By Kazuya Muto
A Japanese woman handed me a blank name card. "Write your name on this," she said, "and stick it somewhere where people can see it." I wrote down my name, stuck it to my shirt, took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
I had come to Maebashi for an international party in the hope of finding some native English-speaking friends. I had been alarmed at how quickly my English was deteriorating, and I had thought that, maybe, making friends would be a good way of keeping my English alive.
There were around 200 people at the party: young, old, Asian, Caucasian, all sorts. I wandered around, looking at other people's name tags.
"Where are you from?" someone said in Japanese. It was an elderly Japanese woman. She peered at my name tag. I could see the penny drop as she realized that I was Japanese. She might have thought I was from another country because of my appearance.
I knew how she felt. There was nothing to do but guess where people came from by their appearance, and unfortunately that meant relying heavily on stereotypes. I started talking to a woman with blue eyes and blond hair. I assumed she was from an English-speaking country, but in fact, it turned out she was from Taiwan. I felt like an idiot when I found out. You shouldn't make assumptions based on appearance; you should always talk to people to find out about them.
After that, I just talked to anyone. I talked with people from Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, India and also Japan, which was fun, but none of them spoke English as their first language. At the end of our short chats, I would always ask, "Have you met a native English speaker here?" But none of them had.
The party was drawing to a close and I was despairing of meeting any native English speakers. "Hi. Having fun?" I said in Japanese to a girl standing next to me. The girl smiled and nodded. "What's your name?" I continued in Japanese. "I'm Heather," she said in fluent Japanese, "I'm from Canada."
I have to admit I was a little surprised, but we continued to chat, and before I knew it, we had slipped into English. We didn't talk for long, but it was an enjoyable conversation and we exchanged numbers.
A week later, we met up at a Starbucks near Takasaki Station. I wanted to talk to her more. She was an exchange student, like I had been, and I thought it would be interesting to share our experiences.
"I don't want to talk in English," she said. "I don't want to talk to people in English while I'm in Japan, but most people here try to. It would be better for my Japanese if they spoke to me in Japanese."
These words reminded me of how I had felt early on in my stay in Sydney. I had thought exactly the same thing. I hadn't wanted to speak Japanese because I wanted to improve my English. Already I was filled with memories of Australia.
Though she didn't want to speak in English, talking to her was a way of keeping my precious study-abroad memories alive, and that, in some respects, was more important than anything.
Shukan ST: MARCH 23, 2007
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