Making Up Names

By Jessica Fast Michel

In 2013, I visited Sapporo for its famous Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). This extravaganza of snow involves block after block of the city’s main drag sculpted with icy precision into giant tableaus that included a scene of a beautiful woman and a farm, a Thai palace, happy cartoons in a Hawaiian raft, and a ski jump featuring impressive shows of talent by skiers and snowboarders. Mixed in with the larger attractions were smaller snow creations of popular characters, friendly animals, dedications to various institutions. This artwork was surrounded by food stalls peddling local Sapporo specialties and the ubiquitous hordes of amateur photographers, all simultaneously blocking each other’s perfect shots.

 For us, there was also a class of local sixth grade students.

The first group that approached us, three foreigners snapping pictures like everyone else, consisted of four bright-eyed and nervously giggling children holding pre-written questions in English so cute we couldn’t help but give them our time when they shyly asked if they “could have a moment.” The yellow vests they wore and the signs around their necks proclaiming “English activity” signaled to us just the kind of communication it is our job to encourage : Japanese going out of their comfort zones in attempts to communicate with people they don’t usually and to take part in the larger, global world.

The leader of the group, the one with the lamented card of questions in hand, asked our names and had us write them down in a little notebook. How charming! They then asked what country we were from, our favorite sport (this was my question, and I answered soccer, even though I don’t give two figs about any sport), and our favorite food. A different question of each of us – further charming. The interview took less than two minutes, and as the children thanked us, still giggling, we felt as though we had contributed just a little bit to their larger global education. Gaijin for the win.

Then, a second group approached us and asked the same questions. This was fine, because they were still cute and giggling and nervous, and I decided that since I had already committed to the soccer response, I would stick with it. They also thanked us and left.

And then a third group came up. And then a fourth. We tried to explain to them in Japanese that we had already answered two and three times before, but they didn’t seem to mind that this persistence would completely skew their results when they all compared notes later, so by the fourth group, I had changed my name to Abby, and then Mary for the fifth group, and answered pizza when they asked what my favorite food was (although this is definitely not a lie of the same caliber as telling them my name was something other than what my name actually is). With the fifth group, we tried to explain to the teacher accompanying them how many times we had answered these questions, but she tartly retorted, “Please use English!!” and we were again answering the same monotonous questions, and the giggling had ceased to be charming about two groups before.

We started employing evasive maneuvers to avoid them. We moved on to the next block of snow art, but they were everywhere, little clumps of four to five children eagerly scanning the crowds for anyone who didn’t look Japanese. This had definitively become racial profiling and was no longer charming. We avoided eye contact. We stared at the ground. We saw other foreigners being questioned and rejoiced that it was a) not us, or b) a group we’d already talked to.

When a sixth group approached, we told them we spoke German.

Now, I didn’t feel good about this, because the language teacher inside me wanted to help them out, but my inner human being could not take one more round of asinine questions, the answers to which I was making up anyway. My name is not Mary. I’m not from the U.K. I don’t actually like soccer. I definitely don’t speak German.

However, there were interesting things about how the students responded to our answers. There being three of us and three questions, usually a group would ask each of us one question. To the students, if one of us was from the U.K., we all were. If one of us liked soccer or unagi-don, we all did. All but one of the five groups we talked to us assumed that the answers one of us provided applied to the whole group.

This was especially true of the question, “where are you from.” Because Japan is such a homogeny, the sixth graders did not think about the possibility that three people together could all be from different countries, which we all were. Although they could imagine that we could all like different food or sports, since they all liked different food or sports, they didn’t think that we could be from different places, because they are all from the same place. Only one group asked each of us each question and noted our different responses to each of those questions.

There are Japanese; there are foreigners. There are not really different kinds of foreigners, and especially not foreigners-hanging-together-but-from-different-countries. This perhaps illustrates their embedded view about the world as well as anything – namely, that there isn’t a lot of grey area in it. Although I applaud the students’ attempts at communicating, and especially the school for arranging such an activity for them to experience, I’m not sure how much they could really learn from Abby and Mary, who both like soccer and are from New Zealand. On the other hand, maybe just meeting Abby and Mary is enough.