That harsh moment

Me and Japanese, we’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve been pretty smooth. I like talking in Japanese. I have very little problems with it. I’m technically doing grad school in Japanese. I like Japanese-language me, who is so quirky and funny and lighthearted. I can interpret japanese better than I can my own native language. I can give academic presentations in Japanese, and they’re full of jokes and the audience loves them. For all intents and purposes I consider myself fluent in the language.

It’s time to move on from my grad school, and I have to face the reality that I am not, in fact, fluent.

See, japanese people are very kind when it comes to language. Unlike English speakers they never mock your accent or poor grammar. Unlike portuguese or chinese speakers, they can understand you even if you make mistakes. Unlike the speakers of most languages in the world, they don’t mind the fact that you are illiterate, and english words are acceptable substitutes for when you can’t be arsed to learn the Japanese one.

I have my Ph.D admission next semester and I have had to come to terms with the fact that my laziness is limiting my opportunities. Every time I see ‘admission exam in Japanese’, I know that I can’t pass it and should look somewhere else. Because I can’t handwrite in Japanese, and I sure as hell cannot write a native-like essay in the language. Give me time, a computer and a proofreader and it’s not a problem; but most people do not have time, computers, and proofreaders.

Since I moved here I’ve been relying on the kindess and understanding of others. I’ve been having to read a lot so I kept on reading translations because I’d get a deeper understanding of the text (and in a shorter amount of time). I’ve been avoiding handwriting like the plague, stopped studying, and well, stopped trying. It is only now that I treasure my admission sans essay, the fact that I can write reports in English, and the friends I have to help me out. I see some of my non-English speaking colleagues writing their entire dissertation in flawless Japanese, even though my Japanese was better than their 2 years ago. I can see their growth; They can see the lack of mine. Until now I’ve been jokingly answering ‘no way’ when my colleagues would ask me ‘when are you going to work on your japanese already?’; it’s time to reap what I’ve sown.

Foreigners and the 4 seasons

There are many tales of questions and remarks that foreigners are sick of hearing from Japanese people, some more audacious or annoying than others. Ranging from somewhat understandable (Your Japanese is so good!) to the somewhat demeaning (you can use chopsticks!) to kind of ignorant (English is your native language right?), there is one question that you hear every Westerner blog complaining or mocking about at some point because of its sheer silliness.

‘Does your country have 4 seasons?’

(Note: I’ve been asked this a total of 3 times in 2 1/2 years, and neither time was the speaker surprised with my answer)

I have to admit, coming from Europe, it was a weird question to hear. Before I came to Japan, a lovely foreigner in Japan blog informed me that Japanese people are taught in schools that 4 seasons are unique to Japan. I’ve heard countless rants about the topic from other foreigners. And I had to agree, what a silly thing to remark! All countries have 4 seasons.

But wait, no. No they don’t. And it is actually a rare instance of Japanese people being culturally sensitive to foreigners. Because you see, a lot of countries don’t have 4 seasons. It’s us Europeans&North Americans who assume that 4 seasons is the norm. If you ignore China for a moment, you will see that the greatest sources of foreigners in Japan all come from countries that do not have 4 seasons (or if they do, they are considerably lighter differences). Many of them are on the other side of the equator, so the seasons are reversed.

koppen_world_map_af_am_aw

These are just the countries from tropical climate zones of the Earth where all twelve months have mean temperatures above 18.0 °C (64.4 °F). 2 season-climates are still prominent a few degrees south and north of this.

So when a Japanese person is asking if your country has 4 seasons, they are not doing it out of ignorance or because 4 seasons is some ultimate achievement. They are genuinely asking because they know that seasons vary according to geographic location. They’re being nice. It’s a (not so rare) case of criticism about Japan being ignorant revealing the ignorance of the speaker.

(Post triggered by http://www.therisingwasabi.com/man-shuns-ancestral-heritage-spells-name-with-katakana-on-sns/ )

April

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Start of the new year. My 3rd year in Japan, the year I graduate and should start prepping for the next stage. I’ve been petting fluffy animals all of March to emotionally prepare for this. I can do this.

The sakuras have turned green, a third of my colleagues have dyed their hair black and are walking around in black suits, the word ‘thesis’ is looming heavily in the air.

New exchange students are walking around in awe at being in Japan, I continue to not know any of them >.> but it’s nice to take in the atmosphere from a distance.

