Perception and prejudice

Edit: (11/27/12) I’ve written a follow-up to this post. Please check it out!

The title of this blog is “A gaijin [foreigner] in Japan,” and obviously being a foreigner is a major determining factor in my experience here. In some ways, though, it’s actually pretty different from what people led me to expect before I came.

Upon learning that I was coming to Japan, many people in the U.S. told me that the Japanese were just infatuated with white foreigners. There was often an implication that Japanese people would be grateful that people who looked like me were visiting their country. I vividly remember meeting a fellow American at a Japanese conversation table who told me that any effort at speaking the language, however mangled, would elicit an effusive response from the average Japanese listener.

Not true! And why should it be? I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to expect someone residing in your country to have at least some knowledge of your language. Can you imagine an American praising a foreign tourist for forcing out an accented or mispronounced version of “Where is the bathroom”? I think it betrays a certain arrogance on the part of foreigners here to imagine that their tiny efforts at the native language are really that appreciated.

I was told in the months leading up to my arrival that people would stare and even comment on my height and coloring. Nope. Yes, because of my appearance I stick out here, but the Japanese generally don’t behave in a way that accentuates that difference. This includes their treatment of my language ability: cashiers and servers speak to me and my foreign friends at normal speed and volume. (I mention volume because I keep thinking of the stereotypical Hawaiian-shirted American tourist speaking in very slow, exaggerated English to a local.)

So I guess my experience a few days ago stuck out to me because of this backdrop of a general lack of articulated prejudice. I was walking home from my train station and I passed a group of high school kids taking up the whole sidewalk. When one of the boys realized he was in my way, he said “Oh — sorry” in English as he moved aside, and laughed with his friends at his little witticism as I passed.

I felt really bothered at first. This kid had engaged in special behavior upon seeing the color of my skin: I’d been treated differently according to what I looked like. The use of my native language by a non-speaker felt mocking. Why should he assume that I didn’t understand the word for “Excuse me” in Japanese?

Then I worried that I was overreacting. After all, although he’d made a funny by switching languages, it was in the context of a politeness. Maybe I was just irritated that I’d been made the butt of a joke by someone younger than myself!

Still, I think it was insensitive for this stranger to treat me the way he did. I’m thinking again of an American analogy: most of us know that it would be bad form to say “Gracias” to a Latino/a upon completing a transaction, for example.

I think linguistic standards are in place to help keep society in order. All of us, foreigners and natives, use the “official” language (actually, de facto: Japan doesn’t have an official language. Interesting!) because it’s the proper thing to do. Code-switching (switching to another language, dialect, accent, etc.) like what this high-school boy did is powerful because it makes a statement about the individuals involved. And when we start to make such statements about strangers, that can disrupt the harmony and order of public life.

Linguistic and cultural diversity are great, and I don’t agree with ideologies like theEnglish-only movement of a few years ago. When I’m with other foreigners here, for example, I speak English, and I think the right to use one’s native language is essential everywhere. But I also think it’s my responsibility to pursue basic linguistic competence in order to function in the society I’m currently a part of, and what this high school boy did was tantamount to a refusal of that effort at integration.

I guess I’m saying that living in such a diverse modern world is a major challenge. We have to understand and celebrate our differences while at the same time preserving standards for interaction at the public level. Living as a foreigner has really crystallized that opinion for me.

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5 responses to “Perception and prejudice

  1. Very interesting. America has no official language either, I’m quite sure. I can’t wait to go to Japan one day!

  2. OK, I see your point. But is it rude, as you say, to say “Gracias” to a Latino/a? If they were speaking Spanish to the Spanish-speaking customer ahead of you? If it’s in Olvera Street, is that different than if it’s in, say Pasadena? I’d like to discuss this blog further!

  3. I guess language is a shared cultural experience, and if you’re not a native speaker but you try to use someone’s native language anyway, you run the risk of being presumptuous. The person’s gut reaction could be “What gives you the right to use *my* language?” We often don’t realize how much language is a part of someone’s identity.

  4. interesting take on speaking to people in their language – I have a good time in my usual Mexican restaurant ordering in Spanish and in all my travels in France (outside of Paris where everyone’s sort of stressed) I find people more than happy to practice their bad English while I try my bad French – maybe that’s a European thing – I’ve been in a mixed group of Italians, Germans and English speakers, and everyone uses a bit of all of those languages – no one is insulted in Europe if you use their language, as long as you aren’t mocking them or something – though I’ve heard of Parisians telling a French-Canadian or a French-speaking Swiss to use English because they can’t understand their funny French, LOL..

    Another perspective – sometimes people are afraid to speak your language and if the HS kids made a joke out of saying something in English to you, it might just have been the humor of “hey! I finally got to say something in English to an American!” I’ve had French people tell me they were afraid to try to speak English until they heard me trying to speak French and were less embarrassed to try – I try to make a fun game out of it and it makes people smile..

  5. Pingback: English and perception: a new perspective | A gaijin in Japan

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