(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, JALTCall, and Friends Wed, 8 Jan 1997)


Happy New Year! I'd like to start this year out with a minor subject and work my way up. People may fairly dismiss this as fluff and clutter, but have a dekko and see for yourself:


I was in Oita City, Kyushu, last October to teach some intensive classes. Having only just arrived in town, suitcase in hand, I was walking down their main-street covered market when this stranger came up to me and started talking.

He was a man, salaryman-suited, in his thirties, slight in build and height, with thinning hair and Lennon glasses that made him look like the grandad in Sazae-san cartoons. He stopped me and asked me some questions. In English:

"Excuse me, where are you from?"

I blinked and replied in Japanese: "America. Why are you asking?"

He continued in English: "Ah, I see. How old are you?"

By now, readers are probably realizing that this is a template for conversations you've had here a thousand times. So I cut to the quick and started shuffling a few steps forward: "Why are you asking me this?" Again in Japanese.

He continued in good English: "I want to practice my English. I am studying and want to talk with a native speaker."

I was tired after a full day's travel and not in the mood. I said curtly in Japanese: "Look, I don't do this for free. You want to be my student, be my student. But I don't like being used for my English abilities..."

"But I want to talk..."

"But I don't." We kept to each other's native tongues. "Excuse me." I chopped gently with my hand, turned on my heel, and walked on, not looking back.


I use the word "begging" because I got the same bunch of mental knots like if I refuse to give a beggar my spare change. Granted, it is not a live-or-die situation for the guy in Oita, but my conscience straddles me thus:


"Look, you should have at least thrown him a bone and answered a couple of his questions. You deal with taciturn students all the time who don't want to learn, and here you are rebuffing somebody who has the gumption to come up and talk. You encourage your students all the time to be outgoing, so aren't you being a hypocrite if you don't respond favorably to it in the real world? What would it have cost you to have been friendly? Now he's probably all dejected and thinking ill of foreigners. Must you have money to teach somebody? Shame on you."

But then out comes the con side:


"You are under no obligation to teach this man, nor to uphold the image of 'gaijin as good guy'. Coming up to you right out of the blue is an imposition, one that he should realize he's imposing. Money is not the issue--it's common courtesy between strangers, who through common sense should know not to intrude without good reason. If he wants to chat that badly, he should go overseas, and make the same investment of time and money that we have in learning Japanese."

But I can see easy counterarguments to every point raised, so nothing sits easily in my mind.


After two months of wrangling, I still haven't reached a good one, so I'd like to ask your help. In good old survey style, I would like you to email me at davald@sun4a.do-johodai.ac.jp and tell me:

Should I have talked English to the guy? (because he wants to), or

Should I NOT have talked English to the guy? (because I don't want to)

with your reasoning. I will add your scores to the follow-up posting with the results.

Okay, sounds insignificant, but this is not as minor an issue as you might think. These days, though people like me lament the lack of internationalization in Japanese society, there are some people out there trying to get some language skills. I am here in this country in the role as a teacher. Even the salaryman (being lampooned?) in the NOVA English Language Institute commercial speaks English to his company colleagues and neighbors--as he literally marches off to class. Hyperbole, yes, but he is not a negative image. Indeed, some people here are trying to make outside influences part of their daily life. Shouldn't foreign residents encourage that?

In other words, are foreigners like me here to further Japan's internationalization, even when people request it like a bit of spare change, or can we choose to be "off duty" without being hypocritical?

Dave Aldwinckle


(click here forthe survey results)

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