By Mike Guest
(The following is fiction but based on a series of actual incidents, sewn together with a bit of artistic license. The way in which peoples’ good intentions get misinterpreted and misdirected in a foreign language, and ultimately leads to tension and frustration, is a topic of great interest for me)
There it was near the bottom of the list of clubs. ESS — English Speaking Society. Tomoyuki liked the sound of that. It had an air of sophistication and worldliness about it. Coming from a small provincial town, Tomoyuki couldn’t really think of himself as a man of ‘society’, especially since until this April he had focused almost solely on the university entrance exam. But now, having entered a prestigious university in a bigger city he felt eager to shake off his provincialism, and perhaps joining ESS was the way to start.
Ryota, the only other student from his high school to have entered the same university, tried to convince Tomoyuki to join him in the tennis club. “The seniors seem cool, there are lots of social events, and there are some freshman hotties who are managers”. But while Ryota was more of a sports and party guy, Tomoyuki yearned to be erudite and sophisticated. And joining ESS at the university was his first-stage ticket.
Although he knew that his high school English classes had not really been practical, despite Fukushima sensei’s attempts to give them life and relevance, plus the occasional visit from an ALT from Kenya (to whom Tomoyuki was one of the few to listen and respond to with rapt attention), he had scored well on the exams and felt that he had a better overall grasp of English than most of his classmates, who seemed to only be able to produce individual words or set phrases.
He arrived several minutes early for the first ESS meeting, eager to show his interest. A few students were already there, one or two faces he recognized as other freshmen from orientation, plus a sprinkling of those who were clearly seniors. He nodded at the few
familiar faces but kept his head down. One older guy had a notably casual, almost arrogant, air about him. Legs stretched out forward, crossed at the ankles, a little too relaxed.
They’ll probably ask me to introduce myself in English, Tomoyuki thought, and started practicing the mantra in his head. Just as his brain was weighing up “come from” vs. “came from” he heard English chatter coming down the hall towards the ESS room.
The foreign teacher who led ESS, was Professor Goertzen. Tomoyuki remembered the name from the class schedule distributed just the day before. He assumed Goertzen would start by introducing himself and welcoming everyone in English, but instead Goertzen strode in chatting amiably in English with a female student as if they were on a private date. Somehow, that cavalier approach made Tomoyuki feel uneasy, as did the fact that the girl crossed her legs when she sat down.
But wait a second, he thought, that girl is good. I bet she’s a returnee- that’s why she’s so fluent. He heard her call the teacher, “Dave”. Ok, Tomoyuki thought, foreigners are usually rather informal with each other, but this seemed to be overly familiar to him. It was almost as if the girl was flaunting it. “I’m not one of you. I’m an English speaker!” Well, maybe you’re just feeling jealous because she’s fluent, he thought. After all, wouldn’t you like to be able to communicate in English with that degree of confidence and control?
Goertzen began. “Today Kanako, a fourth year student, will lead us. But feel free to speak at any time. And relax!”
Relax, on my first day, yeah right! How long has this guy been in Japan? Then Kanako began to speak, just a little faster than Tomoyuki could follow comfortably, her chirpy banter filled with “yeahs”, “likes”, and “wannas.” OK- tone it down already Ms. Returnee, he thought, and then realized he hadn’t been paying much attention to what she was actually saying.
As fate would have it, she called on him first. A self-introduction is natural at this point, he thought. “My name is Sakai Tomoyuki, Tomoyuki Sakai” he blurted out, correcting the name order to suit the English style. “Sorry, what was that”? Goertzen butted in. What was what? Tomoyuki’s mind raced. “It’s my name,” he said. What did you think it was? “Tomoyuki Sakai,” Kanako repeated with an air of finality, and fixed him with a look that was either of encouragement and compassion or one of condescension and pity. Tomoyuki assumed it was the latter.
Just as he was about to continue, Kanako asked him something else, ending in the word “from.” What? He wanted to check what her question had been. “My hometown?” he asked, but realized that his intonation was flat and that it had come out like a statement instead: “Where are you from?” “My hometown!” Duh!
He wanted to smack himself in the head. Kanako flashed him that look of pity again. A few other students shifted uncomfortably. Goertzen spoke up. “Well of course you come from your hometown. We all do. But what is your hometown?” There were a few chuckles, especially from Mr. Casual. Goertzen did nothing to discourage them. Tomoyuki felt his cheeks burning and answered in one word, but in his lingering embarrassment the discussion that followed completely eluded him.
When he re-focused, the topic had changed and Goertzen was now saying something about “…six years of high school English …you can’t speak English yet.” Tomoyuki was perturbed by this. Why don’t we speak English?! Because this is Japan! Are we expected to suddenly change our national language after high school? Was Goertzen one of those arrogant foreigners who thought that Japanese people were somehow obligated to speak English, and who thought that people who didn’t speak English well were less than himself? Tomoyuki didn’t think of himself as being particularly nationalistic but now he felt that part of himself burning. He thought he might redeem his earlier awkwardness by volunteering an answer to this question. Foreigners speak directly, he thought, so I will too.
“Because here is Japan!” he blurted out, inadvertently pointing to his nose. “I know this is Japan,” Goertzen looked a bit exasperated. “I just wanted to know how and why the English system here has failed the students!” Who said I failed English, Tomoyuki thought. I actually had one of the highest English scores in my high school! Was this arrogant gaijin already judging him?
“Ba chew wanna get better at English, yeah?” Kanako chimed in. “Yes. I want to be,” he responded. Then he realized that English verbs usually require objects. “It”, he added awkwardly several seconds later. “I want to be… it.” He saw Mr. Casual sigh and ostentatiously check his cell phone.
Tomoyuki wanted to smack himself again. Every twelve-year old in Japan can say, “I want to become good at English” and here he had messed up even this, the simplest of English sentences. He felt his cheeks burning again, kept his head down, and checked his watch.
Tomoyuki ran into Ryota in the passageway later that day. “How was that English thing you went to?” “OK, I guess.” “Any hotties? “I didn’t notice.” “Yeah? Well, there’s still room for freshmen in the tennis club!” Tennis sounded good to Tomoyuki.
After the ESS meeting, Goertzen was chatting with Kanako in his office. “I’m not sure why that Tomoyuki guy came to ESS today. He didn’t seem interested in English and was even a little hostile. And he can’t speak the language at all, although I suppose that ESS could help him get a bit better.”
“Well he’s a small town boy,” Kanako responded, “I tried to be nice and help him but he just seemed, well, awkward. He doesn’t know how to interact with people like us. Sometimes I pity people like that.”