Archive: The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan

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If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

1. Why don’t you like your country (and are you all this aggressive)?

An afternoon tea party

“To be frightfully honest, I’d much prefer coffee…” (Federico Andreotti, via Wikimedia Commons)

Well now, do you see what you’ve done here? You’ve painted me into a corner, haven’t you? Taken me for a Union Jack-waving, scone-munching, knife-and-fork-requesting stereotype with no mind or personality of her own, then kicked me into the nearest open pigeon hole when I refuse to conform.

I don’t hate my country, no. There are things about it I hate, yes, and miraculously you’ve managed to touch on most of them in the space of this short conversation. But they wouldn’t make me anywhere near as angry if I didn’t care.

I arrived in Japan wide-eyed and full of youthful hope, keen to prove that I was more than the sum of my gangly legs and comically large nose, to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the deep and abiding similarities in our souls. But I also knew that here, not saying was the flower. And so I tried to keep my mouth shut and smile, smile, smile – the only advice I’d received before embarking on my educational mission.

I was to be thwarted in my bid for silence. Mere days in to my new role, I found myself sitting on a stage in front of an expectantly assembled junior high school, trying to answer the question “Do you like Margaret Thatcher?”. The above is not the answer that I gave, but it is the answer that I wish I could have given. The answer that I did give was something mealy-mouthed about how Thatcher’s policies divided people in Britain to this day (usually into opposite corners in which tables are upended and used as ad hoc missile cover), and that many people didn’t agree with them, myself included. But, I added, to soften the blow, that was just my opinion.

An awed hush descended. Seconds later, mutters broke the surface of the silence like tiny fish coming up for breadcrumbs. “My opinion… my opinion…” Yahari, said the headteacher, iken ga tsuyoi desu ne. As expected (being a foreigner), you have strong opinions.

It was a reaction I was to meet time and again, and one not entirely without reproach. There’s a fine line between having opinions and being opinionated, and my very existence seemed to make waves even when my mouth was firmly shut. For the first time in my life, I was considered to be representative of something. I had become An Ambassador For My Country (Whatever That Might Mean). Everything I said was interpreted through a lens – Christian, opinionated, aggressive, mouth-frothing feminist, tea-sipping English lady – that I barely recognised, and had no intention of perpetuating.

But how to escape becoming my stereotype? People listened the hardest when I was most like what I was expected to be. When I tried to fit in, I fell flat on that comedy nose of mine. Every time I hit the stereotype wall I’d blame myself and my language abilities, and hit the textbooks harder. We local gaijin bonded over furtively exchanged textbooks, gathered in dimly-lit family restaurants to squint at flashcards battered and tea-stained with use, huddled together for warmth, protection and linguistic input at the town’s premier (only) watering hole.

I soon reached the point where I could communicate day-to-day. There I could have stopped, but something wasn’t right. I noticed one day that when I spoke Japanese my voice was high-pitched, exaggeratedly feminine, about an octave higher than it should have been. I listened more closely. My words, too, they were being spoken to order, to fill the space in the conversation as expected, not because they belonged to me. In short, I had lost my voice.

Clearly, I was playing a loser’s game. I realised that if I was going to reconstruct myself in this very different culture, there’d need to be a core person there, and many of my values would come from my own culture. And that meant being more than a cypher, more than a brainless smile, more than a high maintenance ambulant steak. So began the mission to reconstruct Caro-chan.

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation at this point, because it seems like everyone else is at it and I don’t like to miss a par-tay. Britain is a nation that has fought tooth and claw for political representation. It has been ruled by the rich, for the rich, for centuries, and this has fostered an oppositional, them-and-us, two-party system where everybody knows which side they stand on. It’s not only OK to have an opinion: it’s not OK not to.

I was brought up to have an opinion on most things. I was also taught to be critical of things I did not agree with, with the possible exceptions of nine o’clock bedtimes and cod liver oil. I believe there is a damn good reason for this, and it is that the world does not tend toward fairness or equality; quite the opposite.

I understand that Japan has followed a very different path, its upper classes voluntarily dissolving their privileged position to establish a modern democracy. I also understand that they did so partly to preempt vile class consciousness infecting the minds of their citizens. I understand this because I’ve bothered to find this out, and kept my mind open while doing so. So the next time I give the wrong answers to the right questions, perhaps you could try listening before you make up your mind.

It’s not aggression. It’s not hatred. It’s because I care.

And if it seems doubly shocking coming from a woman, you’re getting just the shock you deserve.

From here on October 28th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 2

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If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s number 2 on my own private shit-list of most annoying questions I get asked in Japan.

2. What do you think of Margaret Thatcher?

Well now, there are many different opinions about Margaret Thatcher, famous of course for being the first non-human prime-minister of the United Kingdom. Here’s mine.

Margaret Thatcher is an empty shell of dust and charcoal, a soulless inhuman husk animated by a lunatic hell-wraith of vindictive spite who slurps and sucks at the warmth and affection of communities until they are as dry and lifeless as she, who flails her dread spiderlegs at the foundations of the state and cackles as decades, centuries come crashing down, burying all those who need it most, their arms still outstretched, pleading for succour, who drools and skitters with obscene delight as she spits free school milk in the tear-stained eyes of hungry children weak with osteoporosis, their mouths open in the pathetic hope that the tiniest morsel will trickle down to nurture them.

