Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gaijin Griping

I know sometimes living abroad can be stressful, and even the biggest culture-vulture expats indulge in the occasional gripe-session, but there's no reason to write stuff like that up and print it in Newsweek! Breaking news: Expat wife gets cranky in Tokyo!

I am quite a bit taller than the woman who wrote the article, and I lived in an old-fashioned house that was built during the Meiji era. Translation: I hit my head a lot. But that's the price you pay. And maybe it was a Kyoto thing, but nobody stared at me. Even if they did, wouldn't it be natural to do a double-take when you see something you don't see every day?

This is what gets me, though--she claims she "mastered 'survival Japanese'," but:
[...] many times I spoke in what I knew to be passable Japanese to a clerk or conductor, only to be rewarded with a vacant stare and a long, drawn-out "Huhhhh?" The person to whom I was speaking couldn't believe that Japanese words were coming from a foreign face.
Uh, lady... maybe your Japanese wasn't quite as good as you thought it was? That's usually the case when people drag out that favorite gaijin gripe--"I know they actually understand me!" No, they don't. This is one thing I will say for the Taiwanese and Japanese students I have taught English to--they never displayed such an attitude. If they say "Huhhh?," don't blame them, hit the books.

Her complaint about being stared at in the "ofuro (communal bath)" (sic) reminded me of a story about a red-headed expat girl I heard in Kyoto. People were staring at her in the sento, and fed up, she wanted to tell them she was human, just like them, but she got one word just a little wrong. She shouted, "何を見てるの?私はニンジンです!!"

(Via Japundit and Mutant Frog.)


Azuma said...

Wow, that's an annoying column. With extra hate for the cute note on "chigau", which doesn't mean both "different" and "wrong." It merely disassociates the "wrong" of "not the case" from the "wrong" of "not good". The way she means it, you couldn't translate "I was all wrong in Tokyo" with chigau.

Anyway, yeah. I'm conifdent her Japanese just wasn't as good as she thought it was. I've never experienced anything like that, and have been witness to many an occasion when a fellow foreigner interpreted as purposeful misunderstanding what was to me clearly bad or vague Japanese. Perhaps it's the fault of European languages. The syntatic structure of Japanese creates sources for error in ways surprising and unpredictable for most Westerners, I would guess. Whereas you really usually can rely on your syntatic intuitions when speaking bad Spanish or French as to how much you can reasonably expect to come across.

Matt said...

Right on, man. I have a special bucket of annoyance reserved in my heart for that gripe.

IbaDaiRon said...

Pretty much hits all the usual bases, doesn't she? Feh.

Sounds like she swallowed her friends' "Oh, your Japanese has gotten so good!" fook, rine, & shinker.

Oh well.

amida said...

The "I know they really understand me" thing is a perrenial favorite among tonally-challenged learners of Chinese who are under the impression that tones are decoration on their speech and not vital parts of the words.

And cheers for taking on the "chigau" thing... By the way, did you ever think about the fact that "chigau" is a verb while its opposite, "onajii," is an adjective?

IbaDaiRon said...

"chigau" is a verb

Yep, but any of you heard the delightful Adj < Nom chigaku nai before?

I'm happy to say I haven't gotten the Huh? reaction for a while, but I still enjoy the occasional scene of a store clerk, etc., facing a (silent) Japanese companion when I'm the one doing the talking.

Or is that just a variation on Huh? and I'm deluding myself? Oh....

Matt said...

I think that through usage and maybe combination with the nominalized form chigau might be becoming an adjective, with -ku form and all... among young dudes in Tokyo at least "chigee" (neg: "chigakunee") is as unremarkable as "itee" or "hayee".

Not wanting to pile on this woman (too much), but does anyone actually know what the long, drawn-out "huhhhhh" might be? The only possible response I can think of remotely like that is that sort of falling "haaa" variant on "hai".

IbaDaiRon said...

You mean the "What on earth did you just say?" は〜ん? (with a clipped rise on the ever-so-slight nasal) one?

amida said...

I have never heard "chigee," but I can picture it. Funny--no one would say "chigou."

I assume that the "Huhhh" is her English translation of the (admittedly infuriating) "Eeei?"

Yeah, I guess she's had enough piled on her. The extenuating circumstances are that she wasn't the one who chose to move there. I usually reserve this kind of criticism for those who came to see another culture then complained when it was different.

Azuma said...

I've always wondered why onaji was a noun. Anyone know?

Certainly I second the rapid adjectification of chigau. I think it might be the first example of back-forming from the collapsing "ee", which itself is a false analogy for chigau. I see it going like

chigau --> chigee (for exclamation, like sugee)
--> chigai, chigaku, etc.

I often hear the kids at school say things like "chigakute, ...."

There are lots of japanese verbs that correspond to adjectives in english. I wonder if this sort of adjectivalization will hit any more of them?

amida said...

I think "onaji" is a back formation from a -na adjective form. Something like "onaji you ni" is like a simplified version of "onaji na you ni." No evidence, just a hunch. But if it were truly a noun, wouldn't it be "onaji no you ni"?

Or maybe "onaji" just swallowed a final -i?

(I think this "onaji you ni" example pops into my mind from that poem about not being able to fly like a bird or ring like a bell, but "minna ii." Anybody know what I am talking about?)

amida said...

Found the poem:
   「 私と小鳥と鈴と 」


Apparently this last line should mean "Everyone is wrong, everyone is good." ;-)

Matt said...

IDR: Nah, I've gotten in FIGHTS with clerks and they weren't that rude to me.. I mean the sort of "haaa" that people say when, say, they're looking at some document you just handed them which requires them to do something out of the ordinary, and stalling for time while they think about it all. Like "oookayyyy..."

onaji: is usually considered a siki adjective where the "si" is voiced and for some reason the "ki" is often dropped from the RTK (you can find "onaji" and "onajiki" versions in the MYS). I don't think it swallowed the "i" so much as just never developed it, because the "ki" was pretty much gone before that could happen.

Matt said...

p.s. I've heard that last line quoted many times, but never the whole poem before. Thanks!