No big deal

It's interesting to see people's reactions when I tell them that I can speak (and read some) Japanese. When I was working at Art Chicago, I met someone who speaks Russian, Lithuanian, and English, and is planning on learning French. I ran into her the other day, and when I gave her my card, she said incredulously, "You speak Japanese? I didn't know that." I don't tell people unless we're talking about language, or if they ask me what I do. Translating is only part of my life, but I've noticed that Japanese gets a lot of mileage.

For instance, French people are known for not being psyched about Americans, for various reasons. When I met a couple of French people at Art Chicago, they spoke some French to me, and when it was clear that my French wasn't even close to decent, I told them, "mais je parle japonais." Well, their faces lit up. We continued speaking in French, and while I showed an obvious linguistic struggle, one of them was so impressed with the Japanese thing, that it pretty much excused me from the butchering of their language. So I've learned my lesson: if I do get to France some day, I'll speak badly, and will tell them that I'm sorry, but I speak Japanese. That should pardon me from some American sins.

Japanese also seems to cancel out multilingual European-language speakers. Like the woman I mentioned earlier: she speaks three languages fluently, yet she's impressed by just my one. And I've seen that with other people, too: I know people who speak at least two foreign languages fluently, but when they hear about the Japanese, it's as if I've taken a ray gun and have melted them down--I've "won" without even trying (or caring about it).

I've worked on some pretty interesting projects, but when I go through the list of what I do for a living, people just stop on the Japanese part. At least the Westerners do, or the ones who are non-Asian language-speaking people; Asian people or Westerners who've been steeped in Asian stuff aren't too impressed.

So if you're making the rounds in the non-Japanese/non-Asian world, mention the fact that you speak Japanese, and others' eyes will widen. It's especially useful at snobby functions and slick dinner parties.

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