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half enough

Japanese school memories, Part III: Not looking the part

I have a good Japanese accent. It’s so good that I can fool any Japanese person into thinking that I’m a native from Tokyo. The trouble is I don’t look the part. Fooling Japanese people into thinking I’m a fellow native is limited to phone conversations. Rarely do I fool someone in person.

It’s like having one of those naturally inherent skills you don’t remember having practiced. Like basketball. Some are naturally physically coordinated. Others aren’t. Height doesn’t necessarily correlate with one’s basketball ability. Just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you’re good at basketball or even like the sport. The same applies to language. If you were raised speaking a particular language at home, it’s likely that you don’t remember when you learned it or what kind of effort, if any, it took to learn. And just because you look like you may speak the language, doesn’t mean you do or even should.

When I started Japanese school, the teachers didn’t know where to place me. My conversational skills far surpassed most of the students enrolled there (Levels 1-8), but my weakness was in reading and writing. As much as my speaking skills would have allowed me to be in the Level 6 class, I was placed in Level 2 so I could learn the fundamentals of reading and writing. I was ok with it. There were times when I struggled being patient with my classmates who were just learning how to speak Japanese. Being only seven years old at the time, I couldn’t comprehend why Japanese was a completely foreign language to most of my Japanese-looking classmates or why their parents didn’t know or speak the language. Communicating with my mother in English was a completely foreign concept to me because I only spoke Japanese with her. I envied my classmates who spoke in English with both of their parents. While I went back and forth between English and Japanese at the dinner table with my parents, I imagined Lisa, a girl I sat next to at Japanese school whose parents were both Japanese American, speaking only in English (proper, not broken) over dinner with her family. It was something I was curious to experience because I hadn’t and I wouldn’t.

My favorite subject in Japanese school was “Conversation.” Whether at Japanese school or my regular Monday through Friday school, I always enjoyed speaking in front of the class. It was one of the few things I was good at and always received high marks in, often without even preparing. I occasionally felt insecure at Japanese school, thinking about what my classmates might have thought about my face not matching my Japanese accent. I remember getting those looks; the kind of passive and mean “You don’t belong here” looks from some of the students. Not looking Japanese at Japanese school was like not having the hippest L.A. Gear shoes in the fourth grade—it just wasn’t cool. I wasn’t traumatized by the fact that I didn’t look Japanese and wore the not-so-cool L.A. Gears. I was mostly caught up with impressing my teachers at Conversation time to make up for my other low scores.

I am not an actor but sometimes I feel like I don’t fit my role. Other times I contemplate the role I’m in and ask myself what I’m supposed to do with it. In Japanese school, it was all about looking the part. I had the voice. My face just didn’t match it. As I get older, it is becoming less about what I look like and more about how I feel on the inside. I’m beginning to believe my role as a White-looking female who can speak Japanese (and there’s a growing number of us) is to show the world that one doesn’t have to look Japanese to speak it well or be tall to play basketball.

I haven’t tried fooling anyone into thinking I was Japanese on the phone lately. If I do get the urge, I’ll tell them how it is possible that my White-sounding name can match my Japanese accent, if they ask.

© 2007 Victoria Kraus

Sobre esta serie

"Half Enough" is Victoria's first regular column series. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Discover Nikkei.