I don’t understand Japanese people. Forgive the crude analogy, but studying the Japanese is like observing an exotic species in the wild. You can dedicate your whole life to understanding your subjects but eventually, inevitably, they will do something that surprises and confounds you. This revelation stems from an unfortunate falling out I had with a Japanese friend recently. This friend - we'll call her Yuko - and I have known each other for a little shy of two years now and things had been going swimmingly. We had a lot of similar tastes and I saw her as a very progressive, gaijin-friendly Japanese; very thoughtful, great sense of humor, boundless wit. I had known she had some experience abroad but the lingua franca for our friendship, it was generally understood, was Japanese rather than English. A few weeks ago, I sent Yuko a text message about putting some friends together for a drink over the weekend. Imagine my surprise and complete befuddlement when what came back was a large block of English text. I pored over her response which I had to admit was pretty well-worded for someone with limited English experience. I wasn't trying to make sense of the words. What perplexed me was: how do I respond? The more I pondered it, the more it came to light that nearly all of my Japanese friends and relationships, at some point or another, had brought up the idea of getting some English practice with me. It would be casually mentioned while watching an American movie, or injected strategically into a conversation about culture. Sometimes it was a friendly request, other times it felt more like a sinister ultimatum: Teach me English or we are no longer friends. Some even offered to pay me, the very idea of which made me feel dirty and used. I'm not an English teacher by trade - not anymore, anyway - and the majority of my Japanese friends know that I don't have the first clue about teaching any subject, especially English, which I have always just known in a way that I can't put into words or explain. Yet, there still persists this image in the Japanese psyche that one can simply absorb a second language by being engaged with people who speak it. What astounded me about Yuko was that she had never displayed even the slightest interest in learning or using English. I admired her because she managed to get along with foreigners in her native language, in a country so rife with those who want nothing to do with gaijin. Then comes this big paragraph from Yuko, in serviceable English, and it turned all my perceptions of her upside down. Immediately, the questions began rolling around in my head: Am I being used? Was this her goal the whole time? Is my Japanese somehow not good enough? It's my experience that people have a lot of pride in their chosen second language. Put two foreigners claiming to be Japanese-fluent in a room together and sparks will fly. I'm the same way. Whenever a Japanese person unexpectedly changes the language of the conversation from Japanese to English, I can't help but take it as a personal affront. I'm proud of what I've accomplished on my path to fluency and my Japanese relations at times seem painfully oblivious to the hard work and money I've sunk into learning their language. I thought long and hard about how to respond to Yuko. I didn't want to speak English with her. We had great conversations in Japanese already, and I felt that switching the language suddenly like that might change the whole dynamic of our relationship. I didn't want to give her the impression that her English wasn't good enough, but I didn't want English to become the new standard for our communications. I didn't want her, in the future, asking me questions about grammar I couldn't answer. I didn't want to go through the delicate process of deciding when to correct her English and when to let mistakes slide. Suddenly, I felt like our friendship was on the precipice of becoming a student/teacher relationship. I literally broke into cold sweats as I delicately punched out a message in English, to show some good faith: I'm sorry, but can we speak in Japanese together? I don't want to complicate our friendship. Wrong answer. The response was swift, concise, and icy: "Wakatta." Got it.
Feeling I may have presumed too much, I desperately tried to defend my position and stave conflict, but it was too late. A few short exchanges later, our friendship was pretty much finished.
The whole debacle got me to thinking about an ugly double standard foreigners in Japan often face: The Japanese we meet and interact with expect us to understand and adapt to their culture and way of life while also serving as an inexhaustible fountain of knowledge about our own culture, which they are apparently free to tap into whenever they please.
We are, in many ways, expected to fulfill the “Token Foreigner” role: acting foreign, speaking in foreign languages, and guiding the Japanese through the intricacies of interacting with foreigners – all the while carefully treading so as not to offend Japanese sensibilities.
In this pantheon of disparity, the expectation of foreigners I struggle most with is in the subject of language: Why am I expected to understand Japanese, while at the same time constantly acquiescing to requests to teach my language to the natives? When I object to speaking English with Japanese friends and acquaintances, I am often confronted with pleas of: “But, you can already speak Japanese!” and I wonder just how these people think I would have ever come this far in their language if I never insisted on speaking it day to day.
At the end of the day, language brings us together at the same time that is pushes us apart. We are fiercely proud of the languages we can speak well, and are constantly, desperately striving to attain the status of “fluency”. Language and culture are, unsurprisingly, inextricably linked. Isn't it about time we add language etiquette to our utility belt for interacting with others?
What do you think? Have you ever felt pressure from a Japanese friend to play teacher? Have you ever had a falling out over a cultural double standard? Let me know in the comments!© Japan Today