Buon Giorno


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.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Yoli says:

    That was EXCELLENT, I have chosen to do this many times while in China. Like you, I want to learn, I cannot entertain fear or relief when someone answers back in English.

  2. Ruben says:

    Ahah that’s cool 😉 usually when people find out I’m Italian they start telling me about their last trip to Firenze and Roma, and how the Italian “know how to live” : “mangiare, cantare, amore”.. no need to work and worry about the future, just relax, have a good time and good food and of course, sing happily everywhere… oh, and how they learned on a tv program that the colors of the Italian flag mean: green=basil, white=mozzarella and red=tomato… (no kidding, there really was a tv program saying this bull****)..
    However, all of this, in Japanese 😉

  3. Brian Barker says:

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  4. seminascosto says:

    Brian,

    Or native English speakers could just learn another damn language or two. As a whole, we’re woefully limited in that respect. I teach a doctor whose staff has recently opened a United States branch and, naturally, all of the teleconferences have to be conducted in English to accommodate the Americans … despite the fact that most of the Japanese staff doesn’t speak English. They’re all scrambling to learn and have so much added stress when having to give presentations in English far above their level. But far be it from the Americans to learn any Japanese other than, “Konnichiwa.” I get very embarrassed by my own countrymen at such moments, when I’m trying to correct my student’s speeches. He works so hard.

    Ruben:

    Do they speak to you in English first? I once had a Japanese man speak to me in Spanish. I speak Spanish so it was cool but I was just so happy he didn’t speak English to me!

    Re: the tricolore flag; don’t you love it? I suppose it’s not much different from us, before we were educated, thinking that all Japanese are “polite.” Nonetheless … a flag designed to look like tomato, basil and mozzarella? That is pretty darn silly.

    Yoli:

    It really is so frustrating! When I get English in response I start wondering about my accent, about my grammar and soon I’ve dissolved into a puddle of doubt. Not exactly helpful.

  5. Z.Allomorph says:

    I showed this entry to almost all my friends and said “SEE, I TOLD YOU! I’M NOT IMAGINING IT!” 😀
    Although it is probably a lot better in Nagoya (which is where I live) than in Tôkyô. When I went to Tôkyô for a couple of days during fuyu yasumi, some Japanese people frustrated me to a point where I almost bit my napkin. Especially when I asked something and they proved I was perfectly understandable by giving really accurate answers. In English.
    I thought of pretending not to understand English, and since I’m German, this wouldn’t be too far-fetched, but somehow I never have the presence of mind to actually do it.

  6. Tony says:

    This has happened to me as well. I just answer in Japanese and continue the conversation in Japanese, too. When they ask me if I’m American, I retort and ask them if they are Japanese? This usually makes them feel strange. One smart ass answer in exchange for another one.

  7. Z.Allomorph says:

    Tony: I don’t get it. Aren’t you implying something like, yes, of course you are American? How should they know?

  8. Liv... says:

    I, for one, find that native French speakers are also, as you say, woefully limited when it comes to learning another language.
    You’d think it easy for them to at least be proficient in one other Romance language, like Spanish or Italian – wouldn’t bee too difficult now, would it? Well, actually, yes, it is, and very much so. Setting aside their (annoying) penchant to only speak to you in French, every other language they can be coerced into throwing at you sounds incredibly like French, too. My own boyfriend tried to make his point in a conversation for 5 minutes before I finally got it – he had switched from English-that-my-brain-perceived-as-French-but-oddly-could-not-decipher, to his actual language. And he and his friends fall down laughing when I speak English, telling me -I- sound funny! Seriously, you’d think they’ve never actually seen native English speakers.
    Sometimes I feel like pretending not to understand French at all, but that would only be worse for me, not them. And I don’t know if I should feel flattered or angry when people who don’t really know me ask me where I’m from. As in, what region (of France), implying – of course- that anyone with this degree of mastery of their damn language could not possibly be a Despised Foreigner. *sigh* I wonder how it’s like in other countries.
    There, there, my irrational ranting is finished.
    I’m still jealous of all the people who get to live in Japan, though. Guess I should’ve picked a Japanese BF, ha ha.
    That being said, something’s been nagging at me for a while. Could it be that Ribu-sensei (heh…that’s what the Japanese would call me, too) is actually Ribia-sensei (again, like me) ? And I won’t even get started on the fact that the French (again!) of all people, find my full given name excessively outlandish – and try to spell it with an Y or two (WTF?), while “Liv” seems to pass just fine.

  9. seminascosto says:

    The laughter is very obnoxious – I got it from my cousins when I spoke Spanish and I get it from staff members when I speak Japanese. Of course, we make tons of fun of Engrish and such but NOT TO THEIR FACE.

    Liv is short for Olivia, certainly.

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