Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tale of Japanese (mis)identity

This blog entry provides me with an excuse to put up
one more photo from my recent Japan trip --
this one taken
the Engyoji temple complex up on Shosazan

Some months back, I did a meme in which I mentioned that my ethnicity and/or nationality tends to get mis-identified a lot, including when my mother and I visited Taiwan last December and got frequently mistaken as Japanese. Well, after my most recent trip to Japan, my conclusion is that (my mother and) I do seem to come across as Japanese to even the Japanese -- or, at the least, it tends to be assumed by many of them that we can speak and understand their language!

Additionally, while in Hong Kong, I've been asked more than once, "Are you Korean or Japanese?" Whereby people get rather stunned when I tell them that I'm Malaysian. Part of the reason for their surprise, I think, is that I seem to be the rare Malaysian in Hong Kong who cannot speak Mandarin (because I attended Malay rather than Mandarin medium school in Malaysia) as well as is not all that fluent in Cantonese (because I'm from Hokkien-majority Penang rather than, say, Cantonese-dominated Ipoh -- the hometown of Michelle Yeoh -- and Kuala Lumpur). (On a related note, one reason why I never get mistaken for a Mainland Chinese person -- as a Hong Konger friend of mine pointed out -- is that I don't speak Mandarin.)

Among other things, this state of affairs resulted in an amusing conversation transpiring when I went to the laundry the day before I headed to Japan. To cut a long story short: The woman at the laundry that I spoke to (in bad Cantonese) asked me where I was from. When I said "Malaysia", her response was, "then why don't you speak Cantonese?" But, then, after I told her that I was off to Japan the next day, she seems to have figured that I had mistakenly told her that I was from Malaysia and, instead, was actually Japanese. Going on from there and thinking that I was Japanese, she changed her mind and decided that I spoke Cantonese very well!

All of which has me concluding that I speak Cantonese very badly if measured using the standards usually applied to Malaysians but very well if measured using the standard usually applied to Japanese folks...! ;b


Glenn, kenixfan said...

Wow, I thought you were fluent in Mandarin? Kozo posted this week how he does not speak Mandarin or Cantonese and now you blow my mind as well with similar information!

I almost sent you a link to Yes Asia re: further Taiwan-era Brigitte Lin re-issues but w/o English subtitles assuming you could watch them and understand the Mandarin.

So you and Kozo look like the residents there but linguistically are only slightly ahead of a gweilo like me? LOL!

One of my coworkers is Japanese -- born and raised in Tokyo, forget the neighborhood -- but she always gets mistaken for Korean and when we get Korean food and she orders something a trifle "very Korean" the waitresses always start speaking Korean to her.

Another of my coworkers has a partner who is Chinese from Malaysia but calls himself "Chinese" not "Malaysian."

And most of my Vietnamese friends/coworkers over the years (there are a lot of Vietnamese, as well as Korean, people in Northern Virgina), make a point of pointing out how they are Chinese Vietnamese or half-Chinese/half-Vietnamese.

I'm just fascinated by all of that since I'm just a big old WASP! (well not so much the P part of that acronym anymore!)

Let's have more pictures from Japan please!

sbk said...


Very funny. I enjoy your stories of people trying to figure out where you're from.

sbk said...

Hi Glenn

It is fascinating and interesting how people identify themselves. Though Kozo lives in Hong Kong and is of Chinese heritage when I met him he seemed as culturally American as me or rather my kids. I'm also a big old WASP and like you not the P part of the acronym anymore either.

YTSL said...

Hi Glenn --

Most definitely not re my being fluent in Mandarin -- tell you a story: I actually took one year's worth of Mandarin when I was 9 years old and, well, it's the language that made me think that I -- who was already trilingual (Hokkien, English and Malay) at the time, I might add... -- might not be cut out for learning languages!

Re Taiwan-era Brigitte Lin movies: Just to let you know -- a lot of those that are now coming out without English subtitles (e.g., "Love Affair of Rainbow") previously came out WITH English subtitles and/or have English subtitles when shown at the Celestial Classic Movies channel (which I have access to over here in Hong Kong...) ;b

Re Kozo: Funny thing is that I think he looks even more stereotypically Japanese than me... As for language: I suspect his Cantonese can't be that bad now that he's been in Hong Kong for a few years. Really do believe that my Cantonese improve with each passing month spent here -- and with each new Cantonese language Hong Kong movie I watch! ;b

Re your coworkers: FWIW, I used to get mistaken as Korean in Korean restaurants too and it may have something to do with my ordering more Korean than usual food... As for your coworker's partner who calls himself Chinese: Yes, well... there's (cultural) politics to that. For myself, I consider myself Malaysian and Hokkien but not really Chinese... Hope that doesn't boggle your mind too much! ;b

As for Vietnamese people: Do you know that Tsui Hark, for one, is Chinese Vietnamese (or is it Vietnamese Chinese)?

And sure thing re more pictures from Japan! :)

Hi sbk (1st time around) --

Yeah, funny, and am wondering whether I should make a regular series out of these stories! ;b

And hi again sbk --

Re your comments in response to Glenn's: Yeah, I tend to think of Kozo as very culturally and behaviorally as well as linguistically American too... Not too surprising since he IS American born, spent the bulk of his life in the US, etc. ;b

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Yeah, SBK, I think I mixed up two separate topics; I know Kozo is American and after discussing language I got off on a tangent about ethnicity/declared nationality which is quite a different topic.

I like this DC area for that mix and I know that I can great, incredibly authentic Korean and Vietnamese food at dozens of places in this area.

I have been watching a lot of Anthony Bourdian lately so forgive my food/culture perspective! LOL!

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Yeah, I was aware of Tsui Hark's Vietnamese Chinese heritage which makes his success in Hong Kong even cooler for some reason -- that he went to a different environment and succeeded in a major way (any buzz on that new flick he's got coming out?) -- and he spent quite a bit of time in Texas as well.

I'm always fascinated by how many Hong Kong stars had to go there to have a career -- Daniel Wu is from America, right? Christy Chung is Canadian; the beloved Brigitte is from Taiwan -- there are loads more.

I think we could all agree that in America, Daniel Wu would probably get relegated to sidekick roles, unfortunately, whereas in Hong Kong he can do any genre of film he wants and become a huge star in the process.

That's why, as a fan, I'm always a bit nervous when a HK star tries to break America because it feels like a major HK star has to take a step backwards to make it here -- unless it's Jet Li