Micro is “in.” Micro-meetups, micro-finance, micro-philanthropy, microskirts have been in, out, up & down. The latest micro is microaggression!
The topic is bubbling over in Tokyo since being introduced by a popular and sometimes controversial commentator on issues affecting the foreign community in Japan. First of all, I’m glad there is someone who cares about issues facing the foreign community over here. His website compiles a lot of useful information about legal rights and he has helped people who have felt that they were victims of discrimination.
So, what are examples of microaggressive comments I’ve received?
“Oh, thank goodness you speak some Japanese. I can’t speak any English and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to help you here in this shop. I’m so relieved.”
Oh, wait–that wasn’t really very aggressive was it? Actually it was very conscientious and probably what runs through a lot of the minds of Japanese people when they are relieved to have run into someone who makes an effort to speak Japanese. Remember in those school language classes when they say the locals will appreciate it if you try to speak a few words of the local language, well, in Japan it’s actually true! Whereas in Italy I was screamed at for butchering the Italian language and then asked out on a date in the same breath. Let’s not get started on the reactions my French causes in Paris, or how my Russian was met in Russia, (or my English in London where people couldn’t understand me even though we actually really are speaking the same language.) But please NO COMPLIMENTS, it’s microaggressive.
These microaggressive comments in Japanese may sting more when speaking fluently to people in your second language. No doubt it stings certain people more than others depending on personality/desire to be “Japanese” or treated like one of the gang. I’ve also heard lots of complaints from single men who get trapped in the same silly conversations over and over in bars while picking up chicks. Whose fault is this? The chicks’ limited English? The guys’ poor Japanese? (This might happen to single women as well, I just don’t have as many single female friends in Japan.) Would these first meeting conversations really be less inane in any other country in any other language? Replace chopstick skills and language ability with taste in music, TV programs, or the classic ‘So, what do you do? Perhaps the act of getting to know someone is fraught with microaggression and tension anyway? We are determining who the other will be: a lover, friend, good contact, drinking buddy? We are judging and sussing people out all the time. This ritual is similarly awkward & strained with social customs the world over, trust me I know…best to cut all talking short and cut straight to *ahem* body language.
As far as never getting to a deeper level with people you have known as a long term resident of a foreign country perhaps what starts as a superficial question could lead to something more fun and interesting when approached with humor? For example, my father lost two fingers off his right hand in Vietnam. I’ve heard him answer the same question my whole life a different way every time, even with people who know the true story, each time more outrageously than the next. I asked him does the question bother him? What happened to your hand? Don’t you get sick of hearing it? His answer? Not since I came to peace with the fact that my fingers are gone.
My friend is visiting from the States and I asked her what she thought about this microaggression idea. Her response? “Oh, like how we ask ‘How are you a million different ways in the US yet always want to hear ‘fine’ as an answer?’ Once a Norwegian friend of mine commented on the same issue, “Why do you Americans ask me ‘How are you’ when you don’t care? You ask ‘what’s up?’ but the right answer is ‘nothing.’ In Norway, we don’t ask unless we want to really talk about it.” He was baffled at this idea of politeness. Every American I know asks “where are you from?’ if they see a foreign face or hear an unfamiliar accent, some call this curiosity some call it microaggression. Really have you never done something similar to someone in your life? After the 2004 tsunami I asked my good friend who is ethnically Indian, “Jeez, Harsh, did this tsunami affect your family?” He said, “What Kim, my family in Pittsburg?” *Cringe* Of course he knew I meant his extended relatives but it was too good an opportunity to point out how we all make microassumptions about each other.
My final thought is could this be less about other people and more about how we see ourselves? When we come to peace with the fact that we are foreigners living in Japan, or foreigners living wherever, will people stop getting angry about being complimented on their chopstick skills? My Dad, by the way, uses chopsticks even missing two fingers—I bet he wouldn’t mind being told that’s awesome.