Only Japanese can speak Japanese
While many Americans often assume that everybody should be able to speak English if they try, especially for people who have been in America for many years, other views exist in other parts of the world. Japanese and other Asians often assume the opposite - that people from different cultures, especially Caucasians, cannot speak their language and should not be expected to.
Out for a drink the other night, I ran into Fred in a nearby bar. Just back from a trip to America, he was reflecting on language choices, ethnicity, Asian languages, and English. Having traveled around Asia, Fred has seen some of the same paradigms repeated in different environments: beliefs that Westerners are unable to speak Asian languages, all Westerners speak English, one should always speak English to a Westerner, and Westerners cannot understand the local culture.
Fred was now discoursing about a flight he took on Japan Airlines (JAL). Fred spoke Japanese pretty well, and he knew it. He wasn't offended when Japanese staff at airports and on airlines and such persisted in speaking English to him, even when he spoke Japanese to them and his Japanese was better than their English. He followed a different world view though, believing that when people shared two or more common languages they should speak in whatever language offered the maximum understanding to both of them.
His perspective differed from many of the Japanese he met though. They believed that they should soldier on in English, even when Fred's Japanese was better than their English. Some did this because they liked to speak English, while others thought it was their obligation as people working in the travel service sector with Westerners. Japanese did not all believe this and some would speak Japanese with Fred.
Talking with a fellow expat, Fred was just moving to his key point as I walked in the room. "What makes so many Asians see Caucasian faces and assume that they do not and cannot speak whatever the language of the country is?" I didn't even try to reply as Fred went on, "Actually an even better question might be what makes many Asians see a Caucasian face and be unable to recognize that they are speaking whatever the language is. I remember once when I was hitchhiking between Tokyo and Osaka and a trucker picked me up. We had been talking for about 10 minutes, in Japanese, when he asked me if I could speak Japanese."
Fred concluded with a sweep of his hand, "It never fails to blow me away when people have beliefs so strong that they can ignore reality. How could the truck driver have talked with me for 10 minutes in Japanese without noticing what language we were speaking in?" And with that Fred took a large drink of his beer as if he had said everything worth saying.
I had heard his stories before of other Westerners in China and Korea who had had similar experiences. We all wondered why some Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese didn't think more before saying things that totally ignored the reality in front of them. I guess it all just comes down to perception. Reality is as you perceive it to be.
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