Thursday, December 1, 2005

let's pretend

I had dinner this evening with two prospective students, their mother, and my friends who provided the introduction. There are two things worth noting about this dinner:

1. The restaurant at which we dinned was a Chinese buffet, a rarity in this country. Unlike the New China Buffets spread across the midwest, however, there was no General Gau’s chicken, no beef and broccolli, no sweet and sour anything, and absolutely no egg drop soup. I’ve been to China, so I know what real Chinese food consists of, but I was hard pressed to find anything on this Japanese buffet that I thought might be it. And so, once again I am reminded that whenever something of one culture is taken into another it acquires at least some of the attributes of the adopting culture. And this is especially true of food.

2. The prospective students’ mother relayed a request to me through my friends before we met tonight. “Please pretend like you don’t understand any Japanese.” I consented, and throughout the evening we played, “Laura doesn’t understand, so please translate for her.” And let me tell you, it was extremely difficult to play dumb.

For someone who is used to acting like she understands more Japanese than she does, pretending to understand none at all was a challenge. It was made even more so by my friends who would forget they were supposed to be playing along and ask me a question directly in Japanese. I would stare at them mute, until they twittered and said, “Oh! I forgot she doesn’t understand a word of Japanese!” If my laughing and smiling at the correct places in the conversation didn’t tip off the kids, the over-the-top excuses certainly must have.

I can understand the desire for an English teacher to not speak Japanese; it provides no excuse for not learning English. However, when your students can barely answer “What’s your name?” or “How old are you?” you may have a problem communicating other more complicated lessons like “I have a dog,” without the help of a few words they understand. I feel like I’m about to be relegated to the old days of pointing and repeating, and that isn’t worth anyone’s time. Tough days in the Land of Make-Believe are certainly on their way.

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