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Nikkei View

Japanese American identity – How do I feel when someone says “Gil-san”?

I had an interesting thread of conversation the other day on Facebook, after someone sent me a friend request that ended with the person (he’s Caucasian) calling me “Gil-san.”

He wrote this in good cheer and good faith, and as a sign of collegial respect. I know that. But it struck me odd somehow, that non-Japanese people (usually Caucasians) throughout my life have assumed that it’s perfectly normal to call me “Gil-san,” or to say “konnichiwa” (“hello”) or “sayonara,” as if I speak Japanese, or better yet, that I appreciate someone else assuming that I speak Japanese.

I do—a little. But I’m not Japanese, and the only time I try to mumble and stumble my way through a conversation in Japanese is when I’m trying to speak to Japanese people…from Japan.

So I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: “Is it culturally sensitive, condescending, or just plain goofy for a Euro-American to call me ‘Gil-san’? I’m Japanese American, not Japanese.”

As is often the case, I got a flurry of responses right away on Facebook. Interestingly, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as European Americans, had different perspectives on this topic.

A JA responded, “I hope it was tongue in cheek. It sounds goofy. Besides, if he was saying it for real, he’d say “Asakawa-san.” Right?”

I replied, “It was sincere, and i took as sincere, but it bugged me enough to ask publicly about it. I’ve been addressed as both Gil-san and Asakawa-san before, both by Japanese and non-Japanese.

“It doesn’t bother me when, for instance, the Japanese woman who handles the shipping of books at my publisher sends me a note and says ‘Gil-san’ and ‘Jah, neh’ (‘Until next time’) at the end. To me, that’s speaking Japanese in email.

“But I’ve always winced a bit when a non-Japanese uses it with me. I don’t call them ‘Mr. Smith’ when I meet them. Hmm, maybe I should!”

A Chinese American friend posted: “Perhaps it’s his subtle way of suggesting that you append the courtesy title in the European style.

“(I went to a multiculti workshop years ago, and an American Indian was talking about how he hated people calling him “Chief.” Never mind that his school’s mascot is the Chiefs, and he was a high-ranking administrator there. He automatically assumed the salutation to be related to his ethnicity.)”

I replied: “This is an interesting dialogue, and I can feel it evolving into a blog post…”

“This instance is definitely related to ethnicity, and I don’t think he’s subtly asking to be treated in a formal manner himself, since this was in a Facebook ‘friend request.’”

“(And BTW, if you’re reading this thread, my new friend who’s a Mr., please don’t take offense, your use of the title just got me thinking, and I didn’t take offense at your use of it.)”

My new friend did indeed read these comments, because he sent me an email within Facebook apologizing for his cultural faux pax. I told him directly that there was no apology needed, it’s just that his sincere salutation got my brain buzzing and I needed to air out my thoughts publicly.

A Caucasian friend chimed in to the conversation: “I’m thinking, and I could be off, if it was sincere, he really is that formal and calls other people Mr.? Or he has not other Japanese-American friends and just for some reason assumes that is the polite way to refer to you. Or he’s a jerk”

Another Chinese American noted: “Hm, I doubt it was condescending on purpose. However, I am not sure how I feel about it. It depends on how they say it. If someone called me Wu Xiao Jie (or Miss Wu in Chinese), I’d most likely be impressed by their Chinese than anything else. Sometimes I call friends Mr. ____ or Ms. ____ for fun so what does that make me?”

Having just attended a dinner that included the Consul General of Japan for Colorado as one of the speakers, I wondered, “Here’s a question for you all: Do you feel it’s appropriate to use ‘-san’ when you’re speaking, say, to a Japanese businessperson from Japan? To the Consul General of Japan for Colorado? A ‘shin-Issei’ friend (a recent Japanese immigrant to the U.S.)?”

“Am I just reacting this way because I’m JA, and not Japanese (even though I was born in Japan)?”

“It’s a little like people who say ‘ohayo’ (good morning) or ‘sayonara’ (goodbye) when they meet me, because they assume not only that I’m Japanese (not always a good assumption to make in this pan-Asian society) but that I speak Japanese.”

“In the past when that happened, it’s been because those people speak a few words of Japanese and they wanted to impress me. What if I didn’t speak any Japanese? Lots of Japanese Americans can’t speak hardly any Japanese.”

“If a non-Japanese can speak perfect ‘Nihongo’ I too am dazzled and impressed, because I sure can’t speak it well. But the few words I’ve heard all my life from non-Japanese have been from people who only know a few words and want to show me what they know.”

“As a personal example, I say ‘xie xie’ (thank you) to Chinese speakers sometimes (I try real hard not to assume they speak Chinese, and try to ask if they speak Cantonese or Mandarin). Or ‘kamsamida’ (‘thank you’ in Korean) to Korean speakers, and I wonder if they think I’m being a dork.”

A Chinese American response: “It would not only be appropriate, it would be impressive to use ‘san’ under those circumstances, right?”

“I think it only becomes an issue if we feel we might be made into ‘the other’ or if people see us as one dimensional (the one dimension being our ethnicity). I dunno, now that I think of it it some more. If someone called me senorita (I was born in South America), I’d be fine.”

“In fact, now that I think about it some more, south americans are the antithesis of P.C. and are just more easy-going about stuff like that. They call all asians ‘chinos,’ all middle eastern people ‘turcos,’ so that gives you an idea of how important culture is to them. Or not. It can be annoying in one sense but sometimes it’s also liberating.”

A smart-alecky JA friend of mine piled on with this comment: “Or they were watching The Karate Kid and thought ‘Daniel-san’ was something that every Mr. Miyagi would say. Folks learn the strangest things from the strangest places.”

The Chinese American woman added this: “Gil: Since I don’t think it’s dorky when you say xiexie or kamsamida, I guess it can’t be dorky for someone to say arigato to you, can it? And yet…”

“You’re right, lots of Asian Americans don’t speak their native language. Lots of Latino Americans don’t speak Spanish and lots of people don’t speak French. But we’re all aware of some common words: merci, gracias, chao, xiexie, arigato, etc etc. Is it wrong to use these words when we’re all so multicultural these days? I often say bon voyage to friends who are travelling. A few times to Frenchy friends.”

And a Caucasian woman I know submitted the last comment on the thread: “I think it depends on context. It would be just as weird for me to say “ohayo” to you as it would for you to say ‘cheerio’ to me. But if I didn’t know you and we both met at a karaoke bar in London, well…”

So maybe context is what’s important. In the case of the white guy who wanted to “friend” me on Facebook, there was no context—he simply made a bunch of assumptions about me. He didn’t meant to offend, in fact he meant to show some cultural respect (I think…I hope). But because there was no context and his “Gil-san” came out of the blue, it felt jarring to me.

If we had met at a Japan America Society event, or if he were Japanese or Japanese American himself, the context would already be established.

I think that’s the lesson I finally learned after all this thinking and chatting.

*This article was originally published in NIKKEI VIEW: The Asian American Blog on February 2, 2009.

© 2009 Gil Asakawa

identity japanese american language

Sobre esta série

Esta série apresenta seleções de Gil Asakawa do "Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog", que apresenta uma perspectiva nipo-americana sobre a cultura pop, mídia e política.

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