CONTRIBUTED BY INORI HAYASHI
“Would you like this for here or to-go?” the Japanese cashier at Taco Bell asked me with a smile. It was just another regular lunch time in Okinawa. Many people use this convenient fast food restaurant, because it is quick, delicious, reasonably priced Mexican food. However, I usually have quite a different experience when using these services on the base.
“For here or to-go?” I ran the question through my mind again and answered, “Koko de tabemasu.” meaning “for here” in Japanese. It is a scene bilingual people face in multicultural settings – picking what language to respond with.
I was born and raised in Japan. My parents are both Japanese as are my grandparents. I attended an international school in Kyoto for middle school and high school, then went to a college in New York. That is how I picked up my English. I am able to understand and speak English – while appearing “straight up” Japanese and actually being so.
Being a bilingual Japanese person puts people in awkward positions at times in Okinawa. I have confused many Japanese cashiers on base by responding either in Japanese or English when they are expecting the opposite. When I speak Japanese, they are surprised because they assume I speak English. When I speak English, they are surprised because they think I am Japanese.
Some assume that I am Japanese, Korean, Chinese, or Asian American. Whatever the guess, it throws people off when their assumption is wrong. It usually puts me in momentary shock at a restaurant when the waiter speaks to me in Japanese when I am thinking to myself in English – it takes a moment to switch the language gear. Such assumptions happen off base as well. My husband is a tall, white American with blue eyes and brown hair. When I am with him, people sometimes assume that I am unable to speak Japanese. People assume anywhere and anytime.
Assumptions can have a negative impact on effective communication. Okinawa is a multicultural island. There are many people living here from all over the world. Physical appearances are major hints that tell people’s origins, but it is usually safer to not make such assumptions. Eyes are our very first information input; that is why we are so quick to assume about the person physically. However, there is much possibility that the guess is wrong.
Asian countries have had complex history, and sometimes it can be offensive to make a wrong assumption about the person’s origin. In order to have clear and honest communication, it is best to not assume anything about a persons origins before, first, speaking to them. That is one of the habits I try to encourage myself to practice, as a bilingual Japanese person living in Okinawa.