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Pretending to be a foreigner
October 5, 2009 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Pretending to be a foreigner

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….)

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