On Saturday, Taku and I decided to have dinner at a Spanish restaurant. We were greeted by a friendly non-Japanese woman, and after asking her for a table for two, she called over a male, non-Japanese waiter over to seat us. This lead an awkward exchange. Well we’re in Japan, so actually a “KY” (空気読めない) exchange.
As the waiter approached, he greeted us with a friendly “Hola!” and then paused as if waiting for us to say something more…rather, for me to say something more. Taku, being the charismatic guy they he is, replied “Hola” cheerfully, despite not being able to speak Spanish. However, I just gave the waiter an awkward nod, and probably subconsciously gave him a rather strange look as well, as I was not really sure what he was expecting from me.
“Ah…so…just the two of you,” the waiter continued after a moment, now speaking in Japanese. And we were seated and given menus. After he walked away, it dawned on me that he had recognized that I was Latino and was expecting me to speak Spanish. And here I thought the peppering of foreign language was just part of the atmosphere.
How was I supposed to know, after two years of living in a country where everyone expects me to speak English? I guess what I’m saying is, I’m kind of rusty on western social cues.
A little background.
I’m American, but my heritage is 100% Puerto Rican. I didn’t grow up on the island however; Truth be told, I’ve never even had a chance to visit there. I was born in the New England region of the states, and while I feel that I had a pretty typical “Latino” upbringing, I was never made to speak Spanish at home. I grew up speaking English at home and school, so I never properly learned what should have been one of my native languages.
Though I feel some level of regret for not learning Spanish when I should have, I also accept the fact that those days, I didn’t have much interest in my Puerto Rican heritage at all. When I was young, I always felt conflicted with my identity, especially because I was annoyed at how rigid Puerto Rican culture was.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but as an adult, I figured out why I always felt out of place. I disliked the hyper-masculinity. And the Catholicism. I also wanted to distance myself from the image that Puerto Ricans were troublemakers, high school dropouts, or even criminals. I was a skinny, nerdy, gay kid with a love of videogames and Japanese culture. I didn’t want to listen to reggaeton, womanize or cause a ruckus.
I lived in a periphery. Not Puerto Rican enough to be a “real” Boriqua, but certainly not any one of the other ethnicities or races around me. In my mind, I always felt ambiguous.
I grew up as a kind of enigma, and that was okay with me. In college, I grew my hair out straight and long, down to my shoulders. People would mistake me for Italian, Indian, or “some sort of Asian”. To me, it was hilarious seeing everyone struggle to place me into some sort of group. I even had the pleasure of someone mistakenly badmouthing Puerto Ricans to my face, and they were in shock when I sharply informed them that I was, in fact, one of “them”.
I’ve lived in Japan for over two years now, and the cultural transition wasn’t very difficult for me. I think I’ve figured out why. I feel very comfortable here because I’ve never quite felt like I was part of any type of any ethnic group anyway, so in Japan, being an outsider isn’t so out of the ordinary for me.
But boy would it be great to able to speak Spanish fluently someday…I’ve got about one thousand more kanji to learn, and a ton of Japanese grammar and vocabulary to study, and the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1 to pass though…
After that, I promise.