Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Missing Japan

"Teacher," Mehmet whispers conspiratorially just as I push open the door to the classroom, "I think you speak Turkish."

I've told Mehmet and the entire class that I don't speak Turkish at least two dozen times, but I smile mysteriously and lift an eyebrow. "Do you now?" I murmur, juggling my CD player and stack of books.

"You speak Turkish?" he nudges me. "I know you speak Turkish."

"Sure, I do," I say enigmatically, frowning as I plug in my CD player and slip in a disc.

Mehmet leans closer and says something to me in Turkish, then gives me a meaningful look. God knows what he's saying; I sure don't.

I'll play along, though. "Okay, you want me to speak Turkish? Bir, iki, üç, dört, beş," I count in a sing-song, pulling out the attendance sheet. One, two, three, four, five -- Whew! I've just exhausted a significant chunk of my Turkish right there.

Mehmet rolls his eyes and knits his eyebrows. "You speak Turkish!"

I oblige him by reciting my list of fruits and vegetables. My daughter, whose Turkish is a lot better than mine, has grilled me on these endlessly and I am very proud of my ability to pronounce fruits and vegetables in Turkish. I nailed persimmons at the greengrocer the other day and it was the high point of my week. (It's hurma, in case you're interested. Feel free to learn it: you never know when that might come in handy!)

Mehmet lets out a sigh and goes to sit down. Good: maybe he'll stop asking me Do you speak Turkish? now. Maybe he'll even try to learn English instead of pestering me for Turkish.

My students aren't the only ones who think I speak Turkish. At the airport, the man in passport control thought I was Turkish; the lady at the drug store talked to me in Turkish; fully half of the kids and their parents who come to our program to be registered walk right up to me and start speaking in Turkish.

The sad truth is that I really don't speak Turkish at all.

Ironically, when we lived in Japan, I had exactly the opposite problem. I speak Japanese very well, but no one who didn't know me ever assumed I could. Whenever I went somewhere for the first time, I used to spend ages trying to convince people that I really understood what they were saying. I once spent an afternoon showing a Chinese-American friend around Yokohama. Towards the end of the day, I felt like a ventriloquist's dummy: every person we met directed their questions to my friend, who would then look helplessly at me until I supplied him with an English translation.

In Japan, it used to take ages to get people to accept what I could do. Nothing I say seems to convince some people I can't speak Turkish.

I can't help but find it frustrating: in Japan, where I could do plenty, I despaired of ever establishing the kind of credibility I've managed to effortlessly -- and erroneously -- acquire here. I'd have given just about anything to be taken for a native in Japan. In seventeen years in Japan, it happened to me exactly once, when a blind woman at the station asked me to help her pay for her ticket.

As we file out of the classroom, Mehmet and his pal, Osman, bid me goodbye in Turkish, grinning impishly. They're positive I understand what they're saying: hope springs eternal.

I sneak up to the computer room in order to write something I can post on my blog. Bloglarınıza erişmek için Google Hesabınızla oturum açın, I read on the screen. I'm pretty sure this has something to do with writing a new post, but who knows for sure?

Someone is talking to me: it's one of the African students. "İngilizce biliyormusunuz?" he's asking me. Good grief: even the African students think I speak Turkish!

One thing I've learned here: it's better to be capable and thought incapable than incapable and assumed capable.

I miss Japan with all my heart.



Patrick said...

I would love to go to Japan. One day perhaps. My first overseas destination, probably.. =D

Anne Spollen said...

I didn't know you could speak Japanese so well!

Turkish is, I've heard, almost impossible to master. Even people who have learned several languages without too much effort have admitted to being stumped when they tried Turkish.

I think it's great that you even know the little that you do.

Charles Gramlich said...

I guess I don't understand why someone would not accept what you say at face value. Sounds like some paranoia on their parts perhaps, the fear that you're listening in?

Vijaya said...

Ah, but you'd make such a good Turk!

Postman said...

Zowie. Who'd have thought you'd have the exact opposite problem you had in Japan elsewhere in Asia? That's wacky. But I think perhaps it's both an eagerness to communicate and a desire to teach you something back that makes international students speak to their teachers in their native tongues. My kids used to do it to me all the time, even though for the first seven months of my sojourn I couldn't speak Korean. They used to ask me if I could speak it all the time, and even if I said "no" it failed to register with them.

I eventually went ahead and learned the Korean phrase for "I don't speak Korean" out of irritation, but perhaps that did more harm than good...

Robin said...

I hope he wasn't whispering, "I think you're hot. Wanna go out Friday night?" in Turkish.

It is uber cool that you speak Japanese. I even think it's uber cool that you can count to five and name fruits in Turkish. I consider you Turkish and Japanese. You're Jurkish. Hmmm. You can be Tapanese if you'd like.

