Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What to Speak

As I have lived in the US for over 25 years, I now dress like I'm from here. And because of this, wait staff at Japanese restaurants and other Japanese retailers often begin conversations with me in English. OK, so maybe it's because sometimes I am with my very white husband and not-very-Japanese-looking daughter. At any rate, I am a stickler for wanting to speak Japanese to a Japanese person unless we are in the company of non-Japanese speakers, so that has become a mission.

Here is the game I play: if they greet me in English, I answer in Japanese. This then will turn the rest of the conversation in Japanese. However, sometimes, they don't hear my response or think that I spoke English ( I will later blog about what people hear when they expect a specific language out of a person, no matter what) and continue to speak to me in English. If I have my daughter with me, I then will use her by speaking to her in Japanese very clearly. If two or three of these attempts fail, I just give up and act like I'm from here.

The hidden trick to the game: to know FOR SURE that they are indeed, Japanese. There are a lot of Koreans and Chinese folks who work in Japanese restaurants, and sometimes--yes, even for us--it gets confusing. Often, they have distinct enough accents that I can tell, but sometimes they speak a couple of Japanese phrases well enough that it throws me for a loop. I order items from the menu pronouncing the name of the dish precisely to see their reaction and if that does nothing, I once again give up and just stick to English. It gets all weird though if I realize half way through the conversation that s/he is Japanese.

The thing that is the oddest is at a Japanese book store. Now, I know FOR A FACT that they are all Japanese there--they kind of have to be to have the knowledge of the books and be able to look things up. Even then, sometimes I would go there, buy Japanese books or magazine, and they still speak to me in English. "Really? Why would you chose to speak to me in Japanese if I'm obviously going to read all of this?" I want to say. But instead, I answer them in Japanese.

This all sounds like a lot of work, but it actually isn't. It's all part of my routine and pretty effortless--AND makes me laugh a little. I suppose this stems from me trying to hold onto my nationality, and the words of my mother when I was leaving home which was, "don't forget where you come from. Don't lose the Japanese part of you." I was confused by this remark and was somewhat irritated that she would say that when all I wanted was to immerse myself in all things American, but as these things go, that stuck with me. I have made concerted efforts to try to hold onto my native tongue by reading and hearing it (through video and pod casts) even during periods of times when I didn't get to speak it for months at a time. I didn't want to be labeled when I visited and speak like a "returnee," (a term for someone who went abroad and returned) which is to jumble both languages and speak awkwardly. As I wanted to be totally fluent in English, I also wanted to remain fluent in Japanese, which is harder to do than you might think. So I force total strangers to join in my personal quest. Because sometimes, that's what it takes.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mimi -
    I love following your writing - as always. Just wanted to share that I have the same problem, but have an even harder time convincing people that I really truly am half Japanese ("yes, that is my mother...fine, ask her yourself"), and could potentially converse with them in Japanese...Except I have this problem in Japan too! I guess this is a heads up for what might be in store for Yuki!!

    Lots of love from the east coast...
    xo, Erika


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