Asia / Travel Piece

Engrish

One thing I was looking forward to in Japan was Engrish. If you don’t know what I’m talking about check the website. And if you didn’t know about the website (which is doing a good job to catalogue its presence in the non-English speaking world), I’m sure you’ve chuckled at some badly translated words on a packet of noodles or cheap toy before.

What I was surprised to see, however, was a distinct lack of Engrish. I was expecting to find billboards and signs all over the streets with hilarious or cute – almost poetic – mistakes. And yet, aside from the occasional misfire, I was disappointed.

I teach English as a Second Language to adult international students. Usually you hear the staffroom filled with exasperated complaints about Yoko or Jin Hoon or Abdullah’s constant misappropriation of prepositions or subject-verb agreement. I join in when a student of mine is obviously not trying very hard by using their electronic dictionary, lazily translating an assignment word for word; but for the most part, after 3 years of marking, I still delight in the logic students of English apply to its messy laws.

The ESL business has taken over the world – whereby most countries are now not willing to pay a “native English speaker” exuberant wages to teach unless they are fully qualified with a Masters in the field. Long gone are the days where you could buy a house after living for a year in the Gulf, with just a Bachelor of Arts and a CELTA course under your belt. At most you can live like a king in China (while being unfairly paid ten times more than the other teachers in your school), but come home with nothing but a snobbish tongue for your home country’s feeble attempts at Chinese cuisine.

No, the people of the world are claiming English as their own, and some nations are cleaning up their act more than others. While China couldn’t give a damn about the language’s intricacies, yielding the funniest Engrish output, perfectionists in Japan and Korea have started to feel that the joke’s on them.

I’m in two minds about this. I realise ESL teaching is a colonialist endeavour – speak like us, be like us – the West (ie the United States) trampling over the linguistic culture of the rest of the world. But I’m also lucky: I was born into English, so Huzzah! I skip the part of modern life where I need to learn a second language to get ahead in my career and study. The reality for a lot of the world wanting to work in business – from a waitress in a hotel, to the owner of the hotel – is that they must obtain some level of English skills to be successful. While native English-speakers decide to acquire a second language just to improve their cultural capital, everyone else learns English as part of their education, a boring behemoth like maths or accounting: important, but seemingly insurmountable past the basics, unless you actually like learning it.

And many people don’t.

I always tell my students when they hit ‘intermediate’ level English, that, unless they find something in the culture of an English-speaking country that speaks to their ‘soul’ – their passions – they probably won’t learn and retain any more than they’ve already learnt. If they don’t start investigating and exploring the language with a happy heart, rather than pushing through it like a boring chore, they won’t crack the code. A lot of students’ faces drop when I tell them this, but for the few who really understand what I’m saying, they’ve told me later that it helped them get past the intermediate plateau.

So as a teacher of English, a part of me is happy there wasn’t too much Engrish in Japan, because it means that they’re taking some pride in the second language, that they want to be as fluent and bilingual as somewhere like Scandinavia. I know being pleased with the natives finally grasping my colonial ways is deeply flawed, if I wish to paint myself as politically correct, but I am pleased nonetheless.

But I’m also saddened that the poetry of Engrish might soon be lost. Engrish shows us how difficult English is, even though most will laugh not realising that sometimes the Engrish result is more logical than what we’ve cobbled together in English (case in point, look at that bizarre phrasal verb cobble+together).

*

I walked around Shinjuku, in what I guess is a ‘suburb’ of (more like another city within) Tokyo, exploring the red light district during the day, trying to find the LGBT area. When I found it I was disappointed that it seemed to only sell sex, though I was curious enough to pretend to look at tiger-print thongs and hentai. Making my way back to the subway station, I passed a sign that read “Cafe Lavanderia” (laundry in Spanish), and a cafe that looked quite similar to the arts space I help run in Adelaide, Format. So I ducked in.

Sitting at a table reading was an Anglo guy around my age, and I was greeted by a Japanese woman who asked me to take a seat and order a drink. The Anglo guy kept to himself, the way I do when I want to figure out whether the other foreigner is a big ignoramus douche-bag or not. Finally, he said that he could translate for me, and that he was from New York. His name was Jeremy and her name was Yumiko. The cafe was a DIY, activist and artist-run space – one of very few in Japan – and I spent the rest of the evening there.

Soon another tourist came in, this time Spanish, Pedro, and I found myself in a three-way – not the usual kind I might find in Shinjuku. We spoke about activism in Japan, flags of the Basque people, flags of Australian Aborigines, tattoos, the new Nike Park being built in Shibuya to much protest, flicking between Japanese, English and Spanish, I saw frustration in the eyes of Yumiko’s husband as he wanted to express so much to his new found foreign friends. Especially after Jeremy left, and Pedro and I – not a word of Japanese between us – joined Yumiko and her husband for dinner, illustrating the conversation with our hands and eyes.

*

Yumiko’s husband (I can’t remember his name, unfortunately) told us (through Jeremy) that Japan’s youth had guilt issues quite similar to those the Germans carry post WWII. They’re not overly patriotic – the red sun flag representing the imperialism they’ve been taught to be ashamed of. They’re eager to join the global village, distancing themselves from their bloody recent history. This can be seen acutely at the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima.

The museum gives an in depth account of Japan’s history as an imperialist conqueror; a perfectionist never entering a battle by halves. All the signage is in plain language – concise, not apologetic, nor shying away from detailing the atrocities committed by the Japanese themselves, and the US on that fateful day. By the end of the labyrinth of information, most people’s faces were grim and heavy with emotion. My parents had to leave half-way through.

Not a sign inside was badly translated, and while there were about 12 languages on offer in the audio guides, I wonder about those tourists who can’t speak one of the twelve fluently enough – is their experience dulled? When I asked Pedro how his own English was, he said that it had to be good, or he wouldn’t be able to travel like he wanted to.

*

I don’t know how I feel about the English tower of Babel. I don’t know whether to be ashamed of it, or embrace the fact I’m lucky to have been born into it. I carry a guilt complex with it: I always want to show that I’ve learnt at least a few sentences in the language whilst travelling in a country. Though I don’t know whether this is to assuage my guilt, or whether it’s my obligation as a native speaker from the tower.

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