Friday, April 13, 2012


This is too funny.  I'm sure some would say it is not "politically correct" but remember that this was a Japanese comedy show having some fun with themselves.  I don't know how the actors were able to keep straight faces.

Image stolen from the New York Times

Third Culture Kids have trouble talking about things that they know without feeling they are coming across as arrogant.  ("I used to live in Tokyo!  Aren't I special?"  "Well, when we lived in Europe ... "  You get the picture).  Arrogance aside, I can say that one of the things that I have learned (absorbed? Heck, it's in my DNA) is that I can tell the difference between languages.  (Can't speak them but I can hear them!)  To a large number of westerners, all Asians "look alike" and "sound alike".  Remember the Rosie O'Donnell rant and the chick at UCLA complaining about the Asians in the library?  Remember dotty old Prince Philip on a state visit to China?  Ching chong, ching chong, slitty eyes.    My ear can hear the smooth intonations of Japanese versus the tonal syllables of Chinese.  I can hear a Tagalog speaker in a crowded room and will knock people aside to hunt them down to tell them I used to live in the Philippines.  (My kids love it when I do this).  I appreciate the broad canvas of cultures in Asia (and elsewhere) and therefore respect them and understand them.  I cringe when I hear people lumping them all together in one homogenous pile.  How did Westerners get so narrow minded?  Do Asians ever make politically incorrect statements about us?  Do we all look alike to them?

I am told that I was fluent in Japanese as a child, although I can't exactly remember.  Perhaps it was so ingrained in my brain that I never knew the difference.  Isn't that the beauty of being bilingual?  (I don't think it made me any smarter, though).  Perhaps if I took up studying the language today it might come a little quicker than for most?  Two years in Belgium (and mandatory language classes) gave me a semblance of bilingualism in French.  However, by the time I got to high school my language acquiring brain cells had started to die off.  The only Tagalog I remember is how to curse someone out by referencing the profession of their mother.  Oh, and I can tell a cab driver to stop here.  And of course I can sing the first verse of the national anthem, though I have no idea what it means.  (Of course the fact that most Filipinos also speak English made immersion impossible).

It's just humor folks!

In college I was told I had to take a foreign language.  Being the rebel that I am, I opted out of boring old French or Spanish.  I was given the choice of Arabic, Hebrew or Russian.  I chose Russian, and spent four years studying the ins and outs of grammar and the Cyrillic alphabet.  I had to visit a Russian immigrant at his home and converse with him.  I have never felt so inept and uncomfortable.  (His wife felt uncomfortable too and all but threw me out with her dagger eyes.  I guess she thought I was there to steal him away).  I never really mastered it, (it's a tongue-twister) although I can pick out Russian in a crowd.  I was told once by a Russian grocery store checker that my pronunciation was "perfect" (ahem!)

Only in my life it was real ... 

My own arrogance came along to bite me in the nether regions though.  Later on in college, needing an elective to fill my schedule, I chose French.  I smugly thought, "Heh, easy A." Being the chump I was I rarely attended class.  I missed the most important class of all, the one announcing the time for the final exam.  I showed up for the test, and it had been the day before.  You know, the stuff that nightmares are made of?  I went to the professor's office and threw myself at his feet, crying and begging.  He allowed me to sit down and take it right there and then.  Undeservingly, I earned a B.  He should have thrown the "livre" at me.  I took a long hot shower of humility that day.

I was shocked to find out that my kids didn't even have a foreign language requirement, either in high school or college.  (My oldest son did take Japanese in high school, as an elective, after hearing me harp on talk about my early days).  I think this is shameful.  We are only going to slip further into the abyss of cultural ignorance.  As if we weren't already xenophobic enough.

So how does all this language stuff benefit Third Culture Kids?  Not only does it purportedly make us geniuses in school, (ha!) it helps us mentally erase those silly political borders that you see in the Rand McNally atlas.  These cultures have been around for millenia, with impossibly rich histories.  We don't know what old is.  How dare we Westerners feel superior to these folks?  We all need to take a long, hot soak in the humility shower.  I may feel arrogant in sharing what I know, but if I can pass along my understanding to one person, I guess I've accomplished something.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Holton said...

The final photo in there with "hello" in a whole bunch of languages is going to lead to an international incident.

I have no idea what "molesh" means in Hebrew, but I'm pretty sure it's not a friendly greeting.