Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hey, was this racist of me?

I'm sure one of the was Ukrainian
The Salaryman base of operations lies in a pretty Japanese little enclave, almost completely ethnically cleansed of everything but the Japanese. I have rarely seen any Westerners at all in the neighborhood or in the vicinity of the station, passing by one or two, probably on their way to the station to go back home after doing some English home tutoring or so. But that's about it, otherwise it's all Japanese.

But last weekend, I took toddler Sunshine to a local playground, but not the closest one we have in connection with our gated community as all the kids in the neighborhood were hiding or just refusing to come out and play. I've been there with her quite a few times and there's always kids running around there, so I thought it would be more fun for her. For some reason, it was even more kids than usual there and a fair number of parents hovering over their little offspring just like me. 

I saw one kid who looked suspiciously half-Japanese/white but didn't really think that much about it, but after a half an hour or so I noticed two white ladies, probably in their 30's or so standing and chatting just outside the playground, obviously with their kids running wild inside. As foreigners are hard to come by in the neighborhood and I thought it could be nice to at least introduce myself and little Toddler Sunshine, I walked over to them and said something like "Hi, I haven't seen so many foreigners around here, I'm glad to see that it's not only me" with an attempt of a smile. I was met with blank stares, and then confused expressions as they realized that I was talking to them. A few seconds of silence followed, me still with the smile attached to my face and toddler Sunshine attached to my arm, then one of them said "No speak English". Slightly confused in turn, I switched to Japanese and repeated the greeting and added, "where are you from?". Then they seemed to catch on and replied back in Japanese "we're from the Ukraine".  A few seconds of awkward silence followed and I squeezed out, "oh, ok, nice to meet you, wave goodbye to the nice ladies now Toddler Sunshine" as I walked back to the playground with Toddler Sunshine. 

I had assumed that they maybe would be European or slightly worse but still acceptable; Australian or even, failing all else, American and thought it could be nice to know some people in the neighborhood coming from something of a similar cultural background as me who might also be interested in having their kids get to know other more international kids. But Ukrainian not able to speak English...? The only thing we probably had in common would be the "whiteness" (and for me, that's only 50% anyway) so my interest in socializing with them quickly dropped down to somewhere below 0 degrees C. 

I almost feel like my shift from friendly interest to complete disinterest in the realization that they were Ukrainian was slightly racist, but hey, in the suburban life sometimes you just have to do some things you are not always proud of to survive!       

15 comments:

Evacomics said...

No English? That explains why they came here...

Chris said...

They are no doubt former club girls that married a visa. EVERY SINGLE woman from the former soviet bloc that I have met in Japan came just that way.

mid-Japan-crisis said...

Oh dear, I have had a very similar experience. It was very awkward.

Momotaro said...

I find it fascinating that there is this dichotomy of white/looks like a westerner=English and Asian=Japanese. I guess it's a reflection of Japanese treatment; however I think things could get along a whole lot better if everyone just started with Japanese. Correct me if I'm wrong, but all countries who have somewhat had successful immigration everyone just speaks the same language except amongst people they already know.

Also, those situations where there are three people: two native English speaker s and one native Japanese speaker and everyone can speak Japanese; yet the English speakers speak English to each other and then Japanese to the other person, while the conversation bounces around all over the place and when the Japanese speaker tries to speak English like everyone else (fair enough), they will answer back in Japanese. I mean, is it that hard to speak to each other in Japanese, regardless of the ethnic profile of the person? If it is, one can be at least polite enough to speak English to the non-native speaker to include them also.

It's all so complicated though. It also shows the true meaning of wanting to give your kids some 'international' opportunities.

Sarahf said...

And this is why I refuse to talk to anyone! A nod will suffice, and bypasses any awkward language issues.

222 said...

Being Ukrainian in Japan must suck.

Sarah, you must live in a very narrow world, with no surprises.

Mr. S. said...

