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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Another strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


I have within me, I confess, a split personality -- like sheared halves of a single beating heart.

And you answer . . . "Don't we all?"

Aren't we all, a la Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel of good versus evil, but poorly stirred cocktails of the pure and noble Dr. Jekyll and his hideous counterpart, the grinning and demonic Mr. Hyde?

But that's not what I mean. For my personality does not shift with a swig from a smoking test tube, followed by a staggering transformation scene. No, to call upon my other self all I need do is switch languages from English to Japanese, and . . . viola! There stands a different "me."

In this case, as my wife quips, the change is not between good and evil, but between dumb and dumber. Nevertheless, it is an alteration that I feel at once. And one that I see just as often in my fellow users of a second language.

I first noticed this makeover not in myself but in my initial coworker in Japan. I was fresh from the plane and knew less Japanese than your average myna bird, and with worse pronunciation as well. My teaching partner, however, was fairly fluent. He was also fairly grumpy. His native English broke sharp over a practiced sneer that communicated fine all by itself. "Get away from me," it said, "or I'll bite you."

Yet when approached in his second language, he rose from his desk like a rejuvenated Phoenix. A loopy smile, roundabout gestures and a wild laugh all meshed with bubbling, gregarious Japanese -- Japanese that exaggerated the obvious, drew and fired every pat phrase available, and filled every single silence with sound.

Once his guest had gone, I asked about his Oscar-to-Elmo transformation. His snappy response was this: "Shut up or I'll bite you."

But it wasn't just him. I observed similar alterations in my Japanese coworkers whenever they left the security of their native tongue and turned on their English. They peeled off their staid exterior to expose giggly new selves that laughed madly at each and every joke, even mine. Their faces changed too, from masks of inscrutable feeling to rubbery fronts of emotion run amok. It was as if switching languages had transfused their blood with Everclear.

When the change first occurred in me I cannot recall. My myna bird Japanese evolved through various stages of higher parrots until it eventually reached its current and final level, unfortunately more of a waddling duck than a soaring eagle.

One day a younger coworker asked how come I turned into a different person when I spoke Japanese.

I resisted the temptation to bite and instead reflected on what I knew was true. I did indeed change when I spoke my other tongue. The question was . . . Why?

"It's a matter of compensation," notes a wise owl friend. "Your Japanese is good, but not that good. You have holes in your vocabulary and slack in your comprehension speed. Yet, toss in some gestures, a hearty laugh and a flood of hollow phrasing, and you smudge makeup across both those flaws.

"You take cover behind this blind of exaggeration until you can figure out what's going on, and this performance has been become part of your language skills. But it's not just you. The same thing happens with lots of learners who have not quite nailed the language down."

He wagers that the harder the Japanese, the more readily I morph into my silly Mr. Hyde. Or that my other self has become an auto-reflex. Japanese taps my linguistic kneecap, and my second personality kicks out automatically.

Another friend disagrees.

"Japanese expect foreigners to be loud and expressive. It's part of the reason that they themselves will bubble over when using English. They are not just adapting a language, they are acquiring a role. To a degree all second language learners are like actors upon a stage. We try to follow the requirements of what we sense is a larger communicative script and really do step beyond our truer selves. We act different because -- outside of our own language -- we are different."

As an example, he cites the parade of "gaijin talents" that appear on Japanese variety shows. Either those foreigners are acting out what they sense is a perceived role, or away from the set they lead lives as circus clowns. For on screen they appear almost uniformly cartoonish and buffoonish. This despite Japanese skills that are often sensational.

Both friends perhaps have a finger on the truth -- fingers that they might press farther. How deep does the schism go? Does it affect only the skid-greasing conversations of daily necessity and leave the core untouched? Or -- as in the Stevenson novel -- is there a point when the rambunctious Mr. Hyde begins to force himself upon the good doctor?

Meanwhile, back at the family hearth, I note neither of my sons shows this dualism of Japanese/English personality. They slip in and out of both languages as if they were raised doing it -- and they were.

My wife acquired her English as a young adult, but while there may have been a day when I sensed she tugged on a new face when immersed within my language, that day has long past. Now we swim together in a comfortable broth of mixed English and Japanese. Most often I am not even aware of which part of my split tongue I am using. Neither is she. Home is simply home.

"Isn't that the true personality then?" she comments. "One that, like our marriage itself, stirs and blends both halves of our bicultural lives."

Hmm. Maybe, but doesn't such a concoction leaves me with three personas, not two?

Dr. Jekyll? Mr. Hyde? Gosh, perhaps I need room for Cybil.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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