2. And you give yourself away
I’m talking about class, of course. We can dress it up in words like ‘socio-economic group’ or ABC1s or whatever, but that’s what it basically boils down to. My parents were both teachers, her dad was a civil engineer, we both have post-graduate degrees and this fact is, to our families and immediate circle of acquaintances, nothing special. Dual-income, 2.4 children, nice house with a garden and foreign holidays on a fairly regular basis. We are quite definitely, smugly, appallingly, middle class. The mothers yelling at their kids in the supermarket are not.
By contrast Japan is often touted as an entirely middle-class society, which is demonstrable bollocks. At the height of the Occupy movement there was a trend for highlighting the relative salaries of Japanese CEOs and shop-floor workers in comparison to their US counterparts. While the greater parity is laudable, class isn’t just about money (though even if it is, there are actual numbers which cast Japan in a less benign light). I think class is, ultimately, about expectations; or if you want to be more critical about it, it’s about entitlement.
An ex-girlfriend (the one with the CD player, you remember) was the first of her family to go to university. That wasn’t why our relationship failed (in retrospect that was largely down to me being a bit of a dick), but it was another potential area for discord. In the final analysis we were just expecting different things from our lives; her family felt she’d achieved great things because she’d passed her A-Levels with flying colours, whereas by doing the same I’d merely achieved what was always expected of me. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it was doomed solely because of that, nor trying to belittle either her or her expectations (or indeed me and mine); at that point we’d both achieved exactly the same things with our lives, pretty much, and in a perfect world would have been able to have similar expectations about where we could go from there. Unfortunately this wasn’t that case, and all these background differences add up – ethnicity, culture, education, income, family background, even age; they all contribute to our senses of self and what we expect of our lives, and the more these differ between partners the more potential for discord there is within the relationship.
Potential is the key word here. It’s not definite – far from it. In fact a few differences are essential to keep any relationship interesting enough in the long term, but there’s a tipping point. If you’ve crossed two things off that list then you’ll be fine, but as the number of differences grows, so too the potential for incompatible expectations (it also helps if you don’t act like a dick).
I’ve seen a fair few relationships, and even more unhappily marriages, between foreigners and Japanese people fall down because of exactly this. Ethnicity and culture are the most obvious items on that list so they get all the immediate attention, but 9 times out of 10 if a relationship goes sour it’s because they didn’t recognise the class differences, and thus differences in expectations, between themselves until it was too late to do anything about it cleanly. And you’ll have noticed that ‘education,’ ‘income,’ and ‘family background’ are all really just proxies for ‘class’. If you’re a college educated, middle-class white boy and your girlfriend is a Japanese high-school dropout who hostesses on the side, well... I wish you the very best of luck but don’t hold out much hope, I’m afraid.
I should make it very clear that I don’t think such relationships are necessarily doomed, merely that the dice are loaded against them, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherently more worthy or laudable about the middle class than any other. Additionally, the only reason I’m using the ‘educated gaijin male, uneducated Japanese female’ example is that it’s the most common in my experience (other ill-fated relationship models are available). They both get so blinded by the immediate exoticism of their partner that the other compatibility checks they’d run almost automatically get overridden, and I’m sure we could all claim a few occasions when those checks have failed us completely even without all that cultural fog clouding the issue.
My wife is Japanese because I was single in Japan and statistics are a powerful force, but once you’ve stripped away race and culture our life experiences and goals share more points of similarity than difference. That was never a conscious calculation on the part of either of us, we just got very lucky. I will be eternally grateful for this, never more so than when another one of our friends seeks consolation for a break-up from an obviously unsuitable partner and then says something like, “You’re so lucky. I could never marry a foreigner, we’d just be too different.”