“Men in Black” came out in 1997. I was in Kumamoto, Japan then, and I took my son to see it.
The premise of the movie was that the main characters were immigration and naturalization officers of the intergalactic kind. They monitored the activities of beings who were visiting earth from outside the planet. Those beings though, were difficult for the average terrestrial to identify, because they looked and behaved the same as Earth people.
One scene in the film showed a large board with the faces of Sylvester Stallone and other well known individuals who were aliens living on earth. Other aliens were clerks at the corner store and other common folk.
My son was quite young then, probably in first grade, and after the film was over, I told him that I was an alien. He didn’t believe me, so I took out my alien registration card, the one my hosts so generously provided me with, and showed him where it said “alien registration.” He stared at me slack-jawed. It was so funny I laughed and told him that I was not really and alien, and that the word can have more meanings than just an extraterrestrial.
In the years immediately following my arrival in Japan in 1986, I was constantly made aware of my alienness. I was present in this country because of it. My alienness was a business, or at least part of one, where the owners used me to encourage people to learn English as a foreign language.
I moved on to a university which also used my foreignness, but this time as a form of credential with the national Education Ministry. Students could care less who their teachers were. I also found later that they had used my alienness as way to make financial savings by paying me less than my colleagues who were, by their standards, not aliens.
My alienness is no longer an issue for me, though it is for those around me, because I know I am excellent at what I do. My profession is not my alienness, though it had been for some time.
There was a time when I struggled to be as terrestrial as those who had legitimate claims to the title. I studied Japanese, learned what passes as “Japanese culture,” and fought in the streets and in the courts to have my alienness not matter. That struggle failed.
I am an alien, and as such, the system can treat me as it wishes.
So what was I to do about that? Return to a place where I was not an alien? Fly back to my home world? Very uninteresting and not helpful in the least. I complained to my father once in a phone call that “I didn’t fit in here.” His reply jerked the view finder to reveal the accurate perspective. “Well, you don’t fit in here, either.”
I could no more be “like” Japanese people than I could be “like” American people. We can no more be “like” someone who we are not than we can be anyone else. Possessing a common nationality does not make us any more like or unlike someone than do our names.
With that new perspective in mind, what was I to do? It gave me a new place to look more rationally on my circumstances. I could look at where I might want to be and consider it as a possible next destination. As it turned out, I decided that I and my small family were right where we should be.
The bigger question this raises then is, so what do we know? What do we know about where we are, and does that knowledge make us any more than aliens?
I don’t think so.
I remember what it is like to be a terrestrial, to know that I was not an alien. I knew all the roads, all the seasons, much about the woods. I knew the guys who hung out in front of the stores downtown and their personal ticks. I knew where to get good cheesecake and a joint if I wanted it.
My alien registration card even has that place’s name written on it, as it does other irrelevant information like my place of birth. Those places are no more relevant to my life now than the places my parents inhabited when they were teens.
And even though I have resided in the area that I presently do, am I a local? Hardly. People still ask me if I have eaten sushi or if I eat natto based on my race, my appearance, my skin color, facial features, and blue eyes. I am most happy that they do not try to kill me in reaction to my physical features.
What does a local here know? Any number of people, where to find food, water, where to go to get laid, and how to get from point A to point B. I know those things and infinitely more, but I do not now, nor will I ever know enough.
That’s what it’s all about though, isn’t it, the plots to movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It’s about what we don’t know. The people who live just meters away from us could just be not like us. Of course they aren’t like us, but I mean really not like us.
I used to listen to my parents talk as I lay awake in bed, and imagine that the language they were speaking was not of this Earth. It was easy to do. Easy to make up the story that they weren’t really my parents. I have been afraid of aliens for some time. Little knowing that, as it always turns out, we are what we most fear.
We don’t know anything, really. We tell ourselves that we do, that we know the sun will come up tomorrow, that the letter carrier will come around 4:30, that milk is good for us, but we know nothing.
And in that nothingness comes our liberation.
When I lived in Kumamoto, I became interested in Buddhism. I read widely, visited a temple some miles away frequently, and even dabbled in the organized religion. That experiment sent me spinning away from Buddhism like a top that strikes an obstacle.
However, as time moves on, my ideas about alienness overlap with the teachings of Buddhism, especially with the teachings of Shynryu Suzuki as presented in the small book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In it, Suzuki Roshi talks about “beginner’s mind,” or “shoshin” “初心” in Japanese.
The essence of the concept is that, though we practice something or just go about our lives day to day, it is a good thing to live or practice as if this was our first day, or first practice. Without preconceptions, without knowing, without believing.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”
My alien mind is the same. I know nothing, because I can know nothing. My mind is open, because I don’t have the dualistic expectation that there is someplace that I do know but I am just in a place that I do not know at this moment. How could that be true?
I also think that the terrestrial mind is the wellspring of territorial conflict. “This is mine. I am a native of this place. I have always been here, and so have my ancestors, which makes all others aliens. This gives me legitimate claim to this place.”
Another version of this conflict happens in Japan when the Japanese wish to claim something as their own by right of origin, but also want people to desire it. For example, sushi. Japan sends their sushi police out around the world to try and maintain the purity of sushi. Sorry, it now belongs to the world and is no longer under Japanese purvey.
My conclusion is that, though I have struggled to be terrestrial, to try and lay claim to my right to belongingness by squirreling away knowledge as a kind of currency with which to buy my way in, I have failed in an endeavor that was mistaken from the start. I belong here as much as I do anywhere simply by my presence. So do you.
Live long and prosper.