Travelling in Japan and Asia, where Westerners are a novelty

Could Ben Groundwater been Japan's new Mr Sparkle? It's possible.

Could Ben Groundwater been Japan's new Mr Sparkle? It's possible.

I'm big in Japan. Or at least, I might be. I haven't been back in a while so it's hard to say. There is a chance, however, that I could be like Homer Simpson when he arrived there to discover his face appeared on the "Mr Sparkle" dishwashing detergent box. I could be huge.

See, I've been on TV in Japan. I don't know what was said about me or how I was portrayed – in fact I don't even know which channel or TV show I appeared on. But I'm fairly sure I made it to air. You don't have a film crew follow you around Tokyo for a few days for no reason.

You shouldn't, however, take this as boasting. I didn't do anything special to deserve my film crew or my moment of Asian stardom. I wasn't on camera for any better reason than the fact that I'm a Westerner who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

That place was a sushi-making class in the Tokyo suburb of Chiyoda, and I'd just finished making an absolute hash out of filleting a mackerel when a team of four local film-makers arrived and began setting up.

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As a Westerner, you can offer novelty value to film crews when travelling.

As a Westerner, you can offer novelty value to film crews when travelling.

My teacher explained that the crew worked for a lifestyle program on a local TV channel, and would like to film foreigners enjoying "activities" in their homeland.

Sure, I said. It sounded similar to most of the Japanese TV shows I'd watched: people humiliating themselves on camera for no apparent reason. I wouldn't be diving into an ice bath or being whacked with a rubber hammer, but I would be making a disastrous effort at creating sushi.

The team filmed for a few hours, capturing the moment I attempted to mould sushi rice into a perfect ball and ended up with thousands of grains of rice stuck to every single part of my fingers. They interviewed me afterwards too, displaying a bizarre fascination with "activities", asking which activities I had enjoyed most so far in Japan, and which activities I was looking forward to.

I mentioned a few plans – visiting a local restaurant, going to a tea garden – and the crew struck on an idea. Could they, if possible, if it wouldn't bother me too much, if I'd be happy to do it, film me partaking in these activities?

And so it was locked in: for the next couple of days a film crew from a Japanese lifestyle show would capture my every moment of cross-cultural embarrassment, and then interview me about it afterwards.

Most Westerners, I would guess, have had a similar experience of unexpected stardom during their travels through Asia. We're different there. We're interesting. We've done nothing special and yet we're treated like celebrities.

I first experienced this in India, when I realised my Anglo features made me an object of curiosity. People asked me to pose for photos with their families. Men took selfies with me in big groups.

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As someone completely undeserving of this sort of attention, it can take a bit of getting used to. It feels weird. Some travellers, however, love it, and create entire careers around it.

I met a Canadian guy once, an average Joe from Toronto with no special skills, who had carved a living in Osaka out of being the face of an English language school. He didn't do any teaching. He didn't even mark any work. He just posed for the billboards and magazine advertisements and then showed up on orientation days so everyone could see the guy from the billboards and the magazine ads was there.

You meet travellers who have never even tried acting but suddenly find themselves as extras in Bollywood films, or with starring roles as the token Westerner on Chinese TV. There's even a name for these types in Hong Kong, "filth" "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong".

You get to be famous when you're different. You get to be successful when people unfairly believe that the fact you're a Westerner means you will possess some sort of skill or experience that others can learn from.

I was probably perfect for the film crew in Tokyo, with my basic knowledge of the local culture, my willingness to try new things, and my tendency to still get everything wrong and make a fool of myself. I ate food, and the crew filmed it. I wandered through a beautiful garden, and the crew filmed it. I drank tea, and the crew filmed it.

And then, finally, I had to leave to fly home, so I hailed a taxi – and the crew filmed it.

I'm pretty sure I'm big in Japan now.


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