Bish Denham said...

What? Turnish and Japanese aren't the same language?

Maybe you could confound your students by speaking Japanese when they speak Turkish to you. LOL

Helen said...

Aaah Mary, whatever. In my books you are a legend for being able to speak just one foreign language. There is always the desire to have some credibility wherever we go isn't there - with your time in Japan, it must have been your love for the people and country that made you want to be accepted. You perhaps need to learn the phrase in Turkish "I know what you're up to Mehmet".

Charlie said...

We have a little different situation here with such a high Hispanic population. We have a mutual pidgin language called Spanglish: a conversation is carried on with words from both Spanish and English.

As time goes by, I've learned a lot of Spanish, and vice versa. I figure I only need another 20 years to have a really bueno handle on Español.

MG Higgins said...

Oh, my goodness, this is so funny. I can't imagine being in your position. Good luck learning Turkish, if you choose to do so. Although it doesn't really seem necessary.

Mary Witzl said...

Patrick -- You should definitely go for a visit. Japan is a fascinating country -- all the more so if you study the language a little before you go.

Anne -- I first went to Japan in my young 20s, when my brain was still pliable. I can speak, read and write Japanese, though my writing sometimes makes people smile -- or frown in confusion.

My problem here is that a number of my colleagues who are not native Turks speak Turkish very well, making my own tiny efforts look pitiful by comparison. I need to surround myself with monoglot dunces -- that would do wonders for my ego.

Charles -- It really doesn't make sense, but there it is! When I lived in the Netherlands, a lot of people thought I was Dutch, but as soon as I told them I couldn't speak Dutch, they left me alone. Not so here. You're probably right: the kids want to know whether I speak Turkish or not so they can feel free to diss me in class.

Vijaya -- I'd make a GREAT Turk -- I already look the part! It's really a thrill to be able to 'pass' this way. I just wish I could better fulfill so many people's linguistic expectations.

Postman -- I have mastered the Turkish for "I'm sorry, but I don't speak Turkish." I've polished my rendition of this pretty well and it generally has the desired effect, so I know I'm not butchering the pronunciation. But you're right: it sort of defeats the purpose: instead of letting yourself off the hook, you just sound like you're holding out. I suspect the best thing to do is to say this with a really crappy accent, but my pride won't let me.

Robin -- Ha! Mehmet is plenty daft, but he's not trying to win my middle-aged heart (or -- sigh -- body). Besides, there are half a dozen pretty young teachers he could try this on. I suspect he's just trying to curry favor in order to get better grades. Or to find out if I'm offended over all the things he's been saying behind my back in Turkish.

Bish -- 'Turnish' sounds like a fun language. And Japanese and Turkish have some similarities: they are written phonetically (unlike English) and both languages lack irritating and hard-to-learn features like auxiliaries and articles.

And I am definitely going to try speaking Japanese in class. Though 70% of my class are such thickos they'll probably just assume I'm speaking English...

Helen -- I learned Japanese when I was a lot younger, and I was thrilled to be learning a language that everyone assured me I'd never learn: that was a huge attraction.

What I'd really like to learn in Turkish is the sentence, "Even if I did know Turkish, I'd be damned if I'd use it in this class. Now shut up and open your book." But if I ever used that even once, there would be no end of trouble: they'd never let up on me.

Charlie -- Yo hablo a little Spanglish myself, hombre! Que tal, mi amigo?

One of my Turkish students, a really sweet, hard-working kid, went to work in Florida this summer. He learned a lot of English, but he also met a lot of Hispanic people there and came home with a burning desire to learn Spanish. I love it that all the Spanish-speaking people he met were so kind and supportive that they made him want to learn their language too. Even if he ends up with Spanglish highly flavored with Turkish, I'm still thrilled with his achievement -- and even more, his attitude.

MG -- I really have no time to learn Turkish -- especially this semester, as we are all being worked a lot harder. The truth is, I don't really need it, but I still want to learn. It would also mean that 75% of the Turkish-speaking staff would have to go to another room to gossip.

Anonymous said...

"Even if I did know Turkish, I'd be damned if I'd use it in this class. Now shut up and open your book." equals "Türkçe konuşabilsem bile bunu derste yapamam! Şimdi kapa çeneni ve kitabını aç!"

Falak said...

I know how thst feels! In Bombay you can get by if you know Hindi but Marathi is the language that they speak here. People just assume that you know how to converse in Marathi. I look dumbstruck everytime people at the railway station or in the train ask me something in marathi and nod my head in answer. At times it makes me feel foolish :P

Lily Cate said...