And when, at long last, the cursed wraith departs the puppet body of what was once Margaret Hilda Roberts, grocer’s daughter, leaving it to crumble into ashes and scatter to the four winds, then, my friends, then shall we shake the skies with our dancing and drain the oceans with our debauchery.

Well, you did ask.

Number 1 is here.

From here on August 17th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 3

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Prince William

Prince William enjoying a lovely suit, which I paid for (by TheMatthewSlack, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s the third most irritating question I get asked in Japan.

3. Isn’t Prince William lovely?

Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. I haven’t met him, you see. In England we have this little thing called class, which prevents an oik such as myself from rubbing my filthy calloused shoulders with royalty.

Such as my opinion is, here goes. Prince William is alright. He is a shining diamond in the cesspool of leeches that is Britain’s beloved Royal Family. He’s less belligerently racist than Prince Philip, less prone than Charles to equate sanitary products with hot sex, and, seeing as Harry thinks dressing up as a Nazi is a wizard party idea for someone third in line to the throne of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, appears to have inherited the lion’s share of Di’s brain cells.

Alright, yes. But I draw the line at the man being ‘lovely’. I don’t care that he’s losing his hair (as, incidentally, I’ve just discovered by Googling him) – that just makes him a bit more human. It’s more that him and his troupe of blue-blooded freaks are living life high on the hog off the nation’s wealth while the rest of the country is being systematically screwed out of even the most basic social welfare, on the pretext of tackling a budget deficit run up by a slightly different bunch of posh people tinkering with things they didn’t understand. If the second in line to the throne had any idea what reality constituted for the vast majority of ‘his’ people, perhaps he would have passed on that $1 million honeymoon in the Seychelles. Never mind the cost of the wedding.

But then he doesn’t have any idea, does he? ‘Lovely’ as he might be, he’s still the kind of ruddy-cheeked hamster-faced plummy bastard who chortlingly dresses up as a ‘chav’ with his officer cadet friends at Sandhurst and sees nothing wrong in it. ‘Chav’, incidentally, is a word we use now that everyone in England is middle class and has a nice job in a call centre. It refers to the feckless, criminal and ignorant poor – the indolent poor, as we used to call them back in the glory days of the sixteenth century – who steadfastly refuse to take advantage of the wonderful employment opportunities on offer in a nation where 1.2 million young people are out of work.

Number 2 is here.

From here on August 8th 2012.

Archive: Why we should and why we don’t

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A boy studying

“Hurry up and invent Google Translate, world…”

A different language is a different vision of life ~ Federico Fellini

It bothers me that we Brits are becoming more and more monolingual, almost without a second thought. Not only have we long failed to teach languages in school – my French teacher had clearly modelled her pronunciation of la belle langue on John Major – we’ve given up even trying beyond a token three years, and are now seeing the knock-on effects as universities close language departments

Why might this be? The whole world speaks English? Nothing is forever, and that’s certainly not the point. I can just run it through Google? Don’t make me laugh. Or is it, perhaps, that we don’t really like leaving our comfort zones? 

Confession time. I’m a language teacher. I always tell my students to have a go and not worry about getting it wrong. But deep down I understand how they feel, because I hate hate hate to look less clever than I am. 

However. Something I believe to be true: learning another language is a profoundly humbling, yet hugely enriching experience, because it involves questioning every facet of your understanding of the world, and redefining who you are in response to a different set of wisdoms. 

At 21 I had some right to feel pretty smug, a bright lass fresh from swanning around Oxford’s dreaming spires. Crash! Japan took me right back to zero. With time and a lot of hard graft I became a gurgling two-year-old, then learned to toddle, falling over less and less, then after a year the floodgates opened and I could hold a conversation. But then came the polishing: learning what to say, what not to, when, how. Wrestling with social levels, distance, seniority. Trying to act my age, to express myself fully, persuasively, to truly own my words.

I became someone else for a while, in that process. I cut-and-pasted so much that I lost my voice somewhat. When I tried to put it all back together, though, I felt that there was more of me, more insights and ideas, more perspectives, more understanding of the drives and desires of human beings. 

Isn’t that something we should be teaching our children?

From here on August 25th 2010.

Archive: Evil and Orwellian welfare for all

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Big brother is watching you poster

And reminding you to brush your teeth every day.

There’s a lot said in Britain about how we’re closer in spirit to Anglophone North America than to continental Europe – as if to prove my point, I had to add the word “continental” to that last sentence on a second reading. This often rears its head in the debate over British EU integration, leading to the farcical suggestion that we ditch Europe in favour of joining NAFTA (the North, um, American Free Trade Agreement). This lobby has been quieter of late – there is speculation that someone may have shown them a map.

