January 31, 2009 in You Might Be a Foreigner in Japan If ...
… a small part of you dies each time you’re confronted with squat toilets in a public bathroom.
Two weeks ago, I went to the bakery outside my Friday school for my usual chocolate croissant and ordered my pastry in Japanese. On that particular day, however, the girl at the counter ignored the fact that I’d already told her what I wanted and asked me in English, “What would you like?” I repeated my order in Japanese. She asked me, in English, “Take out?” “Take out,” I replied, in Japanese. “120 yen,” she said, in English.
“Thank you,” I said in Japanese, adding: “… but I don’t speak English.”
“I don’t speak English,” has become my go-to response lately, when I’m making the effort to speak Japanese and get English in return. I got the idea from Bob, who has long employed this strategy of discouraging random people who are eager to use him to practice their English. My issue with the woman at the counter wasn’t so much about being used for practice; as someone thirsty to speak even a bit of Spanish or Italian in Japan, I understand the urge. For me, it’s partly about the fact that being spoken to in English makes me insecure about my Japanese skills. In larger part, it’s also due to annoyance at the assumption that all foreigners speak English. Yes, English is fast-becoming the global language so it’s a good bet that someone with a face like mine might speak it – as I obviously do – but what if I didn’t? Besides, the assumption isn’t that Europeans are shrewd enough to capitalize on the global trends. The assumption that we all speak English comes from the same place as the outmoded English word “Chinaman” to signify anyone who comes from Asia. As a result, when my Japanese efforts are ignored these days, I’m no longer a native English speaker.
“Where do you come from?” asked the woman at the counter, in English.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak English,” I repeated in Japanese.
“Where do you come from?” she asked me, finally, in Japanese.
“Italy,” I said. It’s true enough; I just got dual citizenship.
“Ah so so so …” she said. “Here is your croissant.”
“Thank you.” I said. We were, at last, both speaking the same language. I left the shop smug; maybe the girl at the counter had learned something that day.
Today I went back to the pastry shop for my Friday chocolate croissant. When the girl said, ”Buon Giorno!” to me I was surprised; not because she remembered where I was “from” … but because I hadn’t recognized her until that instant.
Note: Today, I ventured to Nara prefecture to do some research for a “Day Trips” feature I’m writing for a travel magazine. So as not to scoop myself, I will only reveal that this involved being served some complimentary sake. I wrote this on the train coming back to Osaka. It is, obviously, part of the day’s experience that will not make it to my editor.
It’s 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon and I’m slumped in my train seat, trying to figure out why I’m drunk. The shopkeeper only gave me two tiny cups of richly perfumed sake so even weak little ol’ me shouldn’t be this fazed. And yet, here I am: barely able to focus on my notebook and snickering to myself. I half wonder if my euphoria stems mainly from the shopkeeper’s compliments on my Japanese. I had been nervous about combining the “temiru” form with “temoii” when attempting to ask, “Is it okay if I try some sake?” but, apparently, I must have done something right because she said, “Of course,” and led me to the vat. Then again, I’ve been told that the moment the Japanese stop complimenting your language skills is the moment you know you’re actually speaking correctly. Whatever. She got it. And I got the liquor.
We’re a few stops away from Ikoma station now and I remember the uneaten bento in my bag. Oh, well, there we go. I was so nervous about messing up my editor’s directions that I forgot to eat it. Mystery of the Lightweight Drunk solved. There’s nikujaga and mushroom rice inside, deliciously homemade by ME and I want it. It makes sense to pry the lid off of the meat and potatoes to pluck an earthy morsel out with my fingers, not my chopsticks. When I eat the potato I taste something foul. Where have my hands been? I really can’t say for sure.
Hic. Hic. The sky is clear, cold and bright. We’re whizzing past white concrete homes with vibrant blue crane-feather tiles and 20 potted plants out front to create a garden. There’s a baby in the stroller next to me playing with her striped socks and a couple of grandmothers across from me wearing kimono. Hic. Hic. I’m feeling dithery, free and, today, at this moment, hopelessly in love with Japan.
… so today, in my class of 2 year-olds, Masa was captivated by my purple nail polish, 1 and a half year-old Minna led me by the hand to the classroom, and Mia kicked off everyone’s new favorite game: “Stand Behind Liv.” Somehow, though, the January 23, 2009 moment I will remember most vividly is the moment Kazuya plowed his mouth onto my left udder when I held up the flash card for “cow.” Guess I’m funny that way.
Questions for Discussion:
You may work in pairs.
Still in the afterglow of President Obama’s Inauguration, I spent the afternoon window shopping in Osaka yesterday. Walking through Kinokuniya – one of Japan’s largest bookstore chains – I paused by the DVD section to enjoy the clips of Obama’s Inauguration Day speech that was playing on loop. Beautiful, baby; beautiful. Did I feel the need to linger even more to firmly declare to anyone who might see me that I was in the “Yes, We Can!” camp? Maybe. Maybe not; his speech was truly wonderful and I’ll watch it as many times as I can.
Further down the store, I came across what is apparently Kinokuniya’s Obama section.
Obama paraphernalia comes complete with a Japanese man browsing books in the background.
Among biographies and news magazines, this is, of course, also available at Kinokuniya’s Obama section:
According to Japanese news sites, some Japanese people think Obama’s speeches may help them learn English. This book definitely oughta help. The Japanese translation of the title equates to, “Goodnight, O honorable Sir moon.” I took it the picture quickly with my lousy phone camera so I didn’t read the special advertisement on the book sleeve at the time and can’t read it now due to, uh, the photo quality. Yes. Really. Darn photo quality.
A lot of visitors to Japan notice that some Japanese people like to stare at foreigners. Yes, yes, we get it; our features are different, they just don’t get people who look like us around these parts very often, we look like Hollywood actors come to life, and me – Liv – I’m the most beautiful person in the train car. Fine. We get it. We’re different. If someone with three heads or a baby named Suri walked into the room, heads would turn in America, too. Nonetheless … blatant staring? For minutes at a stretch? Is it ever cool to stare at a human being like they’re a zoo creature, regardless of what innocent reasons are behind it?
But I digress. Different people have different reactions to getting stares in Japan. Bob takes a gentle approach to confrontation, calmly asking the starer in perfect Japanese if there’s something on his face. Sean takes a more instinctive tack and explodes into a rage. My co-worker Sabrina likes to point back. Me? I just feel guilty … because as annoying as it can be to get stared at, I do a fair amount of people watching myself. Now before you get all, “Oh, now who’s the racist??”, bear in mind that it’s not about race for me. No. It’s almost always all about the clothes.
Fashion is a constant frustration for me in Japan. Clothes cut for Japanese figures don’t fit my lady lumps properly and yet, they are oh-so-cute. As I should be studying verbs, my eyes drift up to the outfits on the train. That gal over there has paired red pumps with black tights and black micro shorts. She’s wearing a mustard yellow baby doll smock and thrown a royal blue faux fur shrug over the entire thing. She looks amazing and, oh, dear me, I could never wear that. Or could I? Surely I can pull off electric blue. But a smock? No. I can’t. I musn’t … oh stop. Oh yes! Oh no. Oh yes …!
Then my eyes drift down on a train ride to my female companions’ shoes. Here is a pair of navy blue patent leather Mary Janes with stretchy straps and a matte stacked conical heel. Over there is a sumptuous pair of dove gray slouchy leather flat-heeled boots. Further down the car is a pair of olive green suede wedges. Shoes in Japan are some of the most exquisite I’ve ever seen and while the clothes may not fit me, the shoes absolutely do so every chance I get, I’m looking to my sistas for inspiration. She’s wearing striped knee socks with red pumps and a purple A-line micro dress. She’s in a Strawberry Shortcake hat. She’s wearing a kimono. I have to glance over. How can I not? It’s Strawberry Shortcake. And a panting micro-puppy in a Louis Vuitton handbag held by a girl with Barbarella hair and the same glitter eyeliner that I’ve been planning to buy from Loft. Just a peek. Just a little peek.
So when Sean growls because a woman has turned her head to look at me, I’m sure it’s because she likes my dress. How could she not? It’s gray. It’s cut on the bias. I’d look at it, too. Bob has dubbed me “blissfully naive” at times like these, but the way I see it, it’s just not worth getting all het up for something that usually comes from an innocent – if slightly ignorant – place. Come on, folks. Get over it. We’re here and the differences between our features is clear.
And then every once in a while, I’m confronted with what is unmistakably a hostile stare. Five minutes of uninterrupted gaping from an old man or a pack of uniformed school girls, on days when I’ve left the chicken suit at home. A quick glance into my compact tells me that there’s nothing on my face. That’s when I kick off a nice round of “staring chicken” – I stare back, hard, and we see who looks away first.