RANT: Language Poseurs

I need to get something off my chest, and it got on my chest because of a page I saw while previewing another Japanese language learning book:

Language Poseurs

It just pisses me off. Many Americans who learn Japanese are learning it in the hopes of reading manga, or meeting chicks, or watching anime. The anime and manga don’t bother me, really, it’s the meeting chicks part that I despise. It’s all a bunch of Steven Segal, Rising Sun Sean Connery in a happi coat bullshit. The subjugation of the Asian male, (my husband?!? the “yellow” Fu Manchu characterization of Asian males as cowards, fools, undersexed monsters of a mysterious and (hear the gong?) unknowable race.

I remember how hard I fought to get into the Chinese studies program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa years ago, a program I could not afford to enter, and how when I was working at the restaurant, waiting on a table of my acquaintances from Chinese class, already humiliating enough, a trench-coated poseur said, “You got in? Really? Me, too.”

I couldn’t breathe. I knew he was taking Chinese just for the cachet of saying “I speak Chinese” when ni hao and wo ai ni were all he could say. He was showing off for our classmates. And, now, in my maturity and the time since, I can say sure, maybe he got in. Maybe. Hell, maybe it was true. And I don’t remember how the subject came up anyway, maybe I was bragging. Maybe I deserved that.

But I remember how crushed I was that this guy could say something I thought was so patently untrue, and that other people would believe him, and equate my heroic accomplishment to something passé, something anyone could do. Poseurs that day drew my anger, and it hasn’t lifted since.

I remember studying Japanese, all the guys in the class asking Fukushima-sensei about dating customs, so transparent in their goals and methods. God, as if something so base has a place in the classroom.

As if they knew anything about Japanese women for real. I knew a girl in college named Eiko, who would sooner cut you than deal with your crap. She was not one to be messed with. She wasn’t a Sanrio girl, she meant business. Those guys didn’t like Eiko. They liked the pigtailed, school-uniform-wearing Sanrio girls in the anime. Yeeeeah.

The other type of poseur I hate is the one that loves Asian studies for its exoticism, the veil of “Ooooh, you must be so smart to be studying Japanese/Chinese/whatever!” that people smear on you like ketchup.

It’s not about smart, it’s about learning a language. It’s about stretching yourself. Anyone can do it. But those dilettantes learn just enough of whatever language to stumble their way through an introduction in it, sufficient to get aahed and oohed over at a party. Loudly proclaiming “BOKU WA JAMES DEH-SOO” in their unctious voices. Don’t study a language to get aahs and oohs; that’s not a valid reason to mangle any language.

The kicker is that it has been thrown on me, the mantle of poseur, since high school. I wasn’t cool in high school, not by a long shot. Kids taunted me about wanting to become Japanese/Chinese/Vietnamese, whatever Asian thing I happened to be pursuing at the time.

I was a dork, but I wasn’t guilty of poseurism. I never affected the whole chopsticks-in-my-hair bit, or wore a cheongsam or qi pao as if it were a normal form of dress for me. I never tried to become anything more than I am, a Texas girl with foreign interests.

Other people who thought I was a weird, geeky girl (Tina?) ascribed to me baser, demeaning, insecure motivations. Yellow fever. Yeah.

Thankfully, nowadays I am not in a popularity contest, nor the crucible of high school or undergraduate figure-out-who-I-am college, and I am able to pursue my interests unfettered. But seeing that webpage, it lit a fire in me. I had to say something.

Saying I am fluent in Japanese or Chinese feels like as big an obvious lie as saying I AM Japanese. No way. I am barely learning what my “legs” are, much less able to use them. Fluency means dancing in a language. That’s not me yet.

My mother and sister, subscribers to the “You’re so smart” school of thought regarding my language studies say that it doesn’t matter what I think, they tell people I am fluent in Japanese and Chinese. Holy shit, has that caused problems for me. I. AM. NOT. FLUENT.

I guess it has to do with the definition of fluency, really, at the core of this ongoing battle to get them to see how little I really know. My mama asks me, “What are they saying?” when we are around a gaggle of dark-haired folks talking in some Asian language. It’s awful.

I don’t know…Stuff? Mama. They’re talking about their own stuff.

My mother’s convinced, in a bizarre sort of completely uncharacteristic, narcissistic way that they are talking about her. I shit you not. She does. So she wants her Undercover Asian daughter to tell her what they are saying.

So, maybe I make shit up. Sometimes I admit I have no idea, but she doesn’t believe me, so I tell her that it’s Thai or something. Or that they’re talking about the baseball game last night, or the best place to buy chicken. It’s Chinese sometimes, but it’s easier to say “It’s Thai” than to tell her that I understand enough to know that:

“She ____not____in the _____ for ____. Yeah, yeah. 3___ __ __times a week.”

Gib.ber.ish. And so fast. I am not fluent.