Many foreigners who have spent some time in Japan will have encountered a local person eager to practice their English language skills at an inopportune moment. These people annoy me, but I have, on occasion, also scolded myself for feeling this way. After all, they mean no harm and in a way I can empathize with them. I can still recall feeling quite pleased when I once had the opportunity to practice Japanese with a Japanese tourist in Britain. It was a long time ago but I don’t remember that person being particularly reticent to engage with me in their own tongue. So why, when the shoe is on the other foot, do I often wish the person would just piss off?
Well, it’s not simply because I use English in my job and they are attempting to get a free lesson. Usually they are not asking for a lesson. They want to chat and my job is more than simply chatting. Neither is my irritation borne from the fact that I get asked the same questions again and again and again. I may be bored to death of these questions but the questioner doesn’t know that. In their eyes they are being friendly and nice and inquisitive. The thought of mild exploitation probably never enters their head, and they will likely never even have heard of micro-aggression. No, what bothers me is not the fact they are taking up my time, but quite simply the inappropriateness of approaching a stranger and expecting that person to indulge you in your hobby.
This was brought home to me on the beach. I had taken my sweat-sodden skin down to the sea for a bit of a splash, and was gently bobbing around in the surf, minding my own business. After a short while the surface of the ocean broke beside me and, like a curious seal, up popped a head clad in goggles and nose pinch. The opening gambit from this stealth swimmer was, ‘Hello. Where are you from?’ I stated my nationality and the fellow said it was nice to meet me and then asked, ‘Please may I speak in English with you?’ At least he was reasonably polite. At least he asked. But still, my first reaction was to wonder if I could just duck myself under the water and swim away as quickly as possible. I didn’t, though, and we had a fairly dull chat before I made my excuses and went back to shore to join my wife under her parasol.
I understood that chap’s desire to speak English. Most people who learn a foreign tongue want to use it and he was just taking advantage of a rare opportunity to do so. But that’s the thing; in polite society we don’t do that. We don’t take advantage of complete strangers to practice our own hobbies. It’s not normal. If you like, say, football and see a complete stranger walking in the park, it is not normal to run up to him and say, ‘Do you know football? Come on then, let’s have a kickabout?’ It’s fine to strike up a conversation with strangers, and this may even come about from noticing a shared interest, but the fact I am able to speak English doesn’t mean I have the same interest in practicing it as you. Ability is not always an indication of interest. I study kanji; I don’t expect people I’ve never met to show an interest in my learning attempts based solely on the fact that they already have no problems in writing Japanese. I don’t dig out my notebook on trains and say to unfortunate passengers within my vicinity, ‘Look what I can do! Please exchange text messages with me in Japanese.’ If you wish to talk to me because you like a bit of a natter, fine, but you have to let the language find its own way. Maybe English, maybe, Japanese, maybe both, but if you insist we use the one you wish to practice and make it clear that that is why you are talking to me, you are being a tad rude. You are, in effect, going up to a random stranger announcing your hobby and expecting that stranger to indulge you. I wouldn’t mind, if your hobby was boxing.