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Essay

Face value

By Samantha Loong

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The Japanese woman came towards our booth. I was here to promote my company's English training services, so I smiled and started speaking to her in English. "Hi, how are you? Are you enjoying the event?" She looked at me as if taken by surprise. She answered my questions quickly and then headed straight for my colleague. He asked her the same thing and she suddenly seemed much more animated and talkative.

One of my reasons for working on a Sunday was to show visitors to this event my face. At an event that promotes thinking outside the box, I was curious to see what visitors would do with my English-speaking face. Contrary to posters advertising other English schools, English speakers and teachers come in all different colours. Being the only teacher of colour at our small company, I found myself observing the interactions between our teachers and the visitors to our booth. Judging by the number of people ignoring me or brushing me off to talk to the other teachers, I began to wonder several things.

I wondered if people found my white colleagues more attractive and wanted to talk to them. Or perhaps, subconsciously, they wanted to be seen speaking English to someone who looked more exotic. Or maybe, they didn't think I could speak English, despite my name tag stating my name and position at my company. But no one looked at my name tag. They barely looked at my face. I was pretty much invisible.

There are some pros to blending into Japanese society. Some children stop playing when an obviously non-Japanese person enters their train carriage. When I get on board however, I can see Japanese children and adults behave and speak as they normally would. Another pro is that I've had to become a lot more gregarious, as people are less interested in talking to me — I often have to be the first to start conversations.

There are kindergartens in Japan that indirectly request teachers fitting the English-speaking stereotype of being blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Perhaps these people who weren't engaging with me went to these kindergartens, or go to similar language schools now. And that's why they were more interested in talking to the stereotypes they had grown accustomed to seeing. Either way, I was a bit disheartened to see my face value so clearly displayed at this event.

I did manage to have an informative conversation with one Japanese man and his daughter. He was one of the few who could see the value beyond my face. He saw not just an opportunity to speak English, but to learn about another human. And I hope his daughter saw it too.

額面通りの価値

自分が所属する会社の英語研修をPRする催しに参加した筆者。来場客に積極的に話し掛けてみたものの、その多くは自分に関心を示さず、白人の同僚たちの方に行ってしまった。

The Japan Times ST: October 28, 2016

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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