Expat Politics

“Trump!” He announces the topic as I step into the small classroom. I groan inwardly, the news of the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement still fresh in my mind. He gestures wildly at his companion, his best friend of nearly 30 years, and I think, yet again, how entirely opposite they are. “We talk about Trump!”
I glance at the woman. She keeps her eyes lowered, too polite to discuss with me, an American, the same thing that she had just been talking about with her friend. He has no such qualms. Spouting off rapid, excited Japanese, I can only catch the gist of what he’s saying. He pauses for breath and I nod, sliding into my seat across the small table from them.
“Trump is…” I search for the right word. “An idiot.”
They look at each other and she is no longer reserved, now having a new English word to grasp onto rather than the controversial topic. “Ijit? Idyo?”
I enunciate slowly, making my mouth movements precise so they can watch the words form. “An. Idiot.” He repeats me several times, his pronunciation worsening while she reaches for her phone and her go-to voice-to-translation Google Translate app. I shake my head. “Maybe that’s a bad word.” He quiets for a moment so I can clarify. “Trump is not smart.”
“Yes!” He nearly shouts it, fist high with the triumph of understanding. “He’s… face, no good. Brain, no good. World is not business.” Switching to Japanese in his excitement, he chatters first to me and then to his partner, once again both too fast and challenging for me to understand. His arm jerks up close to his face and quickly draws an angled line towards the ground. I catch “America” and “i-me-ji.”
She stops him, speaking slowly into her phone then turning it towards me. He is bad for America image of world.
Used to decoding Google Translate, I nod. “He’s bad for American image in the rest of the world.” It’s not a question. I’m agreeing.
With a big smile, he says, “Yes, that’s right,” then rattles off more Japanese. Our English lessons work slowly. Remembering, he changes back in the same breath, shaking his head to emphasize each word. “Trump is not smart.”

This is only the most basic of so many conversations I have had with Japanese people about the new U.S. president. It was difficult to explain, at first, how Trump made it into the running for my nation’s leader, but back then it was a bit of a joke. Next, it became hard to answer how he made it into the final two, as people across the globe realized the seriousness of our situation. Then, it became impossible to answer how he had won the presidency. My Japanese students didn’t understand. My fellow English teachers from other countries didn’t understand.
I was naïve and hopeful at the time that the repercussions of this wouldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. “Many American people want a change,” I tried to explain simply. “And Trump has promised a change. I just hope it is a good one.” The language barrier and my own confusion, disbelief, and denial made it difficult for me to fully express my opinions. But it did not prevent everyone else from expressing theirs.
I now have friends from Australia and New Zealand. I have friends from England, Ireland, Canada, Morocco, Taiwan, and of course, now, Japan. Combined, they’ve studied – and have work experience in – foreign languages, history, film, business, linguistics, education, science, medicine, literature, international relations, management, advertising, and philosophy. I have students who are businessmen, housewives, college students, lawyers, artists, salespeople, teachers, professors, landlords, translators, architects, and even the wife of a monk. A wide range of people with a wide range of experiences, abilities, and ideas. Yet they all agree on one thing. Donald Trump should not be the president.
My American friends and family members are split. Many of them agree with my foreign allies. A handful of them are conflicted because “vote Republican no matter what” never seemed to have such damaging consequences before. And a few of them stand faithfully with our nationalistic, artificial, disoriented president as he turns back the clock on progress while simultaneously turning the world on its head.
It’s time my country realized that to “make America great again,” does not mean what that man intended it to. True American greatness has never come from putting other people down, but from bringing them up. It has not come from excluding “the other” but from including the underdogs. It is not a competition to see who gets the title of World’s Best Country. And it is imperative that we stop thinking of our world as “us” versus “them.” Or else we will all lose together.


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?” https://www.edge.org/conversation/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.