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Recurring Fear

Suddenly, from behind, I was struck hard.

“WHAT THE F*#@!” I yelled. Pain seared across my ear. I whirled around to face this man. My ear was ringing mightily.

“What the F$#% are you doing?” I demanded.

He began yelling at me, smiling, leering. He was with others, young men with cruel expressions. A crowd had stopped to watch. They stood silently, just watching. I didn’t like this. None of it. I didn’t understand what was going on. I had been hit. I didn’t know why. The man continued to yell. And he smirked. He leered. The scene was incomprehensible. I decided to walk away. I turned to go. I started walking.


“WHAT THE F*&%, YOU MOTHER%*&@!#,” I shouted.

He had hit me with an open-handed slap to the back of my head. Now he was taunting me, smiling maniacally, yelling. There were hundreds of people gathered around, starting with inscrutable faces. No one said a word.

– J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

I don’t know about other expats living in Japan and other parts of Asia, but this is a recurring fear for me. No, not being smacked upside the head by a crazy or racist native, but rather the feeling of helplessness that comes from being thrown into a potentially dangerous situation when you don’t speak the language well enough to defend yourself or escape.

Take the scenario from “I Just Didn’t Do It” and replace the confused Japanese businessman with an expat who’s barely been in Japan a few weeks. Now make the girl, the accuser, a little more malicious. What would happen?

You, a foreigner, are stepping off a crowded Tokyo train on your way to lunch. Suddenly a schoolgirl grabs your wrist, refuses to let go, and screams “CHIKAN!!”

You have no idea what that means, and are confused at what you seem to have done. The station staff arrest you, and you are promptly sent to jail for three years after being beaten and forced to sign a confession. Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe this is an unlikely scenario, in Japan of all places. But what about other countries? If someone falsely accuses you of a crime in the native tongue, how are you supposed to know what’s going on? How can you utter just the right words to at least give off the appearance of innocence?

Troost’s reaction is probably the best one – walk away. Frame your facial expressions not to appear angry, but confused at the accusation of this lunatic who likes to get foreigners into trouble. Violent behavior on your end will only make the situation much, much worse. Get out of there as soon as you can, because police or not, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to explain yourself as well as a native; you’re still learning the language, the customs, the law, the types of hatred that run too deep to reason.

Just look at what happened to a photographer in Korea

What would you do if thrown headfirst into a confrontation abroad and you didn’t speak the language?