Do I Speak English?
I agree with what Cary Grant said in the movie Charade (co-starring Audrey Hepburn) that, as an adult, he was still having trouble with English. More accurately, I suppose I should say that despite being a native English speaker I haven’t mastered English yet, but am still learning it. (From a technical point of view, admitting that language is always changing as words acquire new meanings and new words are invented, it is easy to imagine how this can be true.)
In Japan there is still a widespread assumption that any foreigner is an English-speaking foreigner and, almost certainly if the person is Caucasian, an American. So, one hears stories of non-English speaking Europeans being taken for Americans, and spoken to in unsolicited English based on that incorrect assumption. But never has the reverse occurred to me - the assumption that I did not speak English - until Saturday, February 23rd when I was asked, “Do you speak English?” It gave me a really weird feeling. I was a little annoyed.
I went to Tokyo Station to meet some lady musicians. Together we were going to a nearby hotel to perform a Christian wedding ceremony. We all met at the appointed time and place, and the ladies started chatting with each other. I didn’t say much, first because I did not personally know any of these ladies (we had never worked together before); second, I don’t speak Japanese well enough to participate in their chatter; third, even if I did speak Japanese well enough to participate in their chatter, I am a male and a foreigner, so really not part of their circle; and, fourth, I was pretty sleepy, having woken up early to eat, dress, and read the morning English-language papers before boarding the subway train for the 45-or-50-minute trip to Tokyo Station.
When we crossed the main intersection on the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station the musician lady closest to me tried to strike up a conversation. It was cold that day. She complained of being really sleepy because she had to wake up early to catch the train. She caught the 7:10 train to make it to our 8:30 a.m. meeting. I said nothing but just listened. But I guess my lack of response led her to think that I wasn’t understanding her English.
“What time did you get on the train?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Now, remember that in Japanese “I don’t know” (“Wakaranai,”or “Shiranai,” or “Shirimassen”) is synonymous with “I don’t understand” (“Wakarimassen”),so the girl quickly leapt to the conclusion that I did not understand English because I had said “I don’t know,” or, in her mind, “I don’t understand.”
“Do you speak English?”she asked.
“I speak English better than you,” I thought. “Why are you asking me?”
But what I said was, “I’m still learning. But I don’t know what time I got on the train.”
After that we quietly walked the short distance to our destination. I preferred it that way. After a quick calculation, I guessed that I got on the 7:30 a.m. subway train at my local station to make it to Tokyo Station by 8:15. But there was no point in sharing this information with the lady singer, so I didn’t.