Friday, February 26, 2010

Hey, wait a minute!

A few days ago I was sitting in the park enjoying some spring sunshine when a man with a clipboard approached me.

"I'm conducting a survey," he told me. "Do you have time to answer a few questions?"

"I'm very sorry," I replied. "But I don't understand Japanese."

"Oh, I see," he said. "Where are you from?"

"New Zealand," I said.

"I hear it's very beautiful," he said.

"Thank you," I said. "Yes, it is."

"Oh, well. Excuse me." He wandered off to accost someone else.

Today the phone rang, and it was some woman selling something. I responded in much the same way.

"Sorry," I said. "I don't understand Japanese."

"You're a gaijin?" she said, surprised.

"Yes," I said."

"Oh. Sorry. I can't speak English."

"That's too bad," I said.

She excused herself and hung up.

Both of these conversations were held entirely in Japanese. I have had similar conversations so many times that I have stopped expecting the penny to drop. Perhaps, when someone tells you politely that they can't understand while at the same time demonstrating that they understand perfectly adequately, it's just too much to handle. Perhaps it causes a brain freeze. I imagine a little spinning wheel in their heads, like the one on my computer when it gets hung up on something and everything stops working.

But I sometimes wonder if the little ball ever stops spinning. I wonder if any of them ever wake up in the night and say,



Curley said...

It's called xenophobia. You must be a 'visitor' - you couldn't possibly be _living_ in Japan, only ethnic Nihonjin could do that. Let alone _speak_ Japanese!

When Japan was Number 1, or had that status in view, let's say in 1988, the combination of xenophobia/fantasy about the outside world didn't matter quite so much - there was money about, more people were traveling, one could even think that pennies would drop - Japan is an amazing place, its people rather wonderful.

But now there's been 10 years plus of recession, less folk travel, and just to the west is the coming new superpower which will dominate this century - as Japan slides into irrelevance. It's a grim prospect, and a sad one. The world will have to change again greatly before the penny drops, it may be...

Lia said...

That's incredible.

Although I'll admit that I know how to say "I don't understand. Do you speak English?" in at least three languages.

tinyhands said...

I don't know if you're familiar with the popular prime-time cartoon in America called 'Family Guy,' but one episode had a character explain to a stranger, in Spanish, that he doesn't speak Spanish. When the stranger asked, "But you just spoke to me in Spanish" the first guy responds, "yes, but I only know that phrase and this one explaining it." When the stranger attempted to continue the conversation in Spanish, the first guy just looks at him, puzzled, not understanding.

PS: Parents depart Queenstown this weekend, passing through Dunedin on final two weeks meandering back to Auckland, then home.

Living Labyrinth said...

That is a little weird in fact I wonder whether they do realise you can speak Japanese but also realise you obviously don’t want to speak to them...and they mustn’t wind up a gaijin...lord knows what a mad gaijin will do.

Umm perhaps I’m being too optimistic...

Keera Ann Fox said...

I traveled in Germany with a bunch of Norwegians last fall. A fellow in our group speaks German fluently and teaches it at a high school level. He therefore got the task of asking a native for directions. As we all looked like the tourists were were, there was no surprise at being answered in English at first, but being answered consistently in English, in spite of every question being put to the native in German, ended up being one of the more entertaining moments of our trip.

Brainfart is what the Americans call the phenomenon. Very apt.

Carrie said...

Ha! The Japanese must be more polite than Swedes. When I would say in Swedish "Sorry, but my Swedish isn't very good" they would look at me and tell me it was fine and just continue on. But my Swedish really wasn't very good.

Anonymous said...


Kids in the Hall (a Canadian sketch comedy show from the eighties/nineties) did it first, in a much more elaborate and funny way. but then the sketch got weird, as they often did.

enjoying the blog, however belated my particular experience with it may be