Thursday, 1 November 2007

Patronising Foreigners

One of the most annoying things about life in a foreign country is, I think, the fact that you're marked out as different and become treated as such, unavoidably. This is especially true if you're of different ethnic origin to the native population, but it happens even in situations where the 'foreigner' is extremely similar to the 'host' - like Australians in England.

I was thinking about this the other night, while watching Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. In it, Gordon was introduced to the staff of the kitchen he'd be 'working with' (trans: shouting at), and quickly discovered one of the chefs was French. He immediately insisted on addressing the man in broken French at every opportunity - answering oui or non to his questions, shouting tu es un putain! at him when he did things wrong - even though the guy spoke perfect English and was probably more adept at swearing than the great Gordom Ramsay himself.

I felt very strongly for that French chef, because I know his position - and how frustrating it is - very well. There is nothing more grating than doing your best to fit in, to assimilate, to respect your hosts by learning the language and behaving as is expected - only to find that at every turn you're constantly reminded of your foreign-ness by people wanting to show off their schoolboy French/German/Spanish/whatever.

It happened to me all the time in Japan, and the tendency of the Japanese to immediately try to speak English - however awful - with every white person they come across, was something I initially found sweet and welcoming. But the longer I was there, and the better my Japanese became, the more irritating and patronising I found it. "I'm not an idiot!" I kept wanting to shout. "I am actually capable of learning how to speak your language! And I speak it better than you speak mine!" But that would have made me come across as a maniac. Perhaps there is something maniacal about thinking such thoughts. But just try listening to a bank clerk or government official or station attendant explain a complicated rule in a language he barely knows, for the umpteenth time, and you'll start to get slightly maniacal yourself. I guarantee it.

By far the most annoying aspect of being a Japanese-speaking Brit in Japan is the tendency for people - even your closest friends - to drop English words randomly into the conversation, even though they know your Japanese is good. Even Mamiko does this sometimes. This morning while I was in the shower she knocked on the door and shouted "Chotto, mirror ga hoshii'n da kedo" - she wanted the mirror - even though she knows that I know the Japanese word for it. But you can't ask why they're doing this, lest you sound churlish.

My favourite example was told to me by a guy I used to work with. He had to go to the dentist, and went through the whole procedure of booking and appointment and describing his symptoms in Japanese. Then when he was laying down on the chair and the dentist was starting to drill, he was told, "Moshi itaku nattara, right hand wo agete kudasai ne."

I mean, if you can understand the rest of that sentence, you already know what the Japanese word for 'right hand' is! And if you don't, then the sentence will still be meaningless. (Although you might be able to guess from context.) So why say it?

I've never quite understood this tendency, and for a long time I thought it was only Japanese people that did it, but Gordon Ramsay has proved to me that British people are just as guilty, so I suppose it's a universal human trait to patronise foreigners.

Then again, I think of the examples I know of foreigners living in Japan for years and never bothering to learn to lingo, and I suppose it's really our fault rather than the Japanese. (And in my experience, the English - and in this I really do exclude the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish - are definitely the worst culprits.)


zero_zero_one said...

I take the overall point that you're making, but I think that you're being too hard on Gordon Ramsay.

In fact, on reflection, I don't think I agree with your point - I understand how frustrating it can be if you do know the local language, but surely the intention of a local speaking to you in your native tongue is to be polite/friendly/respectful? It's not really someone being patronising.

Bilbo said...

I've had the same experience living in Germany. My German is (or was at the time, at least) near-native. My accent marked me as a foreigner, although not necessarily as an American, and Germans always seemed to want to speak English. The same thing in reverse happens to Agnes here: when people find out she's German, they always try to trot out their very "best" high school German...which usually grates on the ear. I've always tried to assume people mean well when they do this (as Zero_Zero_One also does), but I also don't try to play catch-up - I'll try to make some gratuituous comment about their linguistic skill, but will also keep speaking German even if they speak English.

noisms said...

surely the intention of a local speaking to you in your native tongue is to be polite/friendly/respectful? It's not really someone being patronising.

I'm sure that's what such people are thinking. But it doesn't make any sense: firstly, how do they know that just because I'm white I'll understand English? and secondly, it's only polite/friendly/respectful if it's done towards tourists. If it's routinely practised towards immigrants it ceases being polite/friendly/respectful and actually becomes a barrier to assimilation.

Imagine if we all decided to speak broken, crappy Urdu whenever we saw somebody who looked like they might be of South Asian origin, or muddled Mandarin whenever we saw somebody who looked East Asian. Such people would never come to feel as if they were belonged.

noisms said...

bilbo: I used to employ the same tactic in Japan - much to people's annoyance, probably. If a Japanese person said something to me in English I'd often repeat it back to them in Japanese in inquisitive tones, as if unsure what they meant. Sometimes I'd pretend to be French, and unable to speak any English at all.

Both really childish things to do, actually, now that I think back. But that's what years of frustration will do to a man!

zero_zero_one said...

OK then, I guess if friends/colleagues continue to speak to you in that way then it could become really grating, but if Joe Public/man on the street tries to talk English to you, what are you going to do?

(idea: for when noisms next goes to Japan have a t-shirt printed that says Seriously, I speak Japanese.)

(and I'll write that in English for added confusion)