Pretending to be a foreigner

by Translation Guy on October 5, 2009

If native-speaking ability gets you treated like a native, would you consider acting like a foreigner if you thought you might be treated better? Sometimes identity sounds better in disguise.

Today I present to you, the strange case of Dr. Kobayashi, who switches his ethnicity as others switch hats.

Kobayashi-sensei, despite his name, is butter n’ sugar, that is, one part Japanese and three parts White Russian (lots of these guys left Russia when she went Red under Lenin).

He came from several generations of healers running a big hospital way back of beyond Japan. As a kid, his appearance cards came up pretty white, but Japanese was the language he spoke.

In Japan back then, bullying was a problem for kids of mixed ethnicity. As the Japanese are wont to say, “the nail that sticks up is hammered down.” By his own account, Kobayashi was duly hammered. It contributed to a certain alienation from the culture, not so uncommon in this island nation.

As he grew older, he began to look more Japanese. But his heart wasn’t in it. Like so many you meet up with in NYC, during a visit to the Big Apple, he got a New York state of mind. You can take the boy out of the country, and despite what people say, you can take the country out of the boy too.

Dr. Kobayashi returns to Japan only for visits these days. He no longer has his finger on the pulse of Japanese society.

In the course of his visits, the Doctor has discovered that speaking Japanese like a native kept getting into trouble. Somehow he had become a second-class something-or-other, out of touch, out of step, not quite up to Japanese snuff. The cure was simple… answer exclusively in English. By insisting on being treated as a foreigner, he found that he was treated better.

I just did a reality check with Naoyuki Sawada, one of the movers and shakers here at 1-800-Translate, also a long-term Japanese expat. His read: the strange case of Dr. Kobayashi is so strange at all in a Japanese context. Japanese are more likely to be kinder and friendlier to English-only speakers. (For a pale-face like me, I’ve always received special treatment, probably because my Japanese is so amusingly pathetic.) Anyway, Naoyuki would never try to pass as a non-Japanese himself, since he would prefer to be on the inside, and not left out, even if folks were a little easier on him to start with.

So to each his own. Our identity is driven by language and ethnicity, but those fortunate enough to be able to try on different language hats have the opportunity to wear the cultural mantel of their choice.

(Did I extend that metaphor too far? Take my word for it, it sounds great in Japanese….)


  1. TransX says:

    ‘Bihaku’ – or ‘beautiful white’ – always has teenagers spending big to achieve the ideal porcelain-pale complexion in Japan.

  2. Honshu says:

    Appearance means everything in Japan

  3. Mika says:

    It’s alarming, the lengths women are going to and the amounts they are spending to recreate the ‘ultimate white’ geisha ideal. The skin lightening sector has become a huge money-spinner. I think it’s around 60% of women in Japan use whitening products in their daily skincare regime…sad.

  4. Mark J says:

    The process of skin whitening encourages women to strive for this homogenized and stereotypically Western ideal of beauty and it’s just not right, but is it unavoidable?

  5. Misty says:

    Appearing ‘Western’ has long been the key to success for those in the public eye in the East. Does anyone have any experience working in Japan as a Caucasian?

  6. Sean says:

    I do, appearance means everything in Japan…

  7. Shiroibasket says:

    Yes, that is sad. Can you imagine the reverse here in America, where people virtually turn Japanese? I think there would be outrage with other people demanding to know why!

  8. RyanC says:

    Those crazy Japanese!

  9. Wonda R says:

    I thin kI’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so!

  10. Urdu is the national language of Pakistan even though only about 7% of people speak it. Whereas 44% of Pakistanis speak Punjabi, which has no official status.

  11. Jaffakin' says:

    Interesting! We have been having this ongoing problem in Jamaica for years, especially given our relationship with colonialism and African slavery, where it is generally felt that any of the languages that vaguely depart from English, in this case what we call ‘Patois’, is not supposed to gain any real recognition in the country. Middle class Jamaicans and many traditionalists argue in favour of retaining English as not only the official language of the country but to retain Patois as ’something that we all know but do not need to learn in school’. I disagree with this view, as I feel that so many people are denied an opportunity to properly learn to speak English by the refusal of the state to see it as a second language and to acknowledge Patois, accordingly. In that regard, it is not the competition between how these two languages are viewed is tearing us apart, as much as it is denying a wider cross section of the population a real opportunity to learn and appreciate English use, effectively. That is an overall comment on the state and its success not only in educating its citizens, but also in terms of development.

  12. Language is a part of one’s identity.However there are many languages that are marginalised even by their own speakers in favour of a dominant language. Many countries have tens if not hundreds languages like Nigeria and India. Deciding a national language is always linked to political considerations and influence.

    In the case of Morocco, although classical Arabic is the national language, there is Moroccan Arabic (which is in most cases understood just by the Moroccans and to some extents by the Algerians.) as there is Amazigh which is made of three main different dialects.

    However, in Morocco, foreign languages mainly French, English and Spanish are also important, especially in the world of business. Many jobs, especially in business and tourism require at least one foreign language. Administrative papers are in most cases both in Arabic and French.

    In general, a language is a source of power if it is linked to an economic and cultural activity. Just speaking multiple languages doesn’t make one multimillionaire.

  13. Roy says:

    The more people who speak the language(s) you speak, the more people you will be able to interact and do business with; this factors directly into “power”. Obviously, people who speak English are at an advantage on the world market, since so much business is done in English.

    Speaking a minority language can also be useful, even if you aren’t all that fluent in it. I used to work at a construction company in the southern part of the US, and I found it helpful to be able to speak Spanish with the Mexicans on the job sites. We were able to socialize in Spanish, and we were able to say things like “give me that hammer”.

  14. I lived in Taiwan for a total of seven years. The Chinese people I hung out with frequently had their own stereotypes about people in the various provinces. On the other hand they seemed to me to be very forgiving in regard to language, class, ethnicity, etc. and to put a high premium on one’s demonstrated character, morality, etc. People in the West are frequently not up to their cultural level.

  15. Merkop22 says:

    I agree Honshu. I spent my first year of teaching in Japan and every woman only cared about their own looks. Very materialistic, but sexy!

    • Ken says:

      When do generalities become stereotypes? Are there any individuals left? And if there are, does anyone want to hang out with them?

  16. Chrissy says:

    Interesting question Ken. I believe that individualism is the core, the genesis, the foundation of all freedom, all prosperity, all dignity, all life. Without it as our guide, our future will be bleak and despotic for sure…

  17. Mr. Exec says:

    Nothing wrong with learning a second language, but the reasons for learning Spanish are more to do with appeasement since the illegals refuse to learn English.

  18. Roy says:

    It’s because of the increase of Spanish-only speakers, and it was also used as an example. But we should really be learning Chinese.

  19. TheOne says:

    Take a good look around you.

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