The Weekend Frog: “Wow, he isn’t a retard after all!”

Readdressing an age-old question: how does a visibly non-Japanese person deal with living in Japan?

Everyone in my office is bilingual to some extent, but the lingua franca is Japanese. When the three foreign employees use English in the office, people almost seem surprised at how good we are at it. Or, in the words of my boss, they seem to be thinking: “Wow, he isn’t a retard after all!”

But every day I have to go outside, into the Real Japan, where speaking English to a foreigner is a much more natural feeling. Hell, it’s practically a legal presumption now. I can tell you from personal experience that bureaucrats definitely treat you better when you speak to them in English. Even in our office, our Japanese clients are put at ease when they can practice their English on a foreign lawyer, but have the option to switch back into Japanese if the conversation starts getting difficult.

I occasionally poke around on mixi when I’m bored, and sometimes I enjoy slipping into the discussions in a group called 英語★できる人&勉強してる人 (“ENGLISH – People who know it and people who study it”). A high school-aged girl in Yokohama made a post a few weeks back along these lines:

I’m working part-time at a convenience store now, and I get quite a few foreign customers. I don’t know much English, but I’m wondering what I should say to them in English. Any ideas?

There were a bunch of replies, with varying degrees of appropriateness. I decided to slip in the Debito answer to this question at the bottom of the thread:

These are all good ideas. One thing you should watch out for, though, is that many foreign people in Japan want to speak Japanese. So if you see someone and immediately think “Oh, I’m going to speak English to them!” they might not appreciate it. Of course everyone has a different attitude, but there are such people out there.

Now I disagree with that suggestion. I remember poking through a book that advised people learning Japanese to “say you don’t speak English.” That’s an effective response, but it always struck me as extreme. Do I really have to lie to speak in Japanese with people on the street?

The Debito answer isn’t the right answer. The better example comes from Anthony Bianchi, the Brooklyn-born city councilman in Aichi Prefecture who we started talking about a few days ago. He likes who he is. As a result, people like who he is. He doesn’t need to file lawsuits to get his way: he can get himself elected.

In the Campbell hero archetype, this is called being the Master of Two Worlds. This is what you get when you blow up the Death Star, ride your horse into the sunset or accept surrender papers on a battleship in Tokyo Bay.

Now, I started writing this post as a bitchfest after a trip to Wendy’s came out like this:

ME: Bacon burger set.
EMPLOYEE [apparently a trainee]: Uh…. fo-a hee-uh o-a to go-o?
ME: [getting impatient] For here.
EMPLOYEE: [motions vaguely toward the set options part of the menu]
ME: Fries. Pepsi.
ME: (sigh) I want the small size, please.

The employee proceeded to ring up a small fries and small drink, but no burger. I didn’t want to make the situation any more difficult for him, so I paid my 200 yen, ate and left.

But in the end, there’s a comfort zone in Japan. It’s not enough to be Japanese or American… you have to be able to be both at once. And that’s something I’ll have to work on a bit. Maybe that kid just wanted to speak English; maybe he isn’t a retard after all.

14 thoughts on “The Weekend Frog: “Wow, he isn’t a retard after all!””

  1. A couple issues I want to bring up:

    1) The Wendy’s guy might have wiped his ass with the bacon that day and by not giving you the burger was trying to save his new foreign friend from contracting whatever butt diseases he was carrying. And in the end you saved unneeded calories and about 400 yen!

    2) I say the language issue goes both ways a little. People who insist on speaking bad English when the situation would be best served by Japanese are annoying. But the reverse is also true, I’m sure. There is also a grey area when one can’t tell how good one’s language skills are. When talking to Japanese people here in DC, I always default to English unless they either want to speak Japanese or can’t really understand.

    I wonder what it’s like in other countries? In places like Germany and Hong Kong, learning the local language is all but useless since everyone speaks English. If Japanese people actually all learned English perhaps the atmosphere would be more like those countries.

    Complicating matters, though, is that perhaps a majority of the eikaiwa teachers imported to teach English to the public actually want to learn Japanese very badly. That gives them a vested interest in keeping the locals ignorant so they can have a more authentic experience.

  2. Oddly enough, Wendy’s and sushi were what I had on my hanami today. On the question in the post, Japanese people do like to practice their English outside the classroom/ boardroom/ pisspoor Eikaiwa environment. I view it as being an occuptional hazard of being a gaijin in Japan – especially in low-contact service situations, such as fast-food places where a lot of your conversation is Japanified English (Katakanaglish? Seriously, I haven’t found a good term for it yet).

  3. Curzon: That attitude may work in some situations, but if you walk up to a cash register as if to order food, and then when the kid behind it speaks to you in English you start blankly ahead, your eyes focused on a point behind him as if he were not there, YOU might actually end up looking like the strange one.

    Adam: You’re seriously exaggerating how many people speak English in Hong Kong. You certainly can get around with just English if you want to, but if you were staying for an extended period of time you’ll be just as much of a moronic outsider without English as most places.

  4. MF: I was talking to people who feel its their right to go up and greet you at random in English. In the rare case when people confront me with English and my answer is required, my typical response is: 日本語分かりませんか?

  5. OK, so you don’t care for Debito’s tactics. Fair enough. But to quote Adamu, “It’s a little unfair to compare two men with vastly different careers and aims.”

  6. Joe: I’m confused — how is that the Debito answer?

    Don: That doesn’t relate in any way to this post; Joe is not comparing Debito’s career and aims with anyone else.

  7. Curzon:

    Didn’t you read this paragraph?

    “The Debito answer isn’t the right answer. The better example comes from Anthony Bianchi, the Brooklyn-born city councilman in Aichi Prefecture who we started talking about a few days ago. He likes who he is. As a result, people like who he is. He doesn’t need to file lawsuits to get his way: he can get himself elected.”

    How is that not a comparison?

  8. It’s a hard subject. There are fundamental problems with treating people differently based on how they look. Then again, so long as it makes sense, people will do it.

    Of course, there’s a big difference between saying “fo-a hee-uh o-a to go-o” and, say, police stopping random foreigners as they ride their bicycles around. (This actually happened to me and Curzon in the middle of Tokyo the other day. And he’s of noble blood, not a common ruffian!) Some discrimination is warranted by reality. Some isn’t.

    As an aside to Adamu, I was wandering around downtown Brussels at 7 AM on a Sunday about two years ago, and a car pulled over next to me and a bunch of young-looking guys started asking me for directions in French. I was completely thrown by that. Instead of being in a place where I knew the language but didn’t look like I should, I was in a place where I didn’t know the language but looked like I should!

  9. Yeah quite right Joe.. actually in Japan recent opinion suggests that English learners take more responsibility for their study rather than relying on the teacher to give all the answers…

    Also, The Education, Science and Technology Ministry, who recently organized the “English Forum 2006” held at the Pacifico Yokohama convention center, are keen to promote English throughout Japan…now that sounds cool.

  10. Sequel to this post:

    (I walk into McDonald’s and go to the register where an old lady is working)

    Lady: (frantically, to the girls working behind her) Oh no, I don’t speak English! Somebody help me!

    Me: Two McChickens to go, Grandma.

    Lady: …Oh.

    (Side note: The 100-yen McChicken is the bomb. Fo shizzle.)

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