Sunday, 3 April 2016

Pursuing Japanese ~ Ulterior Motives

"Could you become a friend to exchange language?"

This message was sent to me by an old lady I met at a language event. I have to admit, I was furious when I saw it. And why, you may ask? It's only fair, right? If I'm learning Japanese from someone, then I should at least provide them with something in return. But simply put however, I'm sick and tired of people only taking interest in me because I happen to speak a certain language. And I feel like with every new person I meet, they fail to see the person underneath with a personality, opinions and interests; they simply see a walking opportunity for themselves.

Recently, I've realised my Japanese has been waning due to lack of study. I still go to class once a week but on occasion, I've had to cancel due to work commitments. Similarly, I still do my language exchanges in the week but again I may have had to cancel or my partners have had to cancel due to their own commitments. The consistency just hasn't been there. Additionally, I go to work where some Japanese ability is necessary and I still struggle to speak in spontaneous situations. Often I don't understand completely or I do and I can't respond competently. I get very nervous very fast and it shows. But ultimately, I only have myself to blame. It's become a problem so I decided to start taking action again.

I feel like this is somehow permanently affixed to my forehead
I attended a language event last weekend that was a little different in that it was strictly time enforced by the host. We spent fifteen minutes in English and fifteen minutes in Japanese. Then we would break and repeat two more times. I ended up being the only foreigner on my tables of four. Every thirty minutes, I'd meet a new set of Japanese people and quickly felt like I was the weakest link because not only was my Japanese poor but their English was usually pretty good. During the Japanese segments however, I noticed that no matter how many times I would ask my "exchange groups" to slow down, they would speak at break-neck speed meaning that I often got lost during conversation. As annoying as this was however, I had to remind myself that these were not teachers. These were ordinary people who didn't really want to speak Japanese at a language exchange event. They wanted to speak English. And when the event came to an end, mine was the first table to disperse. Details were exchanged but I knew that I would never contact those people, let alone see them again.

I found another language group however and this group grasped my interest because unlike typical language events where people feign wanting to exchange, this event was geared towards foreigners who wanted to speak Japanese. English speaking was not a requirement. It was really early in the morning for me but as I needed to be in Tokyo anyway, I decided to go.

There were seven of us in total and only two foreigners including myself. The minute I arrived, I was greeted in Japanese so I felt like this was the real deal. We entered into a restaurant, introduced ourselves and the conversation began. I got talking to an old lady and a guy that I had met at a previous event, while the other four broke off into their conversation. It was very rare that we used English even though it was clear that some of the Japanese natives could speak it. Conversation was very broad and I even learnt some things that I hadn't before; not just about the language but about culture, sports...etc. When it ended, the host mentioned something I felt like was very true. That usual "language exchange" events often end up with foreigners mostly speaking English and that he created the group to give us an opportunity to speak Japanese. I felt so thankful.

I exchanged details with the old lady and then me and the guy hung out for a bit afterwards. We went to Akihabara and played games even though he had told me he had no interest in games whatsoever. As I had a met him at an event before, our conversation lapsed into English which I thought nothing of at the time but as I'm sitting here writing this, I can't help but wonder if the reason he'd decided to tag along was to get his fill of English. He had expressed interest in British culture however which may have been another reason but ultimately, I'm not so sure what his motives were.

When I returned home, I saw a message from the old lady who had sent me a picture of cherry blossoms. I replied in Japanese and then she replied in English. I replied again in Japanese and she sent me a message back in Japanese with some English at the end. All subsequent messages then came in mostly English followed by the question up top. She also asked me asked me if the sentence was grammatically correct sparking off realisations within me. This woman may have come to an event meant for foreigners speaking Japanese but her motives were clearly to find someone to help her with her English. She'd done her part by participating in the event, it was her turn to get her fill.

I was quite annoyed. I'm an English teacher and people pay me to speak and teach them in English. And despite living in Japan where English ability isn't particularly that great, I live about 70%-80% of my life in English. If this was any other country, I feel like I would have been forced to learn the language (I've heard that the French are particularly unforgiving) whereas in Japan, people drop in thank you's and hello's at random. I realise that the Japanese don't get much opportunity to practise using English themselves but I feel like Japan is the only country where the people are so borderline desperate to speak the language that they forget that foreigners are more than just an opportunity; they are people too; they might want to learn a language too; they might want to make friends too; heck, they might not even speak English in the first place.

I haven't responded to this woman yet. I already have two language exchange partners who I'm rather happy with. I'm not interested in having anymore. But I guess the fault lies with me, myself. The lady was nice and all but she did often drop random English words into the conversation at the event now that I think about it. We're also generations a part so we could never really truly be friends. And most people are not so kind as to want to help anyone without getting something in return.


I want to attend that event again and I've already decided that I'm going next weekend as well but I'll just have to be cautious. There's always a catch, isn't there?