Pigeonholes and drawers

A table at Starbucks

It’s always a pain in the neck to snatch a table at Starbucks in the center of Osaka, especially in the afternoons. I usually hate it to stand around and wait for someone to get up because I don't like making others feel uncomfortable. But when I’m carrying my heavy laptop and my gym bag with me, like I was on that day, I’m especially eager to find a spot, so I can finally sit down to write and use Starbucks’ wifi. Like a scavenger bird that orbits its victim, I started scanning the place for a potential “leaver”, and voila, two minutes later I had a table.   

I was working on my next blog post when I noticed an old man also looking for a table, just like me 20 minutes ago. While I prefer the scavenger bird tactic he pulled off a wolf walk, going up and down the same spot. As I occupied a table for two and felt bad for the old man, I told him he could share the table with me. Deep down I knew it’s not the smartest thing to do if I wanted to work on a new post, as Japanese old men like to mix up a friendly gesture with … heaven knows what they mix it up with. He thanked me for the table, went to get his coffee and when he got back he ignored my relentless attempt to look busy and started a conversation with me. His English was not bad.

“Alright”, I thought, “Let’s let him talk.”

When he told me that he was retired now but that he used to work for a big Japanese company and lived abroad in various places I noticed how my mind started pigeonholing his comments and how I organized them in different drawers. 'He must be different than most other old Japanese men, who think that every foreigner in Japan is American or who find it rather boring or appalling when a woman has a real opinion. This guy has seen the world and must be open-minded, cosmopolitan, and liberal in his thoughts', is what I thought.

I know I was being judgmental but I couldn’t help creating an imaginary life around this person. It was like pulling up a screen in my mind with a movie that showed segments of his life; the way I imagined them, at least.

The usual questions

Then he asked me a question. He wanted to know what I thought of Japan and because I thought I’m dealing with a man of the world I assumed he would be genuinely interested in my opinion. I told him that I enjoyed my life here but that I wished that especially young Japanese people were more interested in politics and less apathetic towards things happening around them and around the world.

I was fairly satisfied with my answer and smiled at him with the expectation of having engaged him in an interesting debate.

He looked at me and asked: “What are you interested in?” And before I could answer he continued with a bored grin on his face “… In shopping?”

(Creased forehead!) I couldn’t quite understand. My imaginary movie of him stopped, skipped and stopped again, like it was damaged or had a scratch or something.

I had this specific picture of him and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that, and so I just turned a deaf ear on his comment.

He asked what brought me to Japan and when I mentioned that I was married, he wanted to know what my husband was doing. His reaction to my answer - obviously disappointed it didn’t include doctor, lawyer or any type of engineer - sparked some doubt again about my original idea of him.

The topic switched to his family and how his wife took care of the children because he had was mostly been away on business. Again my mind went off pigeonholing him: 'I’m sure he is an open-minded father and because he missed out so much he is surely trying to make up for it now, especially now that he is a grandfather.' My imaginary movie segments had kicked in again.

“Are you a housewife?”, he asked and it came from the bottom of his chauvinist heart. He truly believed that that’s the only thing women are meant to be: mothers and housewives.


Poof! My movie screen went into thin air.


Then I realized that throughout this whole time the two of us were talking to each other but didn't really have a conversation with each other. I was talking to a version of him I had made up in my mind and he was talking to a woman he wasn't really interested in getting to know. 

I had created an image of this old man before he had even sat down across from me and wanted that image to be desperately true. 'Serves me right'! Being judgmental and keep pigeonholing, and so on. 

I had to smile about my own foolish mind.

The image we have of ourselves and others

What he said next was the real kicker though!

“I’ve lived away from home for so long that I don’t quite fit into the Japanese society anymore. I look at things in a different way. I’m open-minded, you know!”

I almost fell off my chair and gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Uh huh!”


I guess we all live by the images we create: either the ones we create of ourselves or the ones we make up of others. Maybe the fact that our looks, backgrounds and stories encourage people around us to believe something about us somehow makes us pick up on those vibes and eventually we start believing their stories about us; that we are great, stupid, funny, arrogant, amazing or heaven knows what else.

This old man believed that he was a respected man of the world, open-minded and cosmopolitan. That’s exactly what I had thought of him, first time I looked at and talked to him. And no doubt, all the people he has met over the last five decades chose to believe that about him, too. So, I guess we all have contributed to the high image he carries of himself.

We do it all the time

I believe that this phenomenon happens more often than we think and Donald Trump is the best example for that.

It almost doesn’t matter, who the guy really is. Personally, I think that Trump thinks, expresses himself, and acts out like an angry child, can’t articulate himself in a sophisticated way, has never heard of self-reflection, needs a psychologist and can’t handle criticism. Because he is rich and a successful business man though there are quite a lot of people out in this world, who ignore these obvious points in his character and only believe what they choose to believe. Like I do (not when it comes to Donald Trump though!). Like we all do! 

We are geniuses at fooling ourselves. And the majority of us do it on a regular basis.

There is no real shame in that. It’s very hard not to pigeonhole and not to be judgmental. We are all human and we live in a complex world.

The real shame, I believe, lies in not catching oneself falling for those things, not questioning our thoughts, not even trying to look at people the way they are but rather putting our subjective glasses on.

I get it! It takes effort to take off those glasses. And I know that I’ll have mine on more often than is good for me.

Recently though I’ve had a couple of situations that are the base of this phenomenon described above and they really got me to think. I hope they’ll be my reminders for the future and help me more and more to see what’s really there instead of constantly looking at the world through rose-colored spectacles.