Yesterday at Uniqlo at Sagami-Ono Station Square I had another of those experiences where a clerk, for what he must have imagined was expediency, switches to a combination of gestures and broken English in order to communicate. In this case he was trying to say that I should take a tag marked #1 in the fitting room and hang it on the hook outside the fitting room curtain. What came out of his mouth in addition to lots of pointing and pantomime was ワン wan “one”, which coincidentally is the sound that dogs are said to make here instead of arf or woof.
(Side note: There is no katakana rendering available for w+high back rounded vowels (oo as in mood) or near-high near-back rounded vowels (oo as in foot), so official readings for words like would and wool are ウッド uddo and ウール uuru, simply leaving off the w in addition to the usual katakana alterations. A dog park near us named Woof gives the reading of its name as ワフ wafu. I guess they realized uufu would be unreasonably silly even by katakana standards.)
I am unfortunately the type who ruminates long and hard over incidents like this, whenever they happen at cafés, parking garages, train stations, hardware stores, or any of the other places where treating the customer as an invalid based on phenotype has unfortunately not begun to be considered bad service yet. One of the things I think about afterward is how else I could have responded. I’ve come up with a list, because that’s how the Internet works.
Option 1: Respond sarcastically in English
For example “My name is Mark, not Juan. What’s your name?” I’ve never done this, and I get the feeling it would be satisfying but extremely counterproductive from an activism standpoint. If the goal is to raise consciousness and reduce the odds of this happening to other people in the future, the last thing you want to do is confirm the stereotype that all visibly non-Japanese people speak only English and are assholes to boot.
Option 2: Respond politely in English
“Sorry, what do you mean?” I think this would actually have mostly the same effect as Option 1, since neither sarcasm nor English are generally understood here. If the tone of your voice is enough to convey that you have no ill intent you still confirm the aggressor’s choice of English as correct.
Option 3: Respond sarcastically in Japanese
「ワンっていうじゃない。犬じゃないんだから」wan tte iu janai. inu janain dakara. “Don’t say ‘wan’. You’re not a dog.” In my case I run the risk of making a language error, as I sometimes do, that makes the sarcasm unreadable. Also, since highlighting some aspect of the situation by saying something clearly contrary to it is not a common form of rhetoric here, by using irony you will sound irredeemably mean rather than witty or sardonic. And again unfortunately you will confirm the stereotype that foreigners are social nitroglycerin. A colleague of mine once responded to her yoga teacher’s singling her out for English during class (“(name), OK?”) with 全然問題ないよ zenzen mondai nai yo “No problem at all”, which looks innocuous in translation but is too casual to be neutral in context and was apparently said with clear annoyance. Even this was probably enough to leave an impression with much of the class that foreigners are quick to anger.
I should point out again that a characteristic of microaggression, and even of overt racism in some societies, is that it’s always the minority’s duty to shrug it off and be a good sport, because the beliefs underlying her bad treatment are common enough that any negative response would be taken as an indictment of everyone present, and she is always vulnerable to the charge of simply being ill-adapted to her host society. In my colleague’s situation she would have been justified in giving a much more clearly indignant response, but everyone would have blamed her for the awkwardness of the incident afterward, forgetting her yoga teacher’s drooling stupidity.
Option 4: Respond politely in Japanese
「鈴木さんは外国人にこの扱い方をするのは「おもてなし」だと思うかもしれませんが、実際には、長くこの国に住んでいる私みたいな人にとっては「よそ者扱い」にすぎないで、「どんなに頑張っても日本は私を受け入れてくれない」という印象を与えているだけです。」”You (Mr. Suzuki) may think that treating ‘foreigners’ like this is an act of kindness, but actually to people like me it’s simply othering and gives the impression that no matter how hard I try, I will never be accepted in Japan”. This is probably the most productive tactic, assuming I haven’t made any fatal language errors, but who has the patience to be like this all the time? It would be hard to think of something like this to say in your second language under no pressure at all, but when you’re feeling peeved and embarrassed, plus you really just wanted to try on some jeans, it’s beyond my abilities.
Option 5: What I actually said
「あ、はい」”Oh, OK”. And then I wrote a blog post complaining about it.