one’s dreams, realistically, as dreams.

This might seem like a strangely negative philosophy for someone who’s lived in as many different places as I have; my trajectory from London to Paris to New York to Tokyo to Berlin seems, after all, to have been motivated by some utopian quest to find a place where people “think like me,” where “life is as it ought to be,” where I can find what Goethe called “elective affinities.”

Of all the places I’ve lived, Japan is where I feel those affinities most strongly. To list all the reasons why, I’d have to write a book. But I think one reason my relationship with Japan has been so good, and will last so long, is that I don’t expect to belong, I don’t expect to integrate, I don’t expect to merge with the beloved. We will hold each other at a distance, and that will be fine.

Paul Bowles, the American exile who spent most of his life in Tangier, Morocco, spoke a lot about the pleasures of being a foreigner. It’s something Roland Barthes celebrates too in his book about Japan, Empire of Signs. Bowles refused to learn Arabic, or rather learned it as slowly as was humanly possible. Barthes didn’t speak Japanese.

I’ve been in no hurry to learn Japanese either. My time in Japan has been spent in a haze of valuable disorientation; Japan for me has resembled art using the Russian formalist technique of ostranenie, or “making strange.” Here, sensual disorientation and overload are not distractions, but the whole point. It feels like being a baby all over again: I’m overwhelmed by a rush of unfamiliar textures, smells, sights, sounds, sensations. The verbal centers of my brain are bypassed, my senses work overtime. Combined with jet lag, it’s a heady, even druggy experience. Eating bizarre food, tingling in the electric water of a sento, getting an electronic foot massage, watching a kabuki play without understanding the plot...

Letting the other stay the other, staying other oneself...isn’t this a form of “Orientalism”? Well, possibly. But Orientalism is only a vice when it denigrates “the bad other,” the other whom we insist on reaching, teaching and reforming. When it celebrates “the good other,” respects and cherishes its otherness, Orientalism is a virtue.

It’s a commonplace of gaijin-lore that Japan is the world’s most hospitable and kind country while you’re clearly a foreigner or a guest, but becomes frosty if you make attempts to integrate. This is seen as a bad state of affairs; some long-term gaijin feel so rebuffed by their beloved nation that they turn against it, writing polemical books that assert that Japan is terminally flawed, or that the Japanese people are being oppressed and “betrayed” by their institutions. In fact the only “betrayal” such books reveal is their authors’ own sense that they’ve been let down.

If only these writers had remembered Kafka’s proverb about happiness!

I believe the paranoia the Japanese have always felt about foreigners, especially missionary foreigners, has been one of history’s more correct paranoias. Japan’s resistance to monotheistic missionaries (usually followed in the colonial history of the West by trading companies and government gunships) has been wise, its methods of “Japanizing” foreign influences admirable, its rejection of Platonic-style metaphysics invaluable. Japan is not racially pluralistic in the way many Western nations are, but if this is a Western virtue, it’s one with dubious origins in practices like slavery and imperialism. The official attitude to immigration in countries like France and Britain is increasingly set by the far right. “France, love her or leave her!” says Le Pen’s party, and the French state now requires second-generation immigrants to pledge an oath of allegiance to France, to pass history and language tests, and even to renounce the wearing of traditional garb. This is an “integration” far less respectful of “the otherness of the other” than Japan’s respectful distance. It’s an erasure of the idea of “the good other,” an integration verging on compulsory assimilation. Being a British or a French citizen these days means renouncing all the rights—and pleasures—of being, and staying, foreign.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the BBC World Service. Arafat had just died. A journalist asked a Palestinian, “Why was Arafat so respected by his people when he failed to achieve their goal, a Palestinian state?” The question seemed to answer itself. Arafat and the Palestinian people loved each other because identity is based on struggle, failure, the dream and the movement, not on success, arrival, reality and stasis. He pictured happiness—and failed to move toward it. M
Nick Currie has released about 20 records under the name Momus. He lives in Berlin, but spends several months each year in Japan.

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