About a month ago, a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in years called me out of the blue. He explained to me that he was calling from the hotel bar at Algonquin Hotel, and that he was with several of our mutual friends from our college days. He told me to come up. It was around 10PM. I left my answer ambiguous, but decided to go with my girlfriend.
When I got there, I saw five of my friends sitting around a coffee table drinking wine. Before I could say anything to anyone, a girl jumped up screaming, “Dyske! Dyske! It’s so nice to see you!” She was obviously drunk out of her mind. The surreal thing was: I had no idea who she was. She left me with no choice but to sit right next to her. Every time I tried to say hi to everyone, she would try to get my attention back by pulling my arm. What appeared to be passionate welcoming of my arrival quickly turned into a barrage of accusations about my behavior a decade ago.
It went on and on. The gist of it was that, one day, when all of us were bar hopping together, I had apparently made an offensive comment about her body shape as I was walking behind her. Even though I did not remember this incident, I felt it was perfectly probable that I would have said something like that. So, I did not contest her accusation, and I apologized, but the venting went on. In fact, it went on all night long. She told me how my comment damaged her self-image permanently. The girl whom I hardly remembered meeting was deeply wounded and pained by my comment for over a decade. She was screaming so loud that when we finally left Algonquin, a customer nearby said to her, “Thank you. I mean, thank you for leaving.” This incident shocked me deeply. It utterly changed my perception of my days of 20-somethings, and made me question the image I had of myself and of others.
Until I was about 30, since English is my second language, I still had to think and formulate a sentence before I could utter it. This process would unavoidably make me self-conscious of everything I was saying, and in turn it would make all my behaviors self-conscious. My speech, therefore, was always affected and awkward. I was not capable of speaking spontaneously. When you have full command of your language, you think and speak like a professional pianist always reading a few bars ahead of what you are playing. Having this room to process other information as you speak allows you to listen to others, to pay attention to the mood and the environment, and to think of what could be said next. What is considered a normal conversation assumes that you can do this. The lack of this ability creates a barrier, a glass wall, between two people who could otherwise form a friendship. Anyone who has tried to help ESL students by having a conversation would know how exhausting it could be. After an hour or two, you are dying to call up your normal friends and have a normal conversation.
This barrier caused me a lot of feelings of loneliness, especially in college. Many in similar situations would turn to their own kind, but I refused to give in, and avoided making Japanese friends. In my mind, I came to this country to challenge myself, to see if I can assimilate. If I wanted Japanese friends, I would stay in Japan, I thought. Even though I enjoyed my college years, now I look back, I imagine that had I had the command of the language I have now, I probably would have had ten times more fun.
If you can’t speak the language, you have two possible ways of dealing with social situations. One way is to make a fool out of yourself. Since inability to speak well can be embarrassing, funny, childish, or even ridiculous, if you acted like a clown, everything you say and do would be at least consistent. If your personality does not allow you to act like a clown, then the other option is to be reserved and quiet. Carefully formulate a sentence before you say anything in order to avoid making a fool out of yourself. These two types roughly equate to Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat. Most foreigners I met employed one of these schemes. It wasn’t in me to be a Jackie Chan, so I adopted the Chow Yun Fat style (though he wasn’t famous then). It was nothing but a defense mechanism. I was scared of others making fun of me, so I gave as little opportunities for it as possible, but it happened often nevertheless.
Another factor that made me feel insecure was my ethnicity. I grew up in a culture that adored Caucasians and Blacks. It is only natural that the Japanese people look up to them. Caucasians and Blacks are in general taller, stronger, more defined, and above all exotic to the Japanese. Many fashion magazines and advertising photos feature Caucasian and Black models. Many famous Japanese singers and actors have features that are similar to Caucasians and Blacks. The bombardment of these images that implicitly hailed Caucasians and Blacks to be superior races (at least physically) certainly had an effect on me. For about a decade, this perception persisted in me. The feeling of being surrounded by these superior people is similar to the feeling you get when you walk into a party full of rich and famous people. If you are poor and nobody, you feel intimidated, afraid of striking up a conversation. You simply assume that no one wants to talk to you. That is what I did: I simply assumed that most people were not interested in knowing me or speaking to me. I assumed that, to them, I was just a stray dog.
Perhaps now you could understand why the incident at Algonquin was shocking to me. Suppose you are an accountant, and you have a friend from college who is now somewhat famous. One day he invites you to a party full of famous, powerful people. He introduces you to some of them. One of them is, say, Robert De Niro. You feel awkward and nervous, and say something like, “Your nose looks funny in person”. Ten years later, for some reason you run into De Niro again. This time he is drunk, and he starts going off on how your comment about his nose destroyed his self-image. You could imagine how shocked you would feel. The person you thought was so far above you, was in fact seeing you as an equal, and took your comment to his heart as if it were coming from someone as powerful as he is. That is how I felt at Algonquin. It was a mixture of shock, pain, and flattery. I had to rewind my entire 20-something years and re-evaluate my relationships with others.
The whole time I was holding up a stern face, afraid of being made fun of, trying to make up for how low I felt about myself, others were seeing me as someone of their own ranks, but snobby, pretentious, judgmental, antisocial, and rude. Paradoxically both perceptions were true and at the same time false. However, the discrepancy between the two, as proven by the Algonquin incident, was stark. Now I think back, the image I had of myself and others were almost delusional. That isn’t to say that the image I have now is any more accurate. It just means that self-image is nothing more than a product of my imagination, no more real than a character in a fictional story. The Algonquin incident, for me, was a revelation to say the least.