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Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

One word from an innocent child can deliver a punch far stronger than a speech by a linguistics professor.

Say “Haro!” to All Strangers

By James H. Choi
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During my stay in Japan, I took a week off my exchange researcher’s duty to travel the country.   I traveled as far south as Hiroshima and as far north as Sendai.  Basically, I traveled all the way to the two end points of the bullet train Shinkansen network.

In my travel to the Kansai area — which includes Osaka and Kyoto — I’ve seen a lot of tourist attractions and ancient temples.  But the one instance that stays in my mind most clearly is the one that I don’t even have a picture to remember by.  In fact, I don’t even remember in which city it happened.  All I remember is just one word from a child.

I happened to walk through a residential area, and I had to ask for directions.  I approached a group of young mothers taking their children somewhere and asked in Japanese for directions.  They eagerly listened, understood what I asked, and replied kindly.  We exchanged a few more words of gratitude and denial, following the rather strict Japanese communication protocol.  As I was carrying this conversation, I was feeling smug about my Japanese ability.  I could carry a conversation with unsuspecting natives, convey my meaning, and get my responses without any confusion.  Hey, perhaps, they didn’t even notice that I am a foreigner!  Am I that good?!
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifThen a little preschool-aged boy — who was listening to the whole conversation quietly— looked up at me.  As our eyes met, he waved his small cute free hand — the other hand was holding mother’s — and I smiled back at him.  He had singularly harmless eyes and a peaceful face, I remember.  Then he articulated his mouth said:

“Haro!” in English.

So much for me going native.  Until then I knew I blew my cover when the Japanese people complemented for my linguistic ability.  Usually, in the middle of conversations, they would suddenly inject “You speak Japanese so well” which meant “I was wondering why you sound so strange, but now that I know who you are, your Japanese is not that bad considering you are only a foreigner.”

But this peaceful looking kid shot me down to my proper place with just one word, and he didn’t package it as a complement.  He is so cruel!  What happened to the famous Japanese politeness??  And he had to do it precisely at the moment I felt I was feeling good about myself, which is rare.

I got the directions all right.  (I told you I was communicating particularly well that moment.)  But the whole surrounding looked different afterwards: It looked more distant and foreign as if I am suddenly in a far, far away land, such as Japan.

Misery does not love company, it requires one.  I don’t want to go down alone this way.

I have advice for all innocent-looking preschooler in Japan, and all other non-English-speaking countries for that matter.  You never know when you will run into a foreigner with groundlessly inflated ego parading around your city.  Your one word packs a far bigger punch than an hour-long speech by a linguistics professor.   Go ahead and deliver!


Categories: Japan, Language
  1. Dan
    January 29, 2016 at 9:32 am

    I wonder, why do you care so much about how you are perceived by the natives? You are born with a language and should be proud of it and your identity; learning another language is only for communication of ideas, of who you are and what you think, not to put on a different identity

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