The Wrong Impressions

I’ve been living and working in Japan for nearly 3 months now.  It feels like longer, probably because I adjusted relatively easily.  So easily, that I sometimes wonder if there’s actually something wrong and I just don’t realize it. ^o^

Anyway, the topic of impressions has been on my mind lately.  Besides teaching young Japanese students another language, the point of the JET Program is to further internationalism and teach students about participants’ home countries.  But in the case of the United States, is that a fair thing to expect?  I’ve lived most of my life in Michigan.  Been to a handful of other states, but nothing deep.  Whenever students, other teachers, or neighbors ask me something about how things are “in America,” I can’t help but hesitate, because I’m all too aware that I don’t know what things are like in an entire country.  It doesn’t help that many Japanese themselves tend to talk about Japan as a whole.  For example, one person asked me, “Is Japan a convenient place to live?”  I said, “F. is a convenient place to live.” (“F.” representing the name of my neighborhood.)  The person seemed confused by my answer.  And it really, really doesn’t help that all too many Americans are ready to answer such questions with “In America, such and such is this way.” Or even worse, when English-speakers feel it is their place to “educate” Japanese about other English speaking countries, regardless of their level of knowledge of those countries.

Sure, we can make some generalizations.  If it were only about geography, it would be easy.  But here comes another sticky point: it seems to me that the American participants on JET are, by and large, from middle and upper class backgrounds, and they are overwhelmingly white.  The “America” that they present to Japanese is very different from the “America” that I (an immigrant from a family that was not well off, and someone who grew up in Detroit proper) know.  It’s not just JETs either.  There’s currently a foreign exchange student from the States at my school. Let’s call her “Cathy” for simplicity.   For one assignment, most of the class did presentations about Japanese language and culture, while Cathy’s group presented American culture.  Cathy presented many things as facts that are not facts for the average American.  For example, she showed one slide that had a very large, new SUV on it and explained that that was her car, and that most American families have at least two cars. She even talked about this dance–I forgot what it’s called. She didn’t say “debutant ball,” but it’s the same thing. In my mind I couldn’t help but scoff.  Meanwhile the students were left in awe at such a display of wealth (and by extension, power).  Of course, they wouldn’t be in awe if they realized that the average American is, despite what they are shown by a handful of Americans, not rolling in the dough.

Another wrong impression is not directly the fault of Americans themselves.  There’s a friendly takoyaki lady in my neighborhood. Most of the neighborhood foreigners stop by her shop, and she likes “English Talk,” as she calls it.  On more than one occasion, she has commented to her Japanese customers, “Americans are amazing!  They can speak so many different languages.  But Japanese people only speak Japanese.  That’s a shame, isn’t it?”  Sometimes the customers will answer something like, “Yes, it’s embarrassing, isn’t it?” I’ve tried to explain to her on at least three separate occasions that such is not the case.  But she thinks it is because all the Americans she has come into contact with happen to at least speak a little bit of Japanese if not 3 or 4 languages.  In my case, I told her, I speak several languages because I was an immigrant.  So, my native language is Spanish, I had to learn English at a young age, I studied French but it was so similar to Spanish that it was too easy, and I studied Japanese for the challenge.  I also told her, the other Americans she meets are probably more cosmopolitan than the average American, evidenced by their choosing to live in Japan, so they cannot be taken to stand for all Americans.  Now, I suppose it’s possible that the takoyaki-san is just saying those things out of politeness.  But I doubt that, given that most of the times she has said these things, she wasn’t talking to me, but to her other (Japanese) customers.

Epilogue ~The Things I Miss~

Related to the topic of class, but not necessarily to the topic of wrong impressions…I miss being able to speak ghetto.  People who only know me through this or my other blog may find my saying that strange, given that asides from geeking out and using emoticons, I write in very proper English.  To me, writing is a formal thing.  But speaking is fluid, changing with the situation.  Given the racial and socio-economic makeup of JET participants, I automatically had been using completely standard English.  After a while though, things started slipping out.  I said “I’m straight” to mean “No, thanks” to a friend from Hawaii and she didn’t know what that meant.  Sometimes I’ll drawl things out.  That’s another thing about the way I speak: it’s not completely of one place and one place only.  It used to annoy me, as a teenager, when one of my brother’s friends would say I spoke “country.”  When I got older I could understand what he meant, and as other people pointed out to me instances where I randomly spoke with a slight Southern drawl.  Where did that come from?  Was it from the first six months in the States, spent in Louisiana? Even though I didn’t know English at the time? That’s what I think.

Several weeks ago, hanging out with some other JETs, a black JET said to me, “I love how you’re ghettoer than I am,”  the implication being that a black person should be ghettoer than a Hispanic person.  But she didn’t grow up in the ghetto, so why should she be ghetto at all?  That’s the thing: while describing people as “ghetto” is largely associated with black people in the U.S., a wealthy black person is not going to speak like one from a poor region and a poor family.  To me it is then a matter of course that someone who is not black, but who is poor and growing up in a predominantly black city, will end up speaking like they do.  In other words, “ghetto.”  Of course, not every black person in the ghetto chooses to speak that way, in the same way that not everyone in the ghetto chooses to speak that way.  But one can’t ignore that where one comes from has a very strong influence over how one speaks.  While I’ve always known that I have to use standard English in certain situations, to me that never meant that I couldn’t use slang or speak ghetto in other situations.  I never felt the need to take on mannerisms that were more highly associated with the black experience, such as all-out Ebonics terms like “finna” for “gonna,” but I didn’t force myself not to speak like everyone around me just because I’m not black.

I honestly feel more out of place with other foreigners than I do with Japanese.  With Japanese people, I already know that they will most likely never consider me a member of their “in-group” no matter how much Japanese I can speak.  And that’s okay with me.  But while in the States you’d never think “I’m gonna get along great with ALL my fellow Americans just because they’re Americans!”, here, with a limited number of other foreigners around, I think subconsciously, I at least, had been thinking, “the other Americans are my in-group.” But things aren’t that simple.

Well, I really don’t have a witty way to end this, and I’m tired. ^_^;

By the way, “The Things I Miss” is a song by My Bloody Valentine.  It’s one of their more tripped-out pieces.