Are You Japanese?

It was my friend FK’s birthday yesterday and one of his friends (who I’ve met once) invited me to a surprise party for him at a Chinese restaurant. She told us all to be there by 7 PM because she would be arriving with FK at around 7:30. I arrived a few minutes early, and since I didn’t want to be the first person to arrive in a group of people who I mostly didn’t know, I sat in my car and stared at the clock. When 5 minutes passed, I decided to finally enter the restaurant, only to find that there was only one other person there: KR, a guy I’ve met a few times. We filled out a birthday card while we waited for the hostess to seat us at our table for 14, and naturally I forgot how to write the kanji for “birthday.” Where’s my electric dictionary when I need it?

Our huge round table was in a special room towards the back of the restaurant, and in this room were two more empty, huge round tables. We sat down and one by one people began to trickle in. It seemed to me that KR also didn’t know most of these people yet, so I got the pleasure of experiencing the “nice to meet you” moment alongside him. Have you ever had that moment in Japanese? Here’s how it goes. (Please keep in mind that this is not word for word how it went, but a rough translation from Japanese into English)

ME: Um, KR-san, is this your first time meeting this guy too?

KR: Yeah, I’ve never met him before.

Both of us half stand up, hunched over like we have stomach aches.

KR: Ah, Ni…Nice to meet you. I’m KR.

Stranger: Nice to meet you, I’m XX.

Ok, here’s what I’m inevitably thinking at this point. Very soon it’ll be my turn to introduce myself and exchange pleasantries. There are two ways this can go: one way I look like a jerk, and one way I probably don’t (although who really knows?). If this new Japanese guy, XX, introduces himself to me before I introduce myself to him, he’ll definitely speak English to me. That’s obvious, I mean, I’m white and since he has never met me before, he has absolutely no reason to think I speak Japanese. If he introduces himself to me in English, but I respond in Japanese, I look like a grade-A jerk. He’ll think his English wasn’t good enough for me to bother listening to or responding to, and he’ll think that I have decided my Japanese is better than his English. I’ll look selfish and rude. After that attempt by him to speak English with me, if I start speaking Japanese later, it’ll only seem strange and forced – like I am struggling to practice Japanese and not like I just naturally speak it and belong to the group that I am here with.

My solution is to introduce myself to XX before he has a chance to introduce himself to me, and I do it in Japanese so there won’t be an uncomfortable “oh yeah by the way I speak Japanese” moment later on.

ME: Nice to meet you, I’m Elliott.

XX: EH! Ni-nice to meet you! I’m XX. Um… are you… Japanese?

Did he just ask me if I’m Japanese? Oh my… this is now officially an awesome day. He has no idea how happy he just made me. He didn’t just say “wow, your Japanse is good!” which is how Japanese people usually compliment a racially non-Japanese person who speaks Japanese. He actually thought I am Japanese. This was a first for me. I’m not going to lie, it felt really good. What am I learning this language for if I don’t want to sound like a real Japanese person, right? It just means I’m accomplishing my goals as planned.

ME: Nah, I’m American.

XX: Ah, yeah that makes sense, of course.

I don’t like to give more information than that unless asked. Usually I’ll be asked why I speak Japanese (since I didn’t grow up there), and then when I say that it’s simply because I study obsessively and have a lot of Japanese friends they will usually ask me why I’m interested in Japanese. There are a lot of answers to that question, but the big one that I like to give (that’s easiest to talk about and easiest for people to relate to) is that I did karate all through my childhood, and studying Japanese was the natural progression of things when I went to high school.

The rest of our party arrives, all Japanese, and half of them I have never met. I repeat the situation above with each of them (they don’t all think I’m Japanese, but I introduce myself just the same). By this point, the other two parties have arrived. They’re also Japanese. Is this a special room for Japanese customers? I am now the only American in a room of maybe 30 Japanese, all speaking Japanese. I have never felt more like I was in Japan than I did last night… and we were in a Chinese restaurant.

Now, usually my Japanese friends like to speak English with me at least some of the time. But when in a room full of Japanese people, I guess the mood just takes over and they forget about it. They were at home. The whole situation became somewhat of a “we’ll speak Japanese normally with each other. Elliott will sink or swim” scenario. Well, lucky for me, I live for sink or swim. This is what I’ve always wanted. How do I measure up in a room full of Japanese people who aren’t slowing down their language to my level? Do I understand? Can I participate?

If I had to grade myself on last night, I’d give myself an 90%. I had to adapt myself to the situation. I sat back and just listened for a while to get a feel for the flow of conversation. Eventually I began to interject into the conversation, and almost every time I opened my mouth, everyone stopped to listen to me. Actually, this was kind of intimidating. But I can’t blame them, they were curious and excited to hear me speak Japanese. They also probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t being interrupted or confused by peripheral conversation.

I messed up my grammar a couple times, I had to maneuver around a few vocabulary words that I didn’t remember, and I occasionally didn’t understand what people were talking about. That last problem could very easily be due to a lack of context, however, since some of these people already knew each other. I won’t take off too many points for that. I’d say that overall, I didn’t sink.

I was in the middle of saying something when a 10 year old Japanese girl needed to sneak behind me to get out to the bathroom. When she walked by me she said,

「すみません」 excuse me.

A little girl I don’t know said “excuse me” in Japanese. She thought I was Japanese too.

The waitress came by and asked me if I wanted more water.

“oh, yes please. Thank you. And can I please have another napkin?” I answered in English.

“Wow! Your English is good!” Said one of my Japanese friends (in Japanese).

Everyone stopped and looked at her. We all laughed.

For the first time all night, I didn’t know what to say.

CONCLUSION:

If you’re in a situation where you’re a little bit intimidated by the amount and level of Japanese being spoken, just sit back and relax. Let it come to you. They will understand your efforts to learn and practice Japanese. If you mess something up, just keep going. They won’t stop you and say “Jeez, I can’t believe u screwed that up. You suck at Japanese.” They’ll keep listening politely, even if you aren’t making any sense. So talk, have fun, and jump in the deep end. You won’t drown.

One Final Note:

I am not making fun of any of the people I have described in this post. They are all my friends, and I talk about them with the utmost affection. Obviously, when I say that I think it’s cool that they ask me if I’m Japanese, I don’t mean that they are asking me if I’m racially Japanese. I mean that they’re asking if I grew up in Japan. I write about this topic from a place of humility, and realize that while I do consider myself to be an advanced language learner, I do not consider myself completely fluent.

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