An interesting thing happened to me today. An "acquaintance" (Google+ tells me that this is "people you've met but aren't particularly close to" so let's go with that) today asked me if I spoke Vietnamese in front of a group of other acquaintances, to which I answered honestly. (I don't) His response was, roughly:
"What is wrong with you Californians? You grow up in a multicultural place and you can't even speak your own language."
Whistle! Penalty! Foul! Red card! Technical!
What I am about to write is more for me than it is for you because this exchange has really thrown me into a tizzy and I need somewhere to work out my thoughts in a meaningful way. Something more productive than "F#%! that guy!" and "Are you effing kidding me?!" Though it feels good to go on a whinge like that, it's not that helpful. But if you want to keep reading, please do. It is a blog after all.
I think I responded to this comment as best as possible given the shock and embarrassment I was experiencing at the moment. That is to say, I gave him the stinkiest stink eye I could muster and just waved him off because it wasn't worth my time. And it's not. I can't be bothered with stuff like that at this point in my life. Maybe if I were 22 and still minoring in American Ethnic Studies, I'd have some awesome speech for him quoting Ronald Tataki and Spike Lee. But I've calmed down a bit since then when it comes to racial stuff. It can get really tiring being offended all the time. It's also really hard to explain yourself without sounding defensive or like you have something to apologize for. So it's better to just pull the stink eye out. That's what it's there for.
Rough transition: I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned this before, but the Tokyo expat community is pretty weird. I don't mean that as an offense, but it seems to be very different from other expat communities in the world. Foreigners just aren't that friendly with other foreigners here. Everyone thinks they're better than the other guy for various illogical reasons. Because you can speak Japanese fluently. Because you're not an English teacher. Because you've lived here longer. Because you have Japanese friends. Because you're married to a Japanese person. Because you think you're not an obnoxious foreigner. It's weird and I think that this is just a Japan thing.
Another interesting thing about foreigners in Japan (or actually, just people in general) is that they tend to fall back on wildly stupid generalizations about each other in a not jokey kind of way when meeting strangers.
- "Oh you're from Australia? Have you ever pet a Koala?" -- No, because they all have chlamydia and are high on eucalyptus leaves
- "Oh you're from England? Do you know Kate Middleton?" -- No, but she's hot.
- "Oh you're American? Fuck you." -- Oh...umm, ok. Nice to meet you too.
You know that tidbit about the rest of the world hating Americans? It's totally true! Hating on Americans simply because they are Americans is a thing. Fair enough. I get it. Sometimes I hate America too. (Okaaay, "hate" is a strong word but whatever, free speech! Yay America and yay the internet!) But their understanding of Americans and American culture can be very limited. Rightfully so! You didn't grow up there, so why would you know the difference between the East and West coast? Why would you understand anything about Asian-American families and the American immigrant experience? I tend not to fault people for their first offense of ignorance. I try my best to educate people about my country and culture in a non-condescending and polite way. But..I don't know, what happened today went beyond that. I just don't feel like I need to explain myself. This was personal for the kind of relationship we had.
My feelings over this whole matter are pretty weird in that I'm really surprised that I'm so affected by the exchange. I had a pretty intense fight or flight response in the moment. And once that kind of settled, I was just sad. My mind was rationalizing everything saying "It's fine. He didn't mean to offend you. He just doesn't know." but my body wanted none of that. I just wanted to punch something. Or cry. So I did a little, in the bathroom. I'll admit it. And it felt good I guess. But then I was upset that I had let him get a reaction out of me which made me want to cry more...a vicious cycle!
Truth be told, I am really sensitive about my inability to speak Vietnamese. It's always been a sore subject for me since my teens, so it's no wonder he struck such an emotional nerve. But even though it's an issue for me, it's really not something people should comment on. That's my opinion. There are plenty of people who, for various reasons, can't speak their parents' native tongue fluently. That's America and that's what's great about it. How many Italian-Americans can actually speak Italian? Why isn't anyone up in arms over that?
Look see? I'm totally Vietnamese! I've BEEN to Vietnam! My last name is NGUYEN!
Just because I don't speak Vietnamese doesn't make us any less Vietnamese. I'm really proud to be Vietnamese-American. I really am. And I'm proud of both - to be an American and to be of Vietnamese descent. Maybe I didn't always feel that way - yeah, when I was little, I wanted to be taller and have blonde hair. I've been called "whitewashed" a plenty of times. I'm not Asian enough or not White enough -- that's sort of the feeling. But I've come to terms with all that. When I went to high school and started seeing more people "like" me, it sort of washed away all those insecurities. I guess today was a little bit of a wake up call.
A gay friend of mine recently told me a story about how his Japanese boss put him on the spot at a work function about which woman in the office was his type, basically trying to get him to admit that he was gay. I remember him telling me this story and feeling sorry for him, but now I really get why that was a big deal to him. Both being Bay Area kids, we were brought up in this little bubble where people are slightly more educated about diversity, be it homosexuality or race. But we're not in the hand-holding, flag waving, accepting Bay anymore and things like this are bound to happen from time to time. Even though we grow out of these insecurities, the scars are still there. If you poke at it hard enough, it'll remind you how you got it in the first place.