Facebook keeps showing me pictures from when I got here, 2 years ago, which leads to some interesting daily introspection about my life.

We got our grades and it turns out that I got a couple of Bs last semester, which was oddly depressing to find out about.

I am still a sloth because my brain refuses to admit that the holiday is over.

これからもよろしくお願いします!

When the gaijin stereotype finally makes sense

Over the past 2 years I’ve met quite a few foreigners. Some of them were just visiting Japan without any knowledge about the language and culture whatsoever (though they did have a strong desire to have ‘Japan’ explained to them), some were Japanese in all but nationality. I’ve met quite a few people who were only here to get girls, and I’ve always thought poorly of them and avoided future contact, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally met the kind of foreigners that the textbooks warn us about, and finally it made sense.

I’ve always thought that the way people teach Japanese etiquette is Orientalist, exoticising even the most common forms of interaction (‘don’t be rude’ is universal etiquette, goddamnit, it’s not special that you use different language with friends than with teachers). But meeting this one bloke made me realise why the warnings exist.

It’s because some people are socially incompetent. And these people seem to fall for the ideal Japan that is portrayed in anime. Much like the poor blokes who are socially incompetent and start dreaming about a Manic Pixie Girl who will rescue them, they genuinely think that Japan will magically fix their problems. And this issue is exacerbated by politeness. Not real politeness. Basic politeness mixed with a complete inability to read basic social cues.

This bloke had the social etiquette of an amoeba which had magically started talking one day. He genuinely thought that his language skills were amazing. He genuinely thought that he was making a lot of friends everyday. He would walk up to people and start talking, and they would put on a terrible grimace which I’m sure any cultural background would prepare a person to catch on to. He would exchange LINE contacts and the people would politely agree. He would complain about Asian culture in which people don’t tell you what’s wrong and just suddenly block you, and he attributed it to cultural difference. I was flabbergasted.

‘When people ask you “what are you doing here”, what do you think they mean?’

‘What brings you here to Japan! They want to know more about me ^_^’

‘No, they mean “why are you here, go away!”‘; I would point out that it’s the same in his native language.

‘But they say it while smiling!’

‘Please learn to tell apart a smile from a grimace.’

This person would claim that he was doing everything in the name of cultural exchange. I’ve learned ‘cultural exchange’ is often a blanket term for ‘I am uninteresting and have nothing better to offer than being born in a certain place’. It’s why I am bored to tears by any event that has ‘cultural exchange’ in its name: you meet foreigners who want to meet (or bang) faceless Japanese people and Japanese people who want to offer some foreigners the magical opportunity of talking to a native in their own country, or who want t get cultural credentials for having made small talk with (or banging) foreigners.

As he was bothering my friends and all of us were apparently to polite to explicitly tell him to fuck off, I sought out my friends for advice.

‘Oh, yeah, they’re quite common.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah, I used to teach 1st year Japanese, and there were always a few people like that. They think that being foreign and starting to learn Japanese is enough to guarantee them God status in Japan. If they’re rich enough then they manage to get to Japan somehow and somehow never really face reality. Basically they just think that there’s something wrong with their society, rather than with themselves. Anime caters to them and they just fall for it.’

‘I thought that was a stereotype…’, I say, remembering how many of my colleagues wanted scholarships and praise for knowing N5 level Japanese back when I was in my 1st year; almost all them dropped out. And then there’s all those people who want Japanese girlfriends.

‘You’ve never been to a gaijin bar, have you.’

‘Not really’, I shrug gratefully.

As the foreigner in the group the responsibility fell on my shoulders to tell the bloke to fuck off. I realised that people who have trouble grasping politeness in Japan also have this issue in their native culture.

‘Look, I think it would be best if you’d stopped coming here.’

‘Why?’

(what wasn’t clear?) ‘Well people are here to study.’

‘But they can study and talk at the same time!’

(is he playing dumb?) ‘Nono. They need to concentrate.’

‘But they take breaks to chat to one another all the time!’

(whyyyy) ‘… yes. To their friends.’

‘But that’s how you become friends, right?’

I was stupefied. I had to explain that when people say ‘I think it would be best’ it is a polite way of saying ‘do this’ in English. He didn’t understand why people don’t say things upfront. I was confused. Eventually I had to say mean things and felt bad about saying them. He left, but deep down inside we knew that he would just find another person who doesn’t like to feel shitty by insulting him and fall for the ‘politeness illusion’. And I knew that every person he would meet would probably attribute it to his culture, not his person, because we like to believe that there is an explanation for people’s shitty behaviour as a means to maintain faith in humanity. And that’s an important reason for which the stereotype about foreigners exists: because it’s sometimes true.

