When I visited my soroban teacher the other day to finish the paperwork for my visa, a woman passed by and wanted information about the school because she was planning to enroll her children. She discussed matters with sensei, and after she had her questions answered to her satisfaction, she left – and we went back to our papers.
Before I left however, sensei told me that he was a bit annoyed with the woman. The very first thing she had said was – upon seeing me: “Oh, I thought this was a soroban school and not an English conversation class…” Sensei didn’t respond to that, but he told me that it seems that he was not allowed to have foreign friends, according to that woman.
There are lots of stereotypes around in Asia when it comes to Western foreigners:
- You are a tourist who can’t speak the language. Mostly this is indeed the case, so I can’t blame them – as long as they don’t try to cheat you because of that (which has happened to me once or twice…) If they understand that you live here, then
- You have to be (a really rich) American. Admittedly, I am exploiting this particular one to some extent, whenever I have a bad day and I’m not as polite as I could be – I claim to be American… Anyway, the one and only thing you can possibly do in Asia is
- You are working as an English teacher. Once when I was walking down the street in Korea, a man cycling towards me stopped, quickly jumped down from his bike and almost yelled at me: “You’re English teacher?” “No”, I replied simply, moved further on my way – and left him seriously baffled.
A similar encounter went thus: “You’re a tourist?” – “NO.” – “Ah, you’re an English teacher?!” – “NO.” – “Ah, you are here with your husband!?” – “NO.” At which point the poor woman did not have any imagination left and chose to give up entirely.
I fully understand that stereotypes and prejudices can be useful, and that they are often correct: Most foreigners here are indeed American, most women my age indeed have a husband and children. But, if you keep on hearing the same silly questions and comments over and over again, and if people place a label on you without even trying otherwise, it does start to grate on your nerves sooner or later…