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Sunday, July 9, 2000

JAPAN LITE

'Alien 5' now playing in your local neighborhood


A band of junior high-school students showed up at my door the other morning. "Can we interview you?" they asked.

Their teacher, who had previously been lurking in the background, came forward and explained that her students had never talked to a foreigner before. While they set up their video camera in my house, the teacher said, "Of course, they've seen foreigners walking on the street before, but this is the first time they've ever actually talked to one, so they are very nervous."

She handed me a list of questions the students would ask me.

Any foreigner who has been in Japan even 30 seconds knows exactly what these questions were because Japanese people always ask the same questions. And us foreigners always give the same answers: "Uh, well, I don't know, uh."

It does seem that for foreigners, life in Japan is a non-stop quiz show. We are constantly presented with questions that are nearly impossible for us to answer.

Take the question, "What do you think of Japan?" It's a simple enough question to ask, but the answer is rather complicated. It would take a whole book to explain my opinion of Japan. And where does one start? "Regarding the Japanese economy, I think. . ." However, if they had asked me if I liked Japan and why or if they had asked me what I thought of Japanese animation, I would be able to answer rather smoothly.

The next question the students asked me was, "What do you think of Japanese junior high-school students?" To which I answered, "Uh, well, I don't know, uh."

If they had asked me how Japanese junior high-school students compare to American junior high-school students, I would have been able to answer. If they had asked me what I thought about Japanese junior high-school students attending cram schools, I would have been able to answer. Instead, all I could say was, "Uh, well, I don't know, uh."

I do understand why Japanese people ask so many questions however. They're curious. Heck, I would be too if aliens landed on my planet.

Answering their questions allows me to get in touch with my inner "Mork." Mork was a character played by Robin Williams on an American TV sitcom called "Mork and Mindy" from 1978-82. Mork looked human but he was from a different planet, the planet "Ork." He amused the Earthlings with his misunderstandings of their culture. Mork is my hero.

I really do believe that Japanese people view foreigners as Morks, or aliens. When I first came to Japan to do my teaching practicum in teaching English as a second language, a Japanese teacher wrote the following on my evaluation: "Amy has a distinct teaching advantage because she is small. She doesn't scare the students."

The Mork conditioning starts when children are young. Once when I went to a Japanese hot spring with my friends, I started up a conversation in the bath with a little girl. We had a friendly little chat and she told me she was in the first grade. Suddenly, my Japanese friend came over and said to the little girl, "This lady is a foreigner. She is from America! Do you know where America is?" The little girl got quiet then ran away. Although my friend intended to merely promote international exchange, she may as well have been saying, "This is Mork. She's from the planet Ork." So much for not scaring the students.

Last week I reported to Mr. Shimizu, the man who plans most of my speaking engagements. He said, "Next month Mushima island would like you to give a talk to the students in their school. It's a small island -- there are only six students in total. We hope you'll be very gentle with them since these students have never ever seen a foreigner before."

This is Mork, reporting from Planet Japan. "Na nu, na nu." That's Orkan for "goodbye."

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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