Monday, March 30, 2015

Love being a "foreigner" in Myanmar, hate being one in Japan

Friends I made at Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon
I am 12 days into a long business trip to Yangon, Myanmar. I have been living in a hotel. On the weekdays I am in the company of my work colleagues but on the weekend I can find myself alone for over 24 hours. As a father of three young kids living in an overcrowded apartment in Japan,  I am not used to having so much time alone. Although it can be nice to wake up at my leisure, as the day goes on I usually start to feel the need to talk to one. Near my hotel in Yangon is the Mahabandoola Garden, a very well maintained park in a city whose mouldy European colonial style buildings cry for maintenance. The reason why I do there is that I know that if I sit down on the grass, someone will likely come and talk to me. Today, I young man who I will call Stanley approached me and asked if he could practice his English. He wanted to attend a US university and said he was always looking for foreigners to talk to. With me, he got to practice his English and I got to ask him questions about Myanmar and his English learning experience. Stanley is from the Shan state, his father is Shan and his mother is Lahu. He spoke Lahu wit his mother and siblings but preferred to speak Burmese with his father rather than Shan. He now regrets this. Three of his friends joined us and I heard more interesting stories about the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature of Burmese identity. They also told me about their English education, which, given the nature of my mission here, is necessary information.

After talking to these wonderful young people, I started to think about similar experiences I have had in Japan: Japanese people I do not know or barely know approaching me to practice their English. I know that their intentions are the same as the Myanmar people I met in Mahabandoola Garden. I am always polite and cordial but not very friendly to people who do this. To be completely honest, I absolutely detest when people I do not know in Japan or acquaintances I do not know very well approach me to practice their English. Why? I know why now. In Myanmar, I am a foreigner, I do not understand any Burmese and will probably never know more than a few words or phrases. I don't mind that people approach me and tell me directly state that they want to practice English with a foreigner because I do not live here and even the most routine tasks such as ordering a bowl of noodles is a challenge for me. On the other hand, I have lived in Japan for 16 years and have made a fairly substantial effort to learn the language. I live apart from my family and friends in the US and it is not for the sake of being a "foreigner" in a "foreign land." I dislike being called a foreigner because Japan is my second home. I want to be accepted as a functioning member of society and not as a conversation partner. I know I am not "Japanese" but I do not feel like a foreigner either. What should I be called? I don't know, but in Japan, I am not the person who I was in Mahabandoola Park. 

I will end by saying that if I were in the shoes of the Japanese people who try to speak English to me, I would probably do the same thing as an enthusiastic language learner. I also understand there are (American/European) non-Japanese in Japan who have lived there longer than me who chose not to learn the language. I think that people who want to practice their English or other foreign language in Japan have to judge on a case by case basis whether or not it is appropriate.  


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you that a big difference is not wanting to feel like a 'foreigner' in the place you make your home and speak the language, but not minding (as much) being treated like a 'foreigner' in a place that you are visiting and don't speak the language.

However, do you think your reaction would be any different if a young Japanese person came up to you and explained that they are hoping to study at a US university, and hoped to practice their English as a part of moving toward that goal? I would still feel the feelings you describe about not wanting to be treated as a 'foreigner', but I think that the person's goal might also affect my reaction.

JH said...

Good point. It is often case by case.

Anonymous said...

I taught English in Hokaido for a year. Soon after I had returned to the US, I was in the grocery store and overheard a couple speaking Japanese. I was flooded of memories of random conversations with Japanese strangers in my broken Japanese or their broken English. The most mundane topics were exciting as we tried to practice our foreign language and understand. I was so excited to hear native Japanese, a language that used to be all around me, but now was nonexistent. I tried to start a conversation with them by saying something elementary in Japanese.

I'll never forget the disgusted look they gave me of "who do you think we are and why the hell do you think we want to talk to you?" I never again assumed someone would enjoy allowing me to practice my Japanese on them again.

JH said...

I had similar experiences in the US after teaching in Hokkaido for two years and quickly learned it was not the appropriate thing to do. I found that some Japanese whose English was far superior to my Japanese were quite happy to speak nihongo to me but we were friends and when we spoke it was more as friends rather than as conversation practice partners. That is why I am polite to the people who try to speak English in Japan. I also have Japanese friends here who I primarily speak English with. When we do talk I do not feel like they are practicing on me.

Tom | City Cost Japan said...

It's an interesting question; should there be a better term for 'foreigners' who call Japan their second home? I suppose we still have to consider that Japan just isn't as cosmopolitan as other nations and that it is some way behind when it comes to internationalization. I think?!

I've always found it strange that strangers can pluck up the courage to come a talk to someone because they want to try out their language skills. I study Japanese and can speak quite fluently but just don't have the courage to do that.