Thursday, September 19, 2013

I don't want to speak English.

Today’s coffee: Kona blend, Kenya

Today as I was on my way out of the house, I passed about 50 kindergarteners on the sidewalk. I could tell they were kindergarteners because of their red hats, marking them as being in the same group. Before I could stop to think how darn cute they are, a chorus of “haro, haro!” rang out. If you’re wondering, that’s the Japanese pronunciation of “hello.” Yes, I was cat-called by 50 kindergarteners. I probably should have been happy.

When I was first in Japan, I would have probably stopped to say hello. But I confess there were a number of responses that ran through my head, and none of them were “stop and say hello.” I first thought about responding with a cheery “ohayōgozaimasu” (good morning). Then I thought about saying “sorry, I don’t speak English” (in Japanese of course). In the end, I rode away on my bike without saying anything, pretending not to hear, wondering “What are their teachers teaching them anyway?” as I fled.

Most of the time I’m content to not be Japanese. I’m quite content to be American right now as I’m drinking a cup of delicious Kona coffee. We’ve got good coffee in America… or in Hawaii, at least. But sometimes, I get tired of standing out. I’m good at standing out, because I am not only a gaijin (foreigner), but I am often carrying a large musical instrument.

In Ishikari, there aren’t any tourists. Any gaijin here will generally have a pretty good grasp of Japanese, since he or she will be here for work or study. Sapporo is the same, other than the snow festival time. Most of the time, thankfully, people I meet will speak Japanese to me without a second thought, or if they’re feeling hospitable, they might ask, “Is it okay if I speak Japanese?” I’ve gotten so accustomed to speaking Japanese with strangers that it startles and even confuses me when a stranger strikes up a conversation in English.

Getting cat-called by little kids shouldn’t bother me. It actually bothers me that I’m bothered by it. Really, I should stop and return the greeting, since that’s polite. But on the other hand, are those kids calling out a greeting to everyone they meet, or just the person who stands out?

A couple of months ago during our vacation, we visited a church where a friend of ours is the pastor. Another visitor from a rural area struck up a conversation with us as we were having coffee after the service. “We love missionaries,” he said. “They’re like a kyakuyose panda” (customer-drawing panda—we’d probably say “dancing monkey” in English). The pastor and his wife were shocked; they assured us that they didn’t see missionaries this way—we are colleagues working together for the sake of the Gospel.

I confess I struggle with standing out; sometimes it seems that my greatest value to the Japanese church is that people will come to gawk at the gaijin. I’m not some animal at the zoo. I’m an introvert who values close friendships and good conversation. I’m thankful that most of our friends patiently listen to our broken Japanese and repeat what they’ve said when we don’t catch it the first time. The best conversations happen when everyone forgets that my Japanese sucks, and we talk like old friends and laugh together. My friends are willing to get under the surface—they can see beyond the fact that I am a gaijin and they are Japanese. I am not an animal in the zoo to them—I am a friend. If I didn’t have great friends, I would probably spend a lot of time hiding in my house. Well, maybe not, but going out would be a lot more tiring than it is.

And yet despite my limitations, the reality is that there are some ways in which it really is beneficial to be a gaijin missionary in Japan. Some people will come to church events to meet gaijin. Some of them even come back a second time. Gaijin are perceived as friendly and open, so lonely people sometimes start conversations with me. Those who feel oppressed by the many pressures of Japanese society may come to a gaijin, who is on the outside of Japanese society, for help.

Really, I wish I weren’t bothered that I stand out. I’m praying that gradually I will see my own “strangeness” as an opportunity and not as a cross to be borne.


Nightmaric Eric said...

That was a neat post. Maybe when next time presents itself return the greeting in English, but then extend a compliment in Japanese that many tourists may not say. I bet your Japaneses is getting very good by now.

Chocolate Inspector said...

I didn't know you were an introvert Keith. This was really insightful. Your life there is so different there that it's always a bit overwhelming to wrap my mind around it. But I love seeing what you and Celia are doing. I'll try to be better at commenting, we love you guys!