Two weeks ago, I went to the bakery outside my Friday school for my usual chocolate croissant and ordered my pastry in Japanese. On that particular day, however, the girl at the counter ignored the fact that I’d already told her what I wanted and asked me in English, “What would you like?” I repeated my order in Japanese. She asked me, in English, “Take out?” “Take out,” I replied, in Japanese. “120 yen,” she said, in English.
“Thank you,” I said in Japanese, adding: “… but I don’t speak English.”
“I don’t speak English,” has become my go-to response lately, when I’m making the effort to speak Japanese and get English in return. I got the idea from Meir, who has long employed this strategy of discouraging random people who are eager to use him to practice their English. My issue with the woman at the counter wasn’t so much about being used for practice; as someone thirsty to speak even a bit of Spanish or Italian in Japan, I understand the urge. For me, it’s partly about the fact that being spoken to in English makes me insecure about my Japanese skills. In larger part, it’s also due to annoyance at the assumption that all foreigners speak English. Yes, English is fast-becoming the global language so it’s a good bet that someone with a face like mine might speak it – as I obviously do – but what if I didn’t? Besides, the assumption isn’t that Europeans are shrewd enough to capitalize on the global trends. The assumption that we all speak English comes from the same place as the outmoded English word “Chinaman” to signify anyone who comes from Asia. As a result, when my Japanese efforts are ignored these days, I’m no longer a native English speaker.
“Where do you come from?” asked the woman at the counter, in English.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak English,” I repeated in Japanese.
“Where do you come from?” she asked me, finally, in Japanese.
“Italy,” I said. It’s true enough; I just got dual citizenship.
“Ah so so so …” she said. “Here is your croissant.”
“Thank you.” I said. We were, at last, both speaking the same language. I left the shop smug; maybe the girl at the counter had learned something that day.
Today I went back to the pastry shop for my Friday chocolate croissant. When the girl said, “Buon Giorno!” to me I was surprised; not because she remembered where I was “from” … but because I hadn’t recognized her until that instant.