Friday, May 21, 2004

The American who could speak English

I have spent many years in Japan and I fancy myself an adequate teacher of Japanese Language and Lit, but I was born and raised in SoCal, and did not learn to speak Japanese until I was an adult. My first language, my mother tongue, is English. But I have worked hard to learn Japanese and depending on who you talk to, my Japanese is considered near native...

Or not...

I find that now the longer I live in the States, the more my linguistic abilities falter. I speak Japanese at home with M, but the topics are usually limited to domestic issues and I have little opportunity to expand my vocabulary, so I read a lot... well, not a lot, but enough. But when I lived in Japan, my speaking was near-native by most accounts. Indeed, when I worked at a think tank in Tokyo, my boss accepted me as another Japanese worker and occasionally introduced me to others as the American who could speak English. This sounds strange, I know, but it was, I think, a compliment, albeit an awkward one. Not only did I look Japanese, my Japanese language skills were such that he could accept me as an equal, and since many Japanese still struggle with English, my English ability--for a Japanese speaker--was remarkable.

Anyway, the first time I lived in Japan for an extended period was in 1984. I studied at Waseda for a year under a Mombusho grant and also earned some extra cash teaching English, as many of us foreign students are wont to do. But these jobs were not always easy to get because I did not fit the profile of an English teacher. I did not have blue eyes or blonde hair. But before you rant about the Japanese, remember that the same phenomenon exists here in the US. When I was teaching at UCLA, students who had a white TA would often come to me to confirm what they had learned because, I guess, since I looked Japanese I should know better. Of course, I didn't. But I digress...

Once, I was going to work at Fujitsu Corp. in Hino City to teach English. I took the train from Waseda--Tozai line--and switched to the Chuo line at Nakano. From there I took the express to Toyoda, a station between Tachikawa and Hachioji. I was standing near a door of a not-so-crowded car staring at the sprawling towns as they passed by: Koenji, Ogikubo, Kichijoji, Mitaka. Each station had a cluster of retail stores surrounding it, but the area between stations was one vast suburb of two story houses packed closely together. Staring vacantly at the sprawling sameness, I realized that virtually every house was white or off-white with blue tile roofing. Each had a white wall or wall of shrubbery surrounding the house, barely separating them from their neighbors with whom they lived shoulder to shoulder. Whether I was looking at the homes nestled between the stations of Asagaya and Kōenji or between Nishiogi and Kichijōji, they were all the same. On the train next to me, staring at the same expanse of undistinguished homes, was an elementary school kid who must have been around 9 or 10 years-old, easily identified by his ransel--the leather book bag all elementary school kids carry. I don't know if he was as bored as I was, but his gaze looked as vacant as I felt.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the conductor enter the car to check everyone's ticket to make sure that everyone had the proper fare. Sitting on the bench were two Americans, chatting calmly. They looked like tourists. The conductor reached them and asked for their tickets using made-up sign language. Apparently, their fare was insufficient, and he tried to explain that they needed to pay him the appropriate fare. But the two Americans did not understand. What's wrong? What do we need to do? Do you speak English? The conductor began to get flustered, and resorted to speaking Japanese slowly and clearly, as if this technique would somehow break the language barrier. Of course, the Americans continued to be lost, so in the name of civic duty--but really to break the monotony of a long train ride--I walked over and acted as interpretor. I explained the situation, the Americans forked over the money they owed, and the conductor, relieved, thanked me.

I just smiled, bowed my head a little and walked back to where I was standing next to the door. The elementary student stood there, staring up at me, apparently as happy as I was for the distraction.

"Wow, that was cool. Your English is really good," he said in awe.

I looked at him and smiled.

"Well, I studied hard," I said in a tone my current students would instantly recognize. "If you study hard, you can speak English, too."

He nodded earnestly, and we resumed gazing at the dark-blue tiled roofs passing by the window. Today, that kid would be about 30. I wonder if he ever became a Japanese who could speak English?