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 take it upon yourself to be a hero and 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.