A Little Language Goes the Wrong Way
by Jonathan Helwig
A foreigner attempting to learn to speak Japanese in this country is faced with a real obstacle. To wit, most Japanese expect him to speak English – but really wish he wouldn’t. The results can be most disconcerting. For example:
Mr. Gaijin walks into his neighborhood green grocers, having carefully rehearsed the sentence, “I’d like to buy some apples.”
Striding firmly up to the grocer, he says: “Watakushi wa ringo o kaitai desu.”
The grocer – already uptight at the sight of Mr. Gaijin, plus the terrifying thought that he might have to use his highschool Eigo – answers, “Eh?”
Mr. Gaijin becomes nervous; after all he might have goofed. Carefully, he repeats – slowly. “Watakushi wa ringo o kaitai desu.”
Though only seconds have passed, the grocer is now convinced that Mr. Gaijin is speaking English and he is unable to understand him. He cops out; calls his wife.
Enter Mrs. Green Grocer.
“Oy vey,” – or the Japanese equivalent – Mrs. Green Grocer thinks as she sums up the situation. She’ll have to speak English! And in front of her No. 1 critic, Mr. Green Grocer.
Summing up all her courage, she asks, “Nan desuka?”
Now it’s Mr. Gaijin’s turn to panic. “I blew the line,” he thinks wildly to himself. “I must have kicked the word for ‘apple.’ Something like ‘ringo,’ it seems. Ridiculous. He’s a Beatle. Couldn’t be ‘bingo.’ ‘Dingo?’ No, that’s an Aussie dog. Omigod!”
The silence is deafening.
Mr. Gaijin makes another valiant effort. “Watakushi wa – er, ah – zingo?”
The two Japanese minds are now racing frantically. Zingo? Zingo? Sounds Japanese, but it must be an exotic fruit or vegetable. Maybe it’s a simple English word any green grocer in the heart of the world’s largest city would know.
Might even be something as common as an apple. But maybe it’s an avocado or East Madagascar sesame seeds? Who’s going to take a chance on looking stupid?
Mr. Green Grocer fills the void with another sally: “Nande gozaimasu ka?”
Chaos! Our foreign chum’s studies haven’t brought him to this more polite ending for “What is it?” But both the grocer and the woman are attentive, apparently eager to help him. “They’re trying to tell me something,” Mr. Gaijin thinks. “Lessee. Gozai—what was that? Hey! Maybe they understood me. They know I want some apples!”
“Hai!” Mr. Gaijin declares with a winning grin.
“Eh?” reply the Green Grocer clan.
Silence. Nervous smiles all around. Mrs. Green Grocer adjusts her apron. Her husband – cowardice showing – edges slowly away to attend to some imaginary task. Mr. Gaijin looks about, wild-eyed, wishing he could fall through the floor.
At this point native instinct which has served mankind well since green grocers and their customers all lived in caves comes into play. Mr. Gaijin peers around frantically, spies a box of apples. He points mutely.
In unison, Mr. and Mrs. Green Grocer exclaim, “Ah!” To themselves, they think “Good Lord, why didn’t he say so? He wants apples. Man, we’ll sell him apples ’til the cows come home. Simple matter. Let’s get with it. Get those apples in a bag. Wonder how many he wants.”
“Ikutsu hoshii desu ka?”
Mr. Gaijin – all Japanese thoughts and words having fled from his exhausted mind – meekly holds up five fingers. Five apples go into the bag.
“Five-u hundred-o ‘en,” beams Mr. Green Grocer. At last! A chance to demonstrate his lingual legerdemain.
Purchase made. Business conducted. Exit Mr. Gaijin, dripping with perspiration.
Mr. Green Grocer says to his wife: “You know, it’s funny, but for a moment there that fellow’s English sounded like Japanese.”