Wednesday, 23 May 2007


I was the new teacher in the factory, and my students, a group of some thirty male engineers, were looking me up and down and making me feel even more nervous than I'd felt to begin with. Mr Sugimoto, a fussy, self-important little man who worked in the administration, stepped smartly up to the microphone to introduce me. I'd already decided that I didn't like him; he was an unctuous fellow with a condescending manner and poor English skills -- not that he knew it.

"Here she is, then," Mr Sugimoto began unceromoniously in Japanese, gesturing roughly in my direction. "Your new teacher. Her name's hard to pronounce, but maybe she'll help you by pronouncing it slowly. Foreigners' names! Ha, ha, ha!"

I began to feel even more nervous. His tone was worryingly disrespectful.

Mr Sugimoto wiped his eyes, still chuckling over my impossible foreign name. "Sorry she's not younger!" he announced, casting a sideways glance at me as though I were a side of pork he was casually inspecting. "I've looked at her resume and it says she's 30. Too bad! Next time we'll see if we can get one in her twenties!"

My jaw dropped. The bastard obviously didn't realize that I understood Japanese!

"She's not too bad looking I guess, but --" He suddenly stopped and frowned. "What?" he barked at a man sitting in the front row who had been watching my reaction and was nervously waving his hand in a frantic little 'Stop -- stop!' damage-control gesture.

"Um, Mr Sugimoto, I think she understands Japanese," the man half-whispered.

"Don't be silly, of course she doesn't!" He glanced over at me quickly, a furtive look in his eye. "Do-You-Understand-Japanese?" he asked in sentient-being-to- idiot tones.

I stared back at him, appalled. "I understand," I said frostily.

His reaction was so extreme it would have been funny if I hadn't been so irritated. He actually blanched right there in front of me. His face went a sickly color and his attitude did a nose dive from cocky and supercilious to slavishly apologetic. He actually bowed to me, and from that day on, Mr Sugimoto was kindly and respectful, and he watched his mouth around me. It was highly gratifying.

Two years later, I had a similar experience on yet another first-day-of-class.

"I can always tell the difference between Brits and Americans," boasted Mr Osaragi to a fellow classmate just before I took roll. "Usually it's their skin color." He gave me a long, speculative look. "Now her -- you can tell she's British by her skin color and her attitude."

The classmate made an appropriate noise, and Mr Osaragi went on.

"Very proper, see. Reserved." They both took a long look at me and I cringed. I was only reserved because it was the first day of class!

"Americans," Mr Osaragi continued, nailing himself right in, "they're all noise. Talk, talk, talk. The British? Very quiet. Like her."

I couldn't stand it any longer. Not only did I feel irked by Mr Osaragi's know-it-all attitude and his outlandish assumptions about Americans' skin color, I felt affronted for every single quiet, reserved American and noisy, boisterous Brit I happened to know.

"I'm American!" I blurted out. "I'm not British at all, I just work in a British school!"

Unlike Mr Sugimoto, Mr Osaragi never forgave me for understanding. Go figure.


Brian said...

There are so many different languages, mostly Asian , around here that I feel I might well be in the majority of one .
Good thing I am not paranoic enough to feel they are discussing me as they chatter past !
I generally get nice smiles from them though and always smile first if I can -- makes for pleasanter days .

We are to get a young Asian couple to live in the unit above ours -- paid a motza for the place too !

The vendor , our past neighbour , thought they were a nice pair -- so here's hoping for pleasant stairwell exchanges


Katie Alender said...

Oh my goodness, priceless stories! Good for you.

Charlie said...

I used the language thing to advantage when I was working with addicted females. They assumed that, because I'm "Anglo", that I wouldn't understand them when they reverted to Mexican-accented Spanish.

Bad assumption. My ears often burned, but I got a true "picture" of how they felt about me and the recovery process. It was often (ahem) quite different than their English personas.

You know, "Mary" doesn't seem like a difficult name at all. Then again, I'm not Japanese.

Great stories, Mary-san.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I got used to people assuming that I could not understand Japanese because I didn't 'look the part.' Then I moved to The Netherlands and had the opposite problem: everyone assumed I could speak Dutch. I was constantly having to apologize for my ignorance.

What is a 'motza'? Thanks to you I am slowly acquiring Australian!

Katie -- Hello and welcome to my blog. I like the sound of your YA novels. Kanani (Easy Writer) and Eryl (Kitchen Bitch) are also writers, and I am doing my best...

Charlie -- It was the 'Witzl' that flummoxed them. Witzl has four syllables when it is pronounced in Japanese -- U-i-tsu-ru -- and was a mouthful even for me. 'Mary' only has three syllables in Japanese but sounds unpleasantly like 'has eyes.' I got awfully tired of my name in Japan.

Eryl Shields said...

Some people have no shame I guess. Good story.

I've only heard bad things about Japanese men, are there any good things? I'm assuming there must be.

Kim Ayres said...

