Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bebe and Me: Marking the Foreign in Persona 3

                “Blond hair, blue eyes, long nose, white skin.” I could be describing a lot of things here, from the rare Albino Sasquatch to Hitler’s dream date (I would say blind date, but, you know). As it turns out, I’m actually going to be describing two things: Persona 3’s Bebe (Short for "Andre Roland Jean Gerard, somehow) and Japan’s platonic ideal of the foreigner.
                I played Persona 3 in Japanese because I didn’t spend a decade studying the damn language just to play my video games in translation. Call it my personal form of snobbery ("Thou hast conquered, O pale Kojevian), my dirty little hipsterism. One of the guilty pleasures of the bilingual.
               Anyway, I remember seeing Bebe appear on the screen for the first time. His words scrolled out into the text box, a mix of kanji and katakana.
Www...What language is this?
                Japanese textbooks usually describe katakana as being used for foreign words (コンピュータ for “computer”), but it is also used for foreign speakers - Europeans, robots, demons, and others who may have trouble with the language. It may seem a meaningless distinction if you don’t read Japanese, but there is a world of difference between 「私の名前はand「私ノ名前ハ.
                I suppose this usage was originally intended to represent non-native accents, but it also serves a highlighting function. This person is not one of us, this person is different. It marks Bebe off as foreign, perhaps even more so than his physical features. After all, even Sailor Moon has blond hair and blue eyes.
                Bebe doesn’t just speak in katakana, he also uses obsolete, overly formal language. Archaic words from the middle ages, as inappropriate to modern Japanese as “thee” and “camelopard” are to modern English. The overall effect of  Bebe’s speech resembles nothing so much as a robot samurai, with his degozarus, sesshas, and all of that damn katakana.
                And oh, the kimonos. Bebe is a “good” foreigner, obsessed with the clean, refined parts of Japanese culture. Japan sparkled in his eyes, even though I was the only student willing to attend his club meetings. He was determined to live and die in Japan, despite only having one friend in the entire country. 
In this scene, Bebe reveals that he has Japanese Stockholm Syndrome
(Tokyo Syndrome?)
                I hated everything Bebe stood for. The assumption that foreigners are incapable of “really” learning Japanese. The assumed image of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned foreigner that I failed to live up to. The way that Bebe fawned over kimonos and red bean pastries while clutching a paper fan. 

                Now obviously, I wouldn’t have played this damn game in Japanese if I wasn’t a bit of a Japanophile myself. But I’m not a Bebe. I speak rapid-fire Japanese in a dirty Osaka accent. I’ll take a beer garden over a tea ceremony any day. My Japan isn’t kimonos and samurai, it’s cosplay and a dark, loud club filled with screaming otaku.

                In the big picture of racism and xenophobia and so on, the stereotypes Bebe represents aren’t that bad. Hell, most of them are downright complimentary (the “long nose” is more often an object of envy than mockery). The discrimination and stereotyping I was subjected to in Japan was less severe than what I experienced in the American South, and I was born there. But the Bebes of Japanese media still make me uncomfortable because they are the arbitrary standard I am held against.

                But for some reason, I really liked Bebe. I only understood maybe half of the things he said (I speak Japanese, not Robot Samurai-ese), but I liked him. He was sincere and motivated, and in need of a friend who believed in him. And if I wasn’t going to put up with his fumbling efforts to learn the language, who would?

                The Persona games (well, at least 3&4) tell us to make bonds with other people, to add them to a list of selves we can slip on and off like masks. Bebe is a mask that I’m quite familiar with. The good foreigner, smiling and reassuring a worried boss that I like Japan, that I can use chopsticks, that they sell sushi in my hometown.

                I wonder - does Bebe think that he is the main character? Does he think Persona 3 is a coming-of-age drama about a young boy who goes to a mysterious, faraway land? Has he cast the leader of SEES in some minor role in the movie of his life?

                But no, Bebe and me are the minor characters, the spunky ethnic sidekicks in someone else’s story. A Japanese drama where we are but masks for others.

                I guess it’s kabuki?
Shine on, you crazy weeaboo

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