Forever a Foreigner

I wine have not.

Say whaaaaat? …It’s a real problem, though.

Kon’nichi wa!

I sometimes wonder about the psychological differences between people who grow up speaking English and people who grow up speaking Japanese. (Or any other similar languages, but these are the two I’m familiar with.) Because English is subject-verb-object, while Japanese is subject-object-verb. For example, the English sentence “I don’t like llamas” becomes “I llamas like not” in Japanese. So, listening to the same sentence in both languages, English speakers know sooner whether it’s a negative or positive statement, and Japanese speakers first hear what the object is that is or isn’t being liked. I wonder if this slight difference results in different thought processes, not only in such simple sentences, but especially in more complicated ones.

(Just Googled it. I can’t find any studies on the exact topic, but apparently, there are some pretty significant differences between the thought processes of different language speakers. If you’re interested, read this essay by Lera Boroditsky: “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”

Japanese also does this cool thing where the subject – in the above example, “I” – is not needed. You can just say “Llamas like not” and it’s a perfectly normal sentence. Actually, “Like not” is also acceptable as long as the object is already understood.

I asked a group of my adult students, “If a man from Australia and a woman from America have a baby in Japan, it grows up in Japan, and it speaks Japanese, is it Japanese?” The whole group made a noise that is incredibly familiar to anyone who has asked a Japanese person a personal or difficult question: it’s the sound of sucking in air between your teeth and it generally means, “No, of course not, but I’m too polite to say those exact words.” Other translations can be: “I don’t know” or “It’s difficult to say.” When pressed, they all agreed that the child (in order to no longer use the word “it,” let’s say this child is a girl) was most definitely not Japanese. Although she was – hypothetically – physically born in Japan, her ancestry is not Japanese and she therefore is not and will never be Japanese. This is a stark contrast to the built-by-immigrants country I was born in, where if your first breath is above American soil, you are forever a citizen.

The Japanese word for “foreigner,” if you’re wondering, is gaijin. I hear it often, said by both foreigners and Japanese people alike, and I realize that is always what I will be here. It’s strange knowing that no matter what I do, I will never “fit it.” No matter how much of the language I learn, how much of the culture I absorb, or how much time I spend working here, I will always be gaijin. The struggle of a majority member becoming part of the minority.

Anyway. Later, gator.





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