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Can’t deal with foreigners

February 26, 2008

One thing that I used to find terribly disspiriting to hear was that such-and-such-a-person “doesn’t know how to deal with foreigners”. I just didn’t get that.

Deal with me like you would anyone else, I thought. Well, that might actually be the last thing you want.

When my wife met new people in England, they would invariably bombard her with questions about Japan, the part of Japan she was from, and about her, and construct a very informal chat around that.

When I’ve met people for the first time in Japan, it simply isn’t usually like that. For a start, the questions. They may at first appear to be about you, but look more closely, and you’ll find that they are subtlely disguised questions about Japan. You’re not chatting, you’re getting an invitation to indulge in a series of ritualised compliment-paying about Japan, Japanese food and Japanese people.

This is safe ground. And safe common ground is essential to so many social exchanges in Japan. Apart from with friends and family obviously, a lot of interaction is very formal, and therefore ritualised. Chit-chat spontaneity and informality can throw many Japanese unused to it into a headspin, and make them socially uncomfortable. And fear of this discomfort is what can lead otherwise perfectly sane people to clam up and stutter at the mere appearance of a foreign face.

I usually find the best approach is to pretend you haven’t noticed. Plough on regardless, as if nothing were up, and you give the other person a chance to save (red) face.

There are other factors at play, of course. The sheer lack of a large number of foreigners to interact with. The method of teaching English in schools that leaves most people unable to use it conversationally, and with a firm belief that English is rocket science. Talk to Japanese people who’ve lived or studied abroad, or have had their family invaded by a hairy barbarian, and it’s usually a different story.

Another factor is how the Japanese language is learned by many foreigners. Many Japanese will assume that if you’re not Japanese, then you don’t speak Japanese. And why do they think that? Because it’s usually true. This is going to lead to more discomfort. A surprising number of people, of every nationality and language, are unable to simplify what they are saying. Non-students don’t know what to avoid when they’re speaking to a learner (like idiomatic, metaphorical, or similarly non-literal language). This can bring the simplest interaction to a grinding halt, and in Japan can also be the cue for some flustered panicking.

So to get along in Japan without leaving a trail of red-faced people in your wake, you need to master some level of keigo – the highly formal register of language mentioned earlier. But for that, you need already to have a pretty decent level of Japanese anyway. For example, the girl in the supermarket will ask you “O-kaimono bukuro wa o-mochi deshou ka?” (A highly formalised version of “Do you have a bag?”) If you’re still learning “Taro-san wa Nihonjin desu” (“Taro is Japanese”) this is going to stop you in your tracks. Most Japanese language learning texts don’t go into the insane complications of keigo, even though these are likely to be your first, frequent interactions in Japan – with no Japanese language, you can shy away from most people except shopkeepers! So the truth is, unless you arrive speaking the language to a reasonable degree, you need to be shut in a room for six to twelve months of language study before you can safely be let out.

But to take my own situation, when I first arrived, although I had the time to study, with no job I didn’t have the money. By the time I had the money, I had no time. So learning the language (and the rules) has been a long, slow process. But gradually, as my Japanese becomes less clumsy, and my community gets more used to me, I’m becoming a foreigner who’s not quite so difficult to deal with.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2008 10:05 pm

    When I first arrived here, I spoke no Japanese at all. I just memorized what the check-out girl said to me every time and figured it out. What threw me was when – a few years back – some stores in Osaka began lowering the level of politeness (they thought they were alienating younger customers, who are about as clueless about keigo as I am). When they spoke to me normally, that was when I stopped in my tracks. I was so used to the polite language that I thought they were now talking down to me and got kind of offended. Apparently though, it’s happening everywhere. Kumamoto will get there eventually.

  2. February 26, 2008 11:17 pm

    “Kumamoto will get there eventually.”
    We might. But as with most things, it’ll probably take a while.

  3. February 28, 2008 10:51 am

    I was on a train once in the Japanese country side that suddenly became flooded with junior high-school girls. Of course when they saw me they went bonkers with the giggling, whispering, pointing, and hiding. All my attempts at communication just cause more embarrassed goofiness. But one girl sat right in front of me, introduced herself, took out a family photo and introduced her family. Maybe that was the only English she felt she could handle. I asked why she could speak English so well, and she said she studied at Shane, and English conversation school with British teachers. She was maybe the only girl on this train who had spoken with a foreigner, and she was now the only girl who could handle being the presence one. I realized then that being an English teacher isn’t only about teaching English. It’s also about giving our students experience with foreigners, and letting them know that talking to us is not something to get panicked about.

  4. February 28, 2008 11:12 am

    Mr Wake – it’s been a while!
    I’ve had a similar experience with a young lad on a bus who was clearly staring at me for about ten minutes before plucking up the courage to come right over and introduce himself and very politely try out some of his English on me. In retrospect, it must have taken great guts to do that.
    And as you say, I realised after a while that when a new student is nervous, no amount of my saying that making mistakes is OK is going to calm them, because that’s not all that they’re nervous about.

  5. August 6, 2008 2:56 pm

    I remember when I first got here how much it irritated me that people kept coming up to ask, “Are you American?” (even though I am) or “What part of America are you from?” My friends and I used to grouse about how people here (Kyushu) immediately thought any caucazoid they met was from America.

    A few years later when in the States I met this Asian guy and immediately asked him, “Are you Japanese?” He looked at me kind of funny and said, “No. I’m Korean.”

    P.S. Hi, Mr. Wake.

  6. Alex permalink
    August 31, 2009 7:29 pm

    Safe common ground is important to small talk in almost every country in the world I reckon. When I’m chatting to Japanese people they seem to respond in much the same way that people of the same socio-economic background would do in Britain. There’s no doubt that the majority of Japanese have a myriad hang-ups about “dealing with foreigners” but a lot of conversational awkwardness and rote questionnaires come from the individual, not just from their culture.

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