Saturday, December 09, 2006

I Gotta Be Me

"sono koto wa arimasen"
The correct response for praise or when presenting a gift. Literally "not at all".

This was my submission to the writing blog Common Ties.

“What did you do this weekend?”
“Oh… eito… I go to my hometown to visit my family.”
“Ah, nice. What did you do there?”
“Oh, I see old friends, and my mother friend died… there was uh… uh… how do you say?”
“Funeral? The death ceremony? Do you know that word?”

I’m speaking to a scientist capable of teaching a university-level physics class. His IQ is higher than I can count in Japanese. He clearly has a sense of humor, and is well spoken. The problem? Right now, I am the senpai (mentor) and he the kohai (pupil). He may be a genius in his own country, but the language barrier between us has reduced him to the appearance of a stumbling simpleton.

There’s one quote from a popular cartoon that particularly sticks out in my mind; the main character and two deckhands are on a fishing boat, dumping the daily catch onto the wooden deck. Upon being “rewarded” with a fresh bag of Doritos in lieu of a bonus, he tells his friend in his native language: “In Portugal, I was a cardiologist.”

Who am I? I’m that cardiologist hauling smelly fish for my “superior”. Just one of the thousands of people who chose to live a portion of their lives abroad: teaching English, experiencing a different culture, seeing a new perspective. I have a degree in aerospace engineering. I can recite Shakespeare from memory. I have no problem singing Phantom of the Opera to make a lady friend swoon.

And yet… in this land, I am the simpleton, the outsider. I am the one pointing to pictures in restaurants to order to survive. I’m the one who needs assistance when dealing with any bureaucratic matters, or something unexpected that requires a native speaker. I may be a student of Japanese, but it takes time. I’m an illiterate, poorly spoken fool in the land of the rising sun.

It really makes one think about just how much we take for granted; in my hometown, I know every restaurant, every bank branch, every movie theatre. I can read the language. I can talk to random people if I so choose. In Japan, I am starting from scratch. My education? Gone; I can’t even tell others what I studied. My cultural references? Irrelevant; “24” may be big in Japan, but I prefer political satire. My sense of humor… it isn’t even understood, let alone appreciated; how can I use dry humor and sarcasm in an unknown language, assuming it even exists in the same form?

My transition into this cultural world was… rough, to say the least. Even considering that I was dealing with one of the safest and friendliest countries on the face of the Earth, I had certain expectations of myself. I didn’t want to be a gaijin (outsider), but rather my highest goal would have been to obtain the status of a henna gaijin (outsider who doesn’t behave like an outsider).

I can hardly blame the people I come into contact with to refer to me as “gaijin”. Even after living here for many months, I know what I sound like: “I’ll take this… this one, please… where is the toilet…. do you speak English… I speak a little Japanese.”

It just goes to show I’m in a very tolerant country, with very tolerant people. If I were a native French speaker in America and tried to survive in the same manner in which I’m living in Japan, I guarantee there would be yelling: “Learn the language! Go back home! What? What? Speak English!” But this country is very English-friendly, both a blessing and a curse; without the ridicule and uncomfortable silence associated with dealing with a true gaikokujin, there’s little motivation; I can point to my food, I can speak the names of the destinations on the train, and no one gives me a hard time for my poor pronunciation and grammar.

I’m finding myself feeling much more empathetic to the few Spanish speakers I had encountered during my time in Texas. As a people, as part of humanity, instead of being superficial, we might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and office workers, people perfectly capable of being eloquent. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence. “You can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you”: an assumption so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.

This feeling can be stifling at times. Even when you’re not talking to random people in your own country, they leave a mark on you, consciously or not. You know you can talk to them for emergencies; even that small window gives you comfort amongst a sea of people. It’s something I don’t have here. I want to express myself. I want to be the one with Japanese friends seeing me for who I truly am, instead of merely a token foreigner who “speaks a little Japanese.” In the end, everything comes down to words: the feeling behind them, the power of others listening to or reading them, and the personality of the writer shining through them.

It is I. Can you see me…? Can you hear me? Do you know what kind of person I am? You’re one step ahead of the 125 million people around me. Let’s all keep trying.


Raphael Lehmann said...

Great post. You speak out of my heart, even if it was only in a French-speaking country. I'd better learn Japanese really well before boarding that plane.
Vice versa, I can't help noticing it's all to easy to simply (involuntarily) brush aside non-native speakers before I get a chance to get to know them, hidden behind their foreigner "disabilities". In fact, I found it takes much longer to become friends even if they do speak excellent German.

Mari said...

Good article, although I suggest learning some kanji. I'm not fluent in Japanese yet but I can read a solid 200 kanji (after studying for two months). When you get the ball rolling it's not as tough as you think. Good luck! -- Mari