The title of this post is “A Foreigner’s Impressions.” Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a foreigner in Japan, what it means to be a foreigner in the US, and how it differs.
I’ve mentioned before that I can speak, read, and write Japanese. I earned my JLPT Level 2 certification, the second highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) in 2008. This means I have attained a level of proficiency in the language that is rather advanced, though not native. And yet, there are many things with which I struggle in my everyday life in Japan.
Some of it is merely cultural–not knowing exactly how polite to be with new friends or with children; in this case, I have to pick up from cues from others.
Some of it is just me–I’m not particularly good about cars, for example, and I had trouble understanding what had happened when my fan belt broke several months ago. (Although, once told, it wasn’t a problem to explain enough get it repaired.) The same thing when my toilet wouldn’t stop flushing itself–I couldn’t explain in Japanese or English what I was looking at inside of the tank, although I did fix it myself after a couple phone calls.
Some of it is specialized vocabulary. As with the toilet, my specialized vocabulary for cell phones, utilities, law, and economics is not so great. I have improved my cooking vocabulary by reading a lot of recipes, and I’m learning all sorts of interesting words about the landed classes and the military by reading BeruBara. Knowing the basic vocabulary for these words in your native tongue alone is challenging. Saute, steam, simmer, whip, dice–those are all words that people who don’t cook a lot might not know the exact meaning of in English. I don’t think a lot of people know the difference between most of the ranks in between Private and Admiral. Those are things we have to learn in our own language, too.
My Japanese is improving a lot with continued exposure to new words I learn at work and via my hobbies–and with study. I emphasize study because I feel like, oftentimes, we expats have a bad reputation for not wanting to learn the language and refusing to even try.
I was at a forum last weekend to discuss multiculturalism in my (very rural) region. Half of the participants were foreigners from all over the world who live near me, and the other half were (mostly) Japanese area residents who work on multicultural activities. I was representing the Support of Foreigners in [My Town] Committee. We brainstormed and discussed our role in the community and the current activities in which we participate to raise awareness about our cultures and our lives in Japan.
The thing that struck me the most at the forum was written by the group seated behind mine during brainstorming. In giant red letters, it read,
We want to learn Japanese!
Think about this for a moment. The forum was Japanese-only, so obviously all of us had learned Japanese well enough to participate.
We want to learn Japanese! It summed up so many of our feelings about living here.
Because of the way I look, many people assume that I can’t speak Japanese and are surprised when I do. I don’t mind that so much, as long as they don’t insist that I use the English menu or the English guide if I’ve told them the Japanese one is fine. But even at this level, I know that I am not fluent. I know that if I have a pamphlet for a Buddhist temple, I’m unlikely to understand the discussion the foundation of that sect of Buddhism because I lack the specialized Japanese vocabulary related to religious discussion. I also know that it was much easier to ask my boss to help me with my taxes than to do it alone.
With this in mind: I don’t like to discuss my work on this blog, but suffice it to say that a large part of my proposed projects and pet projects have been both about outreach to the Japanese community AND the support of English-speaking foreigners in my prefecture. (I only speak English and Japanese, so there’s only so much I can do, regrettably.)
I feel like my efforts have helped somewhat. By far, the most rewarding part of my job is getting comments and emails saying that the articles I write on the prefectural English-language blog have helped someone. Whether it’s finding information in English about festivals or daily life; or translating and/or summarizing Japanese-only user manuals, town information, and telling people how to find and ask for things, it makes me happy that I got to help someone and perhaps slightly increased their quality of life abroad.
In the US, this is all very different. Sure, our oven- and printer manuals are actually printed in multiple languages, and my bank even had Spanish and French versions of the ATM menu. (My bank here has an English menu, but you can’t do transfers on the English menu, so it’s not the greatest for non-Japanese-speaking residents.) People living in the US have access to many multilingual things, but when it comes right down to it, the feeling is very often that if you can’t speak English, you should get out.
One of “those foreigners” myself, I cannot agree with this.
Think about it. If you had just moved to the US and had a fairly good grasp of English, you, like I, would still need a little help. As you learned how to use an ATM, how to deal with your cell phone, how to do your taxes, and, if possible, eventually register to vote, you, like I, might be confused by cell phone contracts, the “buy stamps” button on the ATM, the ridiculously bureaucratic tax system, and the local election issues. As hard as you, like I, tried, there would be something you’d like to have bilingual versions of, or have someone explain to you in your native tongue while you’re still working on your second (or third) language skills.
Whenever I see an American making a big deal of English-only education, English-only signs, or English-only anything, it’s like being slapped in the face. My friends and I are working so hard to learn Japanese–some of them are English teachers with no background in the language prior to moving here–and the Americans among us have to listen to our own country rant and rave about “those foreigners” who can’t speak the language when we are struggling to make a life here.
In Japan, we at least have the benefit of not being expected to speak Japanese, but at the same time, we are often discriminated against for the exact same reason. I’ve been hung up on before when I tried to phone in a hostel reservation and gave them my very obviously foreign name. I’ve listened to people talk about me while standing next to me because they assume I can’t understand them. There is a huge difference between “Would you like this map in English?” said with a smile and “I don’t speak English, get out of my store and try the police box”–said to me when I was trying to ask for directions to a major landmark. That conversation, I might add, took place IN JAPANESE, not English.
This doesn’t happen to me terribly often, but it does happen. Thankfully, most people I meet are very nice about helping the foreigner, and they even try to throw in a little English when giving me directions just to make sure I understand. (I’m pretty clear on 左側 and 右側, but it’s the thought that counts.) The police at the police box next to that store with the rude owner were very kind to me, and we were able to have a conversation in Japanese about how to get to the station from there without anyone being nasty or even looking at me funny.*
Before anyone bemoans my situation, there is discrimination on both sides, it just manifests differently.
I know Americans have a reputation of thinking we don’t need to try and learn at least a little of a foreign language while vacationing or living abroad because everyone “should” just speak English to us. I have met some of those people. The fact that they also tend to think everyone else should do all the work and speak perfect English in the US makes absolutely no sense.
My message as a foreigner living abroad is that, even though I work hard to make sure that there are English-language materials available for the native English-speakers in my area, my friends and I are trying as hard as we can to fit in and learn the language. We know that learning Japanese, or English or whatever the most-used language in a country is, opens up so many doors and opportunities, and we want access.
I’ll say it again: We WANT to learn. We want to be able to understand the ingredient lists in our over-the-counter medicine. We want to be able to understand the procedures our doctor plans to perform on us without relying on a dictionary. We want to be able to ask if there are allergens in our food. The road to fluency in a foreign language is long and it is not easy. No one knows that better than we do.
So, before you or someone you know complains about bilingual helplines or ATMs or how the foreigners need to learn some goddamn English, I hope you think about me and my experiences living by myself in rural Japan. I hope you think about how hard I’ve been working to make sure my fellow Americans and fellow English-speakers can live healthy and productive lives in my community. Language barriers are some of the hardest barriers to break down. I still struggle with them myself, despite my fancy 2級 certification and my nearly seven years of Japanese study, which includes a graduate degree.
If we do not all work together in whatever capacities we can, whether it’s learning the target language or helping the non-fluent, we are not only hindering ourselves but our communities.
Give us a chance.
*Of course, the vast majority of Japanese people have had at least enough instruction in English to say left, right, go straight, hello, goodbye, and thank you. (Of course, if you don’t speak English well yourself, that doesn’t help.)