I would love to learn a forgein language, but I think part of the problem is living in an area where there is virtually no opportunity to use it. Sigh.

WordWrangler said...

SO.... let me ask you a question. Do you speak Turkish? ;)

Seriously, I think it's awesome that you are fluent in japanese. That would be a fantastic skill to have!


Mary Witzl said...

P -- Oh, I am SO going to use that on my very last day of class! I'll start practicing it right now and I should be fluent in, let's see...seven months' time.

Falak -- I've never met anyone from the Subcontinent who doesn't know at the very least two languages. I have Sri Lankan students who speak Tamil, English, and Sinhalese, and some of them can understand a few others too. I am in awe of them. I'll bet you can speak at least two, right? And yet Indians who speak two languages often feel ashamed that they don't know more. We need that attitude in America.

Lily -- The one thing that really makes people want to learn a language is the need to communicate in it. Studying a language for the sake of studying it is a dry, sad business. No doubt that's just how my students feel. . .

Word Wrangler -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

Being able to speak Japanese was a great skill to have in Japan. Here it's about as useful as a chocolate toothbrush. I find myself wanting to tell people that I'm really not a linguistic dunce, I'm more of a one-trick pony.

Helen said...

Hey Mary - A chocolate toothbrush would be the so cool! Anyway, just to change the subject completely, I'd love to see the "author photograph" that Kim took of you. How about putting it on your blog?

Mary Witzl said...

Helen -- You are right: a chocolate anything is good, just not very useful.

I've got a pact with myself: the minute I manage to sell something big that I've written, or failing that, land an agent, then I will post my author photo on my blog. I'm shy about sticking it out there where everybody can see it. (Especially since I've already described it as a silk purse from a sow's ear...)

Falak said...

Ha! You hit the bull's eye there! I speak three languages pretty fluently but not knowing the one that gets government officials and shopkeepers going makes my knowledge useless:)

laura said...

To be incapable and thought capable sounds like most of our world leaders. Maybe you should run for an office!!

angryparsnip said...

My very tall, blond son speaks Japanese but when in Tokyo they always answer in English even if he speaks Japanese first.
In Osaka where he lives they seem to take you at face value and he has never had any problem. Didn't you live in Tokyo ? Maybe it is just Tokyo thing ?

As always so enjoy your stories...

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- Ah, but at least you know three languages. Think how much worse an American would feel in your shoes.

Laura -- I couldn't, though: as a general rule I don't speak the politician language. Forked Tongue, that is.

AP -- Thank you for liking my stories!

Actually, it's not a Tokyo thing, it's a where-you-live-and-are-known thing. That is why your son is accepted in Osaka, but not in Tokyo, and why my family and I had trouble whenever I went out of our sphere of acquaintance. In my own neighborhood in Abiko, a commuter town of Tokyo, everybody knew I spoke Japanese and I didn't have to go through the whole song and dance. Whenever I went to a new place, though, I had to go through the 'I really do understand thing' again and again. I used to feel that my face spoke louder than my voice. The minute they saw me, most strangers froze and thought, 'Uh oh: English'.

adrienne said...

At least they must be careful what they say in front of you! You can learn enough Turkish to keep them guessing...

kara said...

you should just answer in japanese. problem solved! though i'm not sure how.

Martha Flynn said...

I also miss Japan. When can we run away together?

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- They're in a real pickle. Half of them suspect I really don't know a thing; half of them are convinced that I'm just putting on a show of ignorance. They don't know what they can and can't say. Actually, that's pretty nice.

Kara -- Once, when I was utterly exhausted after six straight hours of teaching and barely knew which end was up and which was down, I DID speak to them in Japanese, utterly by accident. It didn't make a blind bit of difference. The awful truth is, I think they thought it was English.

Martha -- Any old time! How about Thursday morning, just before my four straight hours of teaching pre-intermediate kids who are 65% real beginners?

Where were you in Japan?

Martha Flynn said...

Yikes! After four straight hours of teaching we should sweep you away to a turkish spa!

I was in Japan from 1986-1992. I went to Seisen for elementary school.

Katie Alender said...

I still remember the two Turkish phrases I had to recite in the receiving line at my brother's wedding. Don't know how they're spelled, but if I were in Turkey, people would know what I was saying... even if I didn't.

I also remember "diet cola" with all the proper emphasis. ;-)

Mary Witzl said...

Martha -- Our time in Japan overlapped by a couple of years; I left in 1990 and came back in 1992.

I remember Seisen because it was in Setagaya, where I used to live -- or so I seem to remember.

Katie -- You're ahead of me, then! I can count to 500, do fruits and vegetables, days of the week, months, and a dozen or so phrases. And I know the words for 'Shut up' and 'You lazy thing, you!' Sigh...