Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Geisha 2 Kaisha 0

I've been making breakthroughs at the Kaisha recently. Just last night one of the Professionals who sits in spitting distance from my white ghetto and who is one of the few I don't have a personal vendetta against for the very reason that he nods and smiles when our paths cross, popped over and asked me to do some work for him. He must have felt sorry for me or seen the glazed look I have been sporting of late for lack of work. There are some people you just know aren't assholes, and judging by his smiling silence towards me and his interactions with the non-untouchables at the Kaisha, he is definitely a good guy. The way he poked his head over my desk barrier was so unobtrusive and sweet that I just about broke down and cried. And I wasn't even put off by hearing him speak English for the first time either! In fact, it endeared me to him even more. I find it very disconcerting when I've either interacted with a person only in Japanese or I've only ever heard them speak Japanese, and then they start speaking English. It's not just their tone of voice (which funnily enough, I think drops for women and gets higher for men) but their very being changes in front of my eyes. They are no longer the Japanese people I thought they were, but some hazy in-between character that has done a language switcheroo on me.

Being the sweet-tempered girl that I am, code-switching usually puts or pisses me off. And I don't think it has to do with the switcher's level of English either.

This past weekend I went on a field trip with my kimono school to Ibaraki and on the bus ride there, one of the younger teachers I hadn't met before started chatting me up in Japanese. The conversation was smashing and for the rest of the day we chatted here and there. During one of our last stops, while looking at ceramic tableware she did the switch on me. She asked me if I cooked at home by asking whether I "prepare anything" and not catching what she said, I did a Japanese "pardon?" So she immediately asked if she should speak in English and continued for the rest of the evening in English.

Was she:

A) waiting for me to trip up so she could speak in English?
B) unsure of whether I could actually understand Japanese, despite having conversed in it moments earlier?
C) none of the above?

There are a couple reasons this bothered me. No one else on the field trip speaks English so by continuing to speak to me in English she was definitely excluding everyone from the conversation and quite possibly showing off how Clever she is. Second, would it have hurt her to repeat the question instead of switching to English? I haven't felt this in a long time but I often joke about it with hard-line Japanese who insist that people speak in Japanese as this is Japan, but it irks me when people do the switch. I'll let them speak English when they come to Canada. I of course always look for the worst in people so in my petit conspiracy theory every Japanese person committing the switch is out to get me or at least to show off their superior foreign language skills. If I step back for a moment, I realize they are probably trying to accommodate me, believing that if they speak in English I will feel more comfortable. This may have been true when I was a punk exchange student at uni but now that I no longer have to think before I speak Japanese, it's a little insulting, especially if said switcher has been conversing with me in Japanese the whole time.

It's not always like that however, as I sometimes get pleading stares and exceedingly grateful thank yous from people at the Kaisha when they speak to me in Japanese and I go along with it. For these people, they are grateful that I am making them comfortable by continuing in Japanese, even if I have to run and look up the word for "board of directors meeting" later.

Ultimately I think I get freaked out (and sometimes insulted) when people do the switch. Most times I've found that people come across as markedly different in English and Japanese. I think sometimes this is because a different persona comes out depending on which language they are speaking and other times their personality is inhibited by the depth of their language skills. My snazziness in English is definitely lost in Japanese but with intimacy and gradually increasing proficiency in it, I find other ways to make the beau laugh, a skill I would feel truly lost without.

On a totally different note and because I will forget if I don't write it down, some of the non-Professional men (there are so very few) at the Kaisha are hot! I remember seeing a small huddle of them at last year's Christmas party and could tell immediately by their appearance that they were either from the mail room or the IT department. It's so refreshing to see what I consider "people from the outside" on the inside, because all the bullshit suits make me want to loosen my nonexistent tie. I have also recently discovered a mailboy who looks like a host! He is sporting the poofy colour-from-a-box hair that is classic a la host and I think perhaps he is moonlighting for extra cash! Will be sure to inform you if I run into him while researching my Host Series.


Reannon said...

That's interesting...How exactly are the two persona's different, would you say? I've noticed that too...I think you're right in that a sense of humor probably goes first...I've noticed that people seem a lot more guarded, hesitant and insecure when they speak in English (versus Japanese).

I read that when someone speaks Japanese, they use the right hemisphere of their brain, the part that's more emotional, creative...this is because Japanese involves so many vowel sounds. When those same people speak English (or most other languages) they use their left hemisphere...Maybe that has something to do with it? Or I don't know...maybe that's complete BS.

semisara said...

I hate to be elitist or stuck up, but I find The Switch to be incredibly insulting and will completely stop talking to someone mid-conversation if they suddenly start speaking English. I am not your personal eikaiwa buddy. I know Japanese. This is Japan. We will speak Japanese.

Exempt from this rule are very close friends and kikoku shijo, who talk in a really bizarre combination of the two languages anyway.

Kelley Dawne said...

I totally understand this post. It really pisses me off when I'm out with the boyfriend and people STILL talk to me in English, even after I start the conversation in Japanese.
Or if I don't understand one word in the sentence they switch to English rather than explain that one word or rephrase it.
Maybe they're just trying to be nice, but sometimes I think they do it because they think I'm too stupid to speak Japanese or they want a free English lesson.

Kevin said...

Gotta agree on strongly disliking the "switch" especially when my Japanese is much better than the other person's English.
But, my personal biggest pet peeve happens when making a purchase (or ordering a meal) with either the wife or some other local in tow. For one reason or another I don't clearly hear the question, responding with a 「はい?」. The clerk/punk will then turn and start talking to whomever I'm with. Total disregard to the fact that all interaction up to that point have been in very good Japanese.
That said, I wouldn't mind conversing with someone in English during my 10+ hour working days. Don't think we have one of them though.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Reannon- that's interesting about the right/left brain theory, let me know if you find out any more about it! From what I've seen, the different personas vary from person to person, and a lot of the time I find people to be bolder in English once they are no longer confined by Japanese and all the restrictive "cultural stuff" that accompanies it.

semisara- I like your hardline attitude! The switch is markedly different from someone who speaks in both languages to broaden their articulateness\range of expression.

Kelley Dawne and Kevin- yes! yes! I think it's even worse when the person with me is non-Japanese Asian and speaks less Japanese than I do, but the switcher insists on communicating with them!