Every so often a news story comes along which gives the lie to this notion that the historical accident of speaking the same language somehow trumps millennia of shared history. As if the ongoing debate about the place of creationism (or “Intelligent Design”) on the school curriculum wasn’t enough to suggest that we’re sometimes on very different pages indeed, the debate over health care reform has recently become personal, with the Republican party taking a tack that surely few in Britain can find anything but ridiculous: that the NHS is an “evil and Orwellian” system that presumes to set the value of individual lives in determining access to medication.

The NHS is a flawed system, falling far short of its own lofty aspirations, and we Brits can trash it perfectly well without anyone else’s help. But it doesn’t half stick in the craw to hear this from a nation that rations access to healthcare not on grounds of cost-effectiveness, but rather on ability to pay. Though the NHS has struggled to keep up with rising costs, not to mention the shift away from the progressive taxation that Bevan saw as central to the project, I feel great pride to be from a country which took the remarkably radical decision, surveying the wreckage of post-war Britain, to establish health care, from cradle to grave, as a right not a privilege. This was to be free to all at the point of use, a remarkable leap for a country that had only fully lifted property restrictions on suffrage twenty years before.

It’s probably unfair to base our understanding of American views and values on these Republican voices, but also true that they somehow echo the loudest across the pond. They also weight the average, and exert a powerful rightward sway – a 2008 poll in The Economist found “average America” to be significantly to the right of the UK on most issues, and shockingly so on religious matters and “family values”. So while it’s tempting to laugh when they get things so very far wrong – most Europeans associate Hitler with war, repression and genocide, not welfare provision – it’s less funny to speculate about the very real influence these delusions can have.

From here on August 18th 2009.

Archive: How not to protest

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The Hungarian National Guard

The Hungarian National Guard

It seems that, somewhat sadly and certainly ironically, EU elections across Europe are being used to vent local frustrations. Individual national establishments are to be punished for their perceived corruption, lack of accountability, and culpability in the current economic collapse. Britain’s not above this. The trend is towards the extremes. Exit polls from the Netherlands suggest a coup for the right wing, with the far-right Party for Freedom taking second place. Hungary, too, looks certain to have extreme right representation.

Every spare inch of Budapest is plastered with posters of smiling shiny people looking boldly into the future. Some are already ripped or graffitied, some pasted afresh after the last late night assault. To judge from sheer numbers, by far the most enthusiastic glue-bucketers support the extreme-right Jobbik party’s distressingly sane-looking candidate, Dr Krisztina Morvai. I was heartened to see a fight-back yesterday – the artistic addition of glowing green eyes, and a big black swastika.

Jobbik’s website makes much of the ‘slanders’ against its name. Morvai refused The Sunday Telegraph an interview for its “peddling of outright lies and malicious fabrication”; fancy having the audacity to claim that “Jobbik has been linked by mainstream Hungarian politicians to anti-Semitism and a wave of anti-gipsy violence that has claimed the lives of seven Roma during attacks that involved grenades, petrol bombs and gunfire.” 

Like the modern-day British National Party, Jobbik goes out of its way to present itself merely the party that addresses those uncomfortable racial questions no-one else has the guts to address – cuddly, compassionate far-right conservatism with nary a cudgel to be seen. Except, of course, when Jobbik shows its other face – although it brushes off any claims that its uniformed, jackbooted militia, the Hungarian Guard, are anything more sinister than loyal patriots in national folk costume. Above is a picture of them marching with a banner saying “Down with the dogma of the Holocaust”. Hmm.

The party’s website has a useful page with maps detailing serious alleged attacks both by and against the Roma people in Hungary. Attacks on Roma are described in a detached, news-like tone. A large number turn out not be racially motivated at all – in fact, conveniently, the perpetrators themselves often turn out to be Roma, usually motivated by usury crime, and “as usury crime is widespread in Hungary, the racist theory is wearing thinner by the day”. In one arson case a swastika and threatening words were daubed on a wall, but “the painted (and not sprayed!) swastika was in opposite direction and the threatening words contained serious grammar mistakes. Tiszaroff is mainly populated by Romas and it would be hard to sneak there (even during night due to the dogs) for the alleged “racist” arzenist (sic).” 

I don’t know about you, but that sure puts my mind at rest. 

The second map sports different categories to the first – “Roma mob” and “Rape/ robbery”, but no sign of “Bogus/ minor”. There seem to be a lot more cases too. The “allegedly”s grow thinner and the strict recourse to such technicalities as evidence fades. Try this one for size: “An old couple were brutally beaten and robbed in their own house in Miskolc. Police later captured the Roma perpetrators. Miskolc Police Chief Albert Pasztor stated in a press conference later that “all serious robberies in Miskolc are committed by Romas”.”

Jobbik is a party that, for all its gloss, speaks of reuniting “Greater Hungary” after the stab in the back of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, boasts of its recent meeting with the BNP, and is fundamentally opposed to the supranationalist concept. I am far from a fervent cheerleader for the European project, but the presence of such neanderthals in the EU parliament can only render it a farce.

Edit 08/ 06/ 09: Jobbik received nearly 15% of votes cast.

From here on June 6th 2009.