My J-wife, who speaks English well from a decade abroad, wants to introduce herself to every foreign person she meets. At least with the Asians she starts with Japanese, though with the pale-faces still English. She had a moment with some Columbians not unlike yours, and in front of them I had to tell her in Japanese to speak Japanese, as their Japanese was very good, and she had no Spanish (nor have I)...

I'm also trying to teach her that most Gaijin just want to get on with their day, not have to talk with any random Gaijin they see, much less said Gaijin's loony J-wife.

Medea said...

None of the other foreign wives around here speak English, they're either former USSR or Philipinas. The Philipinas always come up to me in Japanese and speak to my husband in Tagalog. So I introduced myself once to someone I thought was Eastern European in Japanese and she was really offended because she was American and couldn't speak Japanese.
Damned if you do..

Theresa said...

When I lived in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea coast, a lot of Russian women (or from Russiany countries) worked in the entertainment business. Young, bottle-enhanced-blond, orange-lipsticked, accompanied by middle-aged Japanese connected guys. I never worried about them the way I did Japanese women in those sorts of employment situations. They seemed much more street smart and tough. Their Japanese handlers were in awe of them, but on the other hand treated their Japanese female counterparts poorly, from what I saw.
Most Japanese people in Kanazawa assumed I was Russian, not that I was blond or wore orange lipstick, but the odds were that a white woman was Russiany. At the international center library I found really old books from an American center closed down decades ago. The encyclopedia set that my family had when I was a little kid in the sixties was there, smelling of mold. Freaked me out.

kathryn said...

Racist or not, it's only natural to want to find another parent that you have a common link with. I bet if there was a another dad amongst the women, you'd want to chat to them too.

Chris - I had a Russian friend in Japan who wasn't an ex-hostess. She was married to a Spanish guy working for an international company though. Unless you get a student or spouse visa (or I guess entertainment), it's pretty damn hard for Russians to get visas for Japan. Something about some territory fight over an island that goes back to WWII.

222 said...

I'm hoping to leave Japan via Russia. Take that ferry out from Hokkaido, and then overland till I drop.

Ms.Godzilla said...

Too bad they were not friendly... It is always tough being a non-English speaking person in a country that is not your own :)

Martin said...

How would you have handled the situation if they had turned out to speak perfect english but beeing smelly French women?

(Ive heard they have hairy armpits too.)

Mr. Salaryman said...

Eva - Yes, in our neighborhood, there really is very little benefit of actually knowing English...

Chris - Indeed, that's also the thought that strikes me, but as Kathryn says below, I guess it doesn't necessarily mean that they were hostesses... But anyway, they might actually have fallen in love with someone for real while hostessing away the nights, but I guess some of those Russian ladies do a little more that just "hosting"...

Momotaro - Your comment deserves a little longer reply than I have the energy to write tonight, but I must say that I don't really agree with your impression on Japanese-English bilingual people's interaction. I think I'll elaborate further in a post when I get around to it! :)

Saraf - Indeed, even a nod might be too much in some instances!

Mr. S - Yes, I think that your wife might want to cool it down a bit, unless there's a connection of some kind (kids, neigborhood or whatnot) I generally would be mostly annoyed by someone wanting to talk with me just because I'm a foreigner. But I bet your wife is very lovely apart from that :)

222 - I think that you might get surprised to hear that Saraf's comment very likely was made with dry wit (something that the English do sometimes) and not serious, there's a surprise for you!

Medea - For some reason I have had very few interactions with Filippinos here in Japan, but as I speak less "Tagalog" (didn't know that) than Russian it would probably be a little harder

Theresa - I would think that the Russian ladies are much more harder than their Japanese counterparts, it helps a bit that they're usually quite a bit larger than their Japanese "handlers"

Kathryn - Exactly, it's a matter of having a common cultural ground that is not Japanese which could be fun to access occasionaly

Ms. Godzilla - Well, all of us spoke Japanese and they actually didn't seem that interested on their end either, so we all won, or lost, depending on how you view it :)

Martin - Well, a real French person can never speak flawless English, they always speak with an accent, so your scenario is just stupid!

Momotaro said...

Looking forward to reading your opinion Mr. S. You have me all intrigued!

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