No English Please, We’re Foreigners
By Grace Buchele Mineta
On August 27, 2014
I have a friend and for the sake of this story, let’s say she’s from Russia. She has blonde hair and blue eyes… and doesn’t speak a word of English (aside from the typical “Hello, My name is…”, “Thank you”, and “How much?”). In fact, the only English sentence she knows is “I’m sorry, I am Russian. I don’t speak English.”
My Russian friend speaks Japanese (close to) fluently. She works part-time at a Japanese company, has lived in Japan for a while, and studies Japanese every day.
We make quite a pair when we go out together. Sitting at a cafe, strolling through Yoyogi Park, or shopping in Shimokitazawa – it’s like we’re carrying a big, plastic sign with the words “Talk to us in English” scrawled across. I’m exaggerating, of course.
But, in the six months I’ve known her, this has happened twice. Someone will talk to us in English, she will reply in Japanese, and they will keep pressing English on her, assuming she is lying (after all, she’s white. All white people speak English, right?)
The second time it happened to us, I asked “What do you do when people don’t believe that you don’t speak English?”
She just shrugged and said “I walk away. It’s frustrating, but once someone’s mind is made up, you can’t change it.”