Thursday, April 12, 2012

Silence of intolerance

Racism is not a problem I've had to confront regularly. When I was five, the kids at my private school would put their fingers at the outer tips of their eyelids and push them down saying "I'm Japanese" or up saying "I'm Chinese." At the time I took this very seriously, but over the next nearly decade and a half, little things like people making squinty eyes to joke about Asians have hurt me less and less. I am half-Japanese, but maybe it's the fact that I don't have traditionally "Asian" eyes that I don't feel offended by this. Or maybe it's just that implied racism hurts worse than true confrontational prejudice.

There is a lot of silent dislike and hatred in this world. People feign coexistence, but when they're faced with a situation where they could choose to be tolerant or instead take on a sense of racial superiority, they jump at the opportunity.

In high school, I remember being on Facebook one day and seeing a bunch of people I knew liking a page that had a title something like "I shouldn't have to Press 1 for English...I live in America!" What stirred my anger the most about this statement was not that it was racist against foreigners who are struggling with learning a new language - though that was certainly a factor - but that these people pretended every day since I first met them that they were one in the same with their classmates regardless of demographic category. In reality, though, they were harboring personal vendettas against many of the families of the people they referred to as "friends," considering immigrants and non-English speakers to be the bane of this country while English speakers were worthy of all luxuries - including not having to press the number one on their phone dial pad.

Maybe I would brush this off like I do the eyelid mockery, but it's hard to do so when your own family is the victim.

My grandma was born and raised in Japan. She lived there until she was 20 and moved to America with her then husband without speaking a word of English. Over the years she tried to pick up the English language, but she was able to find jobs at companies and restaurants and schools and newspapers working with fellow Japanese people, meaning she never had to devote much time to being fully integrated in American culture.

Regardless of her devotion to perfecting the art of English, my grandma proved her American spirit soon after disembarking from her Japan to America voyage. She became a citizen of the United States within a very short time of moving to the country. Over the next 40 years, she worked hard and earned enough money to live a comfortable life as a retiree. If there's anyone I admire for their strength, conviction and focus to future goals, it's my grandma.

So why shouldn't she have the option of pressing an alternative number on her phone if her English language skills aren't quite up to snuff when she's making an "800" phone call?

In my short life I've learned both first and secondhand what a terrible experience it is to be out of your language comfort zone. Every time I've spent an afternoon with my grandma, I've seen her converse with waiters, salespeople, phone solicitors and a million others who can't listen just an ounce harder to try and understand what she's saying. After 20 years growing up speaking only Japanese and moving to the other side of the world where she was still surrounded by Japanese friends, my grandma has an accent. It's not unintelligible, but if you don't listen carefully it can be a bit challenging to understand.

Many times I've found myself having to play the role of translator between her and people who just don't care to hear her. As soon as they recognize an unusual tonality or pronunciation, they tune it out and turn to me like I can rescue them from their troubles.

Far worse than my feelings of distaste for the kindergarten bullies who made fun of their Asian schoolmates, I have begun to abhor these people. Because not only do they represent the whole of America - a country that is at times disturbingly xenophobic - on a skewed perspective, but because they make my grandma feel inferior to them.

We aren't all "Ugly Americans," and I know that. My whole life has been spent under this strange guise of being half-Asian, half-Jewish and entirely ethnically unidentifiable. In my time I've had people assume I'm Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Filipino, various categories of Asian, various Mediterranean races, etc. etc. No one has ever guessed right, and I don't expect them to. I'm a weird combination. But my point isn't that people aren't able to guess my ethnicity, it's that even when people do inquire - once I tell them, I'm never met with anything but acceptance.

So why aren't people the same way once they hear a person speak? I know it's not an inherently cruel thing that these people are doing. In fact, I believe that at times they feel like victims trying to listen to someone speak and looking like an idiot unable to understand them. It's not the ones who play victim that bother me. It's the ones that, even when they are clearly able to understand every word my grandmother says, still incessantly ask her "what?" or look at me in frustration.

When I was in Japan over the summer between my senior year of high school and first year of college, I had my initiation into the club of being the victim of this silent intolerance. Before going on the trip with my native Japanese speaking grandmother, I enlisted the advice of some fellow Americans who had been to Nihon and never spoken a word of Japanese. They told me that in Tokyo - where I would spend a great deal of my trip - everyone was incredibly obliging and helpful to those who didn't speak the language. I believed them wholeheartedly.

Then I arrived. Various encounters reminded me that I was no longer in Kansas anymore and I couldn't speak my own language at will. After the culture shock subsided, I reminded myself that I had four years of Japanese under my belt. But sad for me, I had nothing to show for it. Not a sentence. Barely any words. Upon entering stores I'd greet the proprietor with a quick "Konnichiwa" or "Ohayou gozaimasu." When I checked out I would say "Arigatou gozaimasu." Even to my Japanese family I said "sukoshi dake desu" ("only a little") when they asked me how much Japanese I speak and left it at that.

But for some reason I didn't have the luxury of lovely Japanese people ready to speak to me in my native tongue like my advisers did. I know English-speaking shouldn't be an expectation in a foreign country, and I didn't think of it as one. But rather than being met by people in the country welcoming me with open arms, I was being glared at or looked at with confusion when I spoke my few words.

Believe me when I say that it is far worse to have someone give you strange looks for trying to speak their language than it is to have them correct your pronunciation or start speaking English to you. It becomes a situation where you are not only embarrassed, but made to feel stupid.

While this was happening to me I kept thinking of how my grandma must feel back in the US. Though we both have the other to pick up the slack if we can't communicate in either English or Japanese, we also have this feeling of constant alienation from societies outside of the ones we were born in. It's debilitating. But it's easily helped.

Those who have made obvious racist remarks are in a class all their own. I try not to take their attacks personally, and usually I'm able to laugh them off. But the humiliation that people cause by pretending their language is superior to others and alienating those who cannot speak it as well as they can is inexcusable. And it's unlaughable.

The former kind of racism is something I don't encounter often, as I've said. For that reason, I suppose I am just not as sensitive to it. Also, it's something that is more difficult to eradicate once it does occur, simply because the people who commit blatant racism are usually very self-aware and intentionally cruel to others. I sadly don't have a fix for that.

But to those who are talking to someone with broken English and raise an eyebrow. To those who speak louder when they're in the presence of a foreigner. To those who look to the next person in line to check out at the grocery store to see if they can translate. To those who say they shouldn't have to press the number one. Try a dose of compassion. Of empathy.

I understand how hard it can be to be on the outside looking in at this problem. It might even be difficult to witness it in your daily life because most of us don't even notice when we're being insensitive.

Yet vigilance is key and there are simple remedies to the problem.

If someone is speaking and you can't understand, ask them to repeat themselves. Listen harder. If you can't understand after a few repetitions, just thank them and move on or ask them if they can explain it some other way. If you know someone won't understand your own language, try to make things clear, but don't patronize them. And above all, never consider yourself superior to others because you speak a particular language, because in this world all languages are equal and we're no better for knowing one over another, no matter where we live.

Call me intolerant if you like, but the blindsightedness of intolerance is something I cannot and will never stand for. I won't be silent about that.

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