Thursday, May 15, 2014

a good look

On the bus the other day I was sitting in the back near a small group of Australian tourists, and I eavesdropped as they chatted about their shopping exploits and temple visits. They were in high spirits, gabbing away and laughing loudly. 

My first impulse was to turn to the Japanese woman on my other side and apologize for them. I'm sorry -- they don't know how loud they are. On a Japanese bus, all is civilized and quiet: personal space is carefully demarcated, and conversations are discreet. In this setting, loud foreigners seem positively barbaric. 

I didn't want to be implicated by association. So I did that annoying thing that ex-pats do here to show they're not tourists: I avoided looking at my fellow foreigners, definitely did not smile, and waited for an opportunity to say something clever to my seat-mate in Japanese.

Then I realized what was happening. I was seeing myself reflected in them -- their English, their flushed faces, their gratuitous body language, in a way that I never see myself reflected in Japanese people. It was startling to recognize myself so suddenly, like looking into a mirror when I was expecting a window. 

This may be the most disconcerting thing about being a gaijin, there is a clear line between inside and outside, and an irreconcilable tension between wanting to be unremarkable on the one hand, but visible and recognizable on the other hand. 

Donald Richie sums up the feeling in The Inland Sea, "Like all Americans, like all romantics, I want to be loved -- somehow -- for my precious self alone."

I decided to let the Australians go ahead and be rowdy on the bus and enjoy their vacation, let the stereotypes go unchallenged. 

But it stuck with me the rest of the day: who is this self that needs reflecting? 


I spend so much time studying faces, reading the stories they hold, deciphering the light behind the mask.

When I paint, my concerns are purely about color and value and the quality of the brushstrokes -- rendering the marvel that is human skin, translating the planes of the features into a mosaic trompe l'oeil.

study for Amie, 8 x 10", oil on paper
When I'm done it's always somewhat of a surprise to see a person there. 

I study my own face too, sometimes with bemusement, sometimes with cool apprehension. As with my art, I am eager to know what others see, at the same time that I feel embarrassingly exposed. What makes a good painting? What makes a face open, like an invitation?

When I go looking for mirrors, I get windows.


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