If you're a foreigner in Japan (excepting those of Asian descent), you've been stared at. A lot.
You've probably even developed the ability to identify a certain look on the faces of some Japanese people. There's a flickering of the eyes as the wheels in their mind turn, a slight inclination of the head, and a nervous, involuntary twitching in the corners of the mouth, a fluttering movement in the lips. They're not just staring, they're working up the courage to talk to you.
When I'm not in a social mood, I catch myself hoping that they won't have to time to find ENOUGH courage before the train reaches my stop, or I finish my coffee, or whatever situation has flung us together ends... because it's almost always the same conversation. They'll ask "(Where) Are you from?" or "How long stay Japan?" and then it's on into chopstick, sushi, and samurai territory.
And keep in mind, I don't mean to make fun of anyone or imply that Japanese people can't speak English well. But I have noticed that in general, the Japanese people with the best English skills don't really tend to start random conversations with foreigners who cross their path. Maybe it's because they're internationally-minded enough to realize that we're not a big deal. In any case, it's usually the "Are you from?" crowd, and the older, less easily embarrassed people who end up speaking up.
Having been in Japan for over 5 years now, I'm not really that open to rehashing the same ground about who I am, where I come from, and what I can or cannot eat, just because people are curious. I think I've developed an aura that tends to discourage that curiosity where possible. But recently, I'm having to rethink a lot of that, because the circumstances of my life have changed.
Now, when I notice people staring at me, I can't always tell if it's because I'm a foreigner, or if it's because they recognize me from TV. The realization that this meant I was going to have change my attitude came about 3 months ago. We had just aired a segment where I went to a town called Shiroishi to learn how to harvest lotus root, and then taught the farmers how to make an Indian dish with it.
(You can actually watch that segment if you'd like, here! Sorry, it won't be subtitled.)
A few days later, at the supermarket, I got to a certain line at exactly the same time as a nervous-looking Japanese woman in her 40s. We both took a minute to try to defer to the other, non-verbally, gesturing with our hands: "You go ahead," "No, by all means, you." In the end, she had a full cart and I had two items, so I gave her a bow of gratitude and accepted.
But I could feel her behind me, hovering over my shoulder, standing a little too close and chewing her lip, building up the courage.
What she said, without prefacing it with a "hello," a "sumimasen," a "konnichiha," or a"Can you speak Japanese?" was "レンコン、観れなかった； I couldn't see the lotus root."
My first response was, "Oh. It's in the vegetable section, by the potatoes."
But she just laughed and clarified what she meant. She had seen the TV commercials for my show, and even marked it on her calendar so she could catch it. But on the day of, she got stuck in traffic, and could only catch the end, after my segment had already aired.
So we ended up talking about when I would be on next, and she was very friendly, and supportive, and said that she would be rooting for me to continue to succeed.
In the weeks and months that have followed, I've had a lot of similar conversations, and all started with a stare.
The funniest so far has been from a middle-aged man who saw me jogging past his business and hollered out 「おい、ボビー!家の店もテレビで宣伝しろ！」 or "Hey Bobby! You better introduce our place on your TV show too!" Most of the shows I do are food related, and we often go to restaurants and give them glowing reviews on TV, so when I go out to eat I hear that kind of thing a lot. "Next time you come, bring the cameras!" But when I stopped to wave back at this guy, I cracked up because his "place" was a fantastically filthy hole-in-the-wall, and it was an auto-repair garage.
But getting those kinds of reactions has really forced to me become a nicer kind of person. I have to be on my best behavior, because I never know who's watching.
Once my wife and I got home from an outing at the park in Fukuoka, and I had received a Tweet from someone I don't know. It said "Hey! You and your wife were at the Starbucks in Ohori Koen for about an hour, right? I was sitting right behind you, the whole time!"
That... is super creepy.
To avoid that kind of thing, and so I don't come off like a closed-off douchebag to potential fans, I'm enforcing a big change. When I see someone looking at me, I'm saying "Hi."
Here's hoping a general air of positivity and friendliness will be rewarding. Rewarding enough to justify the minor annoyance of "Are you from?"