I spent a chunk of my childhood in South Wales. I didn't speak Welsh, although I could say please and thank you.

In the area I was in, it wasn't uncommon for people to be speaking English and then turn to Welsh as soon as a non-Welsh person walked in.

I once walked into a cafe where a couple of people turned to Welsh and were clearly talking about me - going by their looks and expressions, it wasn't particularly favourable. I said thank you in Welsh when I left and watched them blanch.

I think I'm quite glad I couldn't understand them to be honest. I'd rather people slagged me off behind my back than to my face, any day, so long as I don't find out.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- There are plenty of wonderful Japanese men, of course, but the ones who misbehave are more fun to talk about. In the future, I will write about the good men I met in Japan too: true, they tend to be chauvinistic, but there are plenty of wonderful Japanese men around and I am looking forward to writing about them.

Things are changing in Japan. The old Confucian idea of 'Dan-son-jo- hi' -- literally 'Respect men, disrespect women' -- is slowly but surely being eroded. Young women are deciding that they don't want to get married and live a life of domestic servitude. Older women are deciding that they want their own lives; that if their husbands retire at 65, why shouldn't they? Needless to say this is having an enormous impact on Japanese society.

Kim -- My husband and I spent a year in the half in Cardiff and I do know what you mean. And Northern Wales is definitely more xenophobic than the south, so just imagine how bad it is there.

Having said that, though, when we were in Wales we did meet a lot of English people who openly said hostile things about the Welsh (in English, of course, as they made no effort to learn any Welsh). Many of them were there because properties are cheaper in Wales than in England, and I found myself wanting to put them and every xenophobic Welshman I came across in the same town and letting them just have it out with each other.

Carole said...

I haven't been out of the country, so if people make fun of me, they wait until I am a good distance away. However I took a sign language class once, and as our final we had to go out in the city and dine out, shop at the mall, and buy at least one item without letting on that we weren't really deaf. I only actually heard one derogatory remark. I was leaving a shoe store and the clerk began to pretend like he was deaf. I just kept walking since I that was the assignment. But I so wanted to turn around and say something to him.

Meg said...

That ass hat! I would have punched him...Well, maybe not, but I would have considered it.

Brian said...

Motza , ( my preferred spelling over motser ) means a large amount of cash -- and sometimes even merely the promise of a large amount . I am dubious of its etymology as coming from the Yiddish , but that has indeed been claimed -- deriving it from matzoh or bread - somewhat obviously I think .

Our Oz slanguage is colourful , but now being swamped , I fear , by Americanisms


eg(scotland) said...

That must have been a dreadful and difficult situation to be - sounds like you handled it well though. I just can't imagine speaking about anyone in that way whether or not they understand the language. That's just so ..... so ..... well it's just so rude!


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- That shoe clerk sounds like he had a thing or two in common with my Mr Sugimoto.
I think there is a tendency for some of us to feel left out or at a disadvantage around people who are speaking a foreign language. At my kids' nursery school, one of the children had an American father. From time to time, he and I would speak in English and the teachers there used to complain that they felt as though we were talking about them when all we were discussing was chicken pox or diaper rash...

Meg -- I was certainly vexed with Mr Sugimoto on that first meeting, but he redeemed himself afterwards somewhat, having lost face in front of all of those engineers. And he was as polite as could be afterwards -- or at least in front of me.

Brian -- Well, I had a feeling that it must be something to do with money... There are so many slang expressions for money you'd think that we already had enough, but every generation comes up with a different one. It is interesting that you have this one in Australia but it hasn't made it over to America yet. When it comes to words, it seems like we export more than we import from Australia...

EG -- I told this story to a friend of mine who worked for the same company in a different city. He was so angry that he asked for the man's name and wanted to do something about it, and this was six years after the event. I found that reassuring -- the fact that he was so upset with that kind of behavior. Not every man in Japan behaves like that by a long shot. Fortunately.

Kanani said...

I know this sounds odd.
But there are so many languages spoken in this town --Korean, Chinese, Spanish & English, not to forget Arabic, that I figure someone is bound to say something when I walk around looking like something the cat dragged in.

Oh, anyway. A few years ago, I was in New Delhi, shopping for a salwar kamiz. I found this one shop that had lots of nice things, the shop owners were bringing them to me. My friend came into the shop and after a short bit, started yelling at them. My friend insisted we leave. Turns out the shop owners were insulting me the entire time!

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- That is a funny story and if I were you, I'd have been tempted to know what they said. Did you ever find out? Also, what is a salwar kamiz?

Once I heard two men behind me talking. I wasn't listening to what they were saying until one of them made some comment that attracted my attention and I turned around perfectly innocently and they both froze and looked very guilty. One of them then asked if I understood Japanese, and I said that I did, whereupon they both began to apologize over and over. But I had no idea what they'd said and hadn't even been paying attention! To this day I almost wish I'd asked...and yet I'm rather glad I didn't. And in case you're wondering, no, my butt isn't that big...

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