Sure, I’ve had some problems with people in Japan. I’m not the most socially adequate person, and I never was. If anything, I noticed that it’s easier to be awkward here as people are more forgiving if you’re a foreigner – though I make sure to tell them that I am quite socially incompetent and too brusque in my home country as well. It’s something that I’ve always appreciated, but now I’m starting to wonder. Sometimes when I get particularly heated during a debate I’ll hear things like ‘I love teaching foreigners because they say things that Japanese people would never think of saying’; I’ve always felt like it was a bad thing, but now I’m starting to wonder how much I’m contributing to the negative stereotype.

The littlest things

I was in the lab today when one of the Chinese girls from another dept called me over. In English. Which is highly unusual.

‘Ioana, I have a favour to ask…’

‘Oh, sure, what?’

She was visibly squeamish.

‘I have a Phonetics class’

‘right’

‘And I am studying foreigners learning Japanese’

‘right’

‘And I was wondering if I could record you pronouncing things in Japanese’

‘uh-huh’

‘And then show you how to pronounce it correctly and see if you improve’

At this point my brain just when into a OH NO YOU DIDN’T mode.

I turn towards my Japanese senpai, who overheard the conversation and was already hiding behind her book.

‘Wait, do I mispronounce things in Japanese?’

The senpai was squeamish. She knows I have confidence issues.

‘Sometimes’

‘…I thought pronounciation was my strong point.’

My colleague switches to japanese and starts reassuring me that it’s just for observational purposes. The awkwardness had entered the room and settled in. We agreed to a date. I promptly excused myself and went outside for a breather. When one of my other colleagues saw me and said hello, I stuttered when answering.

Ah, frailty, thy name is confidence.

(the first time someone referred to my accent as ‘clearly foreignerish’ was also a Chinese person, about 6 months after I’d settled in. I was self-conscious for weeks)

 

Foreigners confuse me

I was complaining almost 2 years ago about how much easier it is to connect to foreigners than Japanese people, and while that is still somehow true, I’ve realised sometime last year that meeting foreigners is incredibly awkward. And the reason is language and the way that I get hung up about it.

If you’re in a group with foreigners and foreign-adopted Japanese people (the kind who are conversational+ in English, have almost only foreigner friends, go to bars that are 50%+ foreigners, and have probably lived abroad for 1-15 years), no problem. Talk in English with the occasional other common language and let complaints or comments about Japan take over 90% of your small talk. All is good. I’ve made many friends that way.

If you’re meeting with foreigner friends and it’s all foreigners and foreign-adopted Japanese people then again, all is good. It was a bit weird to realise that I celebrate most things twice, once with my English-speaking group and once with my Japanese-speaking group, but hey, double-Christmas celebrations.

But then you’re in a normal situation and you see a foreigner, and I don’t know about you people, but my social skills disappear.

Sometimes I run into a foreigner in a normal situation (shop clerk, random person who decided to take the same class, whatnot). I never know what to do. Should I English? Should I Japanese? Should I other language? There is this intense silence because I never know what language to use. Usually the other person is in the same situation, unless they’re only in Japan for a short while, in which case they save me by starting the conversation in English. Common friends are also a god-send, as they decide the language.

Sometimes they’re not native English speakers and frankly I’d have an easier time in another language, but I don’t want to offend their English skills. Sometimes I can save myself by explaining that I hate talking in English (which is true). More often, it’s just awkward. It’s particularly bad if they’re fluent in Japanese but want to improve their English/don’t realise that they’re hard to understand, since I can’t escape the situation without either a boring conversation or a faux pas. It’s also awkward if they’re Asian and I start talking Japanese, and they’re flustered since it’s probably the 1000th time they’ve had to explain their lack of skill to someone.

Sometimes I decide to introduce my friends to one another. And to my surprise, it can get super awkward. I’m used to talking to them in a certain language and I’m not good at switching (and this happens to them as well). Or they just talk in English at an otherwise all-Japanese speaking table, despite being fluent in Japanese, since they don’t have any friends that talk Japanese to them. It stands out. My Japanese friends get uncomfortable and they switch to English and the conversation quality plummets. Occasionally they just ignore it and stick to Japanese. I become aware of my own Japanese, as now I have someone listening who actually cares about what grammar point I use (note: if the natives aren’t correcting someone’s grammar, don’t correct their grammar; it kills their self-confidence). If it’s the other way around and my Japanese friend does their best in a mostly English speaking environment, it stands out if we keep talking in Japanese to one another, but I don’t like pushing people towards English.

Sometimes it’s even a problem among foreign friends, since I have people with whom I talk in Spanish, people with whom I talk in Romanian, Brazilian friends who automatically switch to Portuguese when in the same room, etc… and I have a hard time switching. I always feel like a terrible person when I have trouble switching.

Then there’s that one other foreigner at the table situation. Everyone else is talking in Japanese so it’s only polite to also talk Japanese – I don’t want to make them feel excluded. However, it usually becomes obvious that English would facilitate communication. Cue awkwardness.My friend invited me to some gathering the other day, and suddenly I was at the table with 3 Japanese people and a bloke from the US. I stumbled, and gave it a shot in Japanese. He answered back in Japanese. OK. Then it became a bit obvious that he was having some trouble understanding me (foreigners are always harder to understand than natives, this is normal in any language). English would’ve saved us, but neither of us wanted to be awkward about it. He was fairly quiet. High level, but it was obvious that some vocab would slip by him at times, and he had a thick accent. He’d been living here for 8 years, and it came up that he is going back to the US next month. My friend asked him how come; he looked at me and said that ‘8 years is a long time’. I was instantly reminded of Ken’s post. At some point he had to leave, so he got up and shook my hand, barely waving goodbye to the others. The whole ordeal struck me as kind of depressing, though I couldn’t explain exactly why.

Then there’s the people who get integrated here and actively begin avoiding foreigners (which it seems that I am guilty of). There’s this one other foreign bloke at the concerts I go to. He seems nice. He’s definitely been here for longer than I have since he knows everyone there. And, like many other people there, he has definitely noticed me what with being in the same room on a regular basis and all. Some of the Japanese people at concerts start chatting me up, most just ignore me. But with him, we do this incredibly awkward thing where we make sudden eye contact and then look away. One time when crowdsurfing he gave me a boot to the face and as he was getting up to apologise he saw who I was, and we both blushed and looked away like some third-rate anime. Neither of us wants to be that guy who starts chatting up the other foreigner in the room. This is probably the epitome of how socially awkward this can get. Then again, this being me, I wonder if perhaps I just stared at him too long and he just stares back in confusion. One day, I will walk up to him and introduce myself… or maybe I should just start going to other concerts.

I wish there were some sort of universal etiquette for this so that I wouldn’t have to keep discovering new things that I am awkward about.

Being Japanese

So the other day I got yet another ‘Ioana, you’re really Japanese’ comment from my friends in the lab. I always find this fascinating, since I’m always on the lookout to be made to feel like an outsider (which doesn’t really happen, but I keep reading about it and accept it as part of everyday Japanese life despite almost never having this problem).

‘But I always talk about vulgar stuff, forget my desu-masu, cross the street recklessly, and I’m pretty oblivious to most things. I’m totally Eastern European!’

‘Yeah, but, I don’t know, despite all that you’re just so Japanese. ‘

I get this a lot, definitely a lot more than I get compliments on my chopstick use and typical gaijin life stereotypes (no one really believes me when I say that they don’t happen). I’ll apologise for something and the professors will be all ‘Ioana quit acting so damned Japanese’. I’ll do some basic courtesy every once in a while and meet with the 礼儀正しい! comments. I’ll make some comment about food and get stupefied reactions of 日本人か?! (alternated with おじさんか?!). Sometimes I’ll make a literary reference that no one gets because people don’t really bother actually reading their country’s classics. It’s all rather weird, really.

I never really know if I am just somehow in an exceptional setting or what. I get that University is different from the regular life, but my experience differs greatly from other students’ as well. I’ll tell people about how Japanese engineering students keep insisting on telling me about their virginity whenever I meet some in a bar, or how my profs TMI me some times, or how I get into heated debates about the political situation or philosophy or books, or just any random story and everyone is baffled. I don’t *think* I do anything special to fit in. I definitely look like a foreigner, talk like a foreigner, and act like a foreigner, but I rarely – if ever – get the gaijin treatment. My Japanese isn’t native-like or anything. I don’t really seek people out or go to special events to get the whole Japanese experience. Guess I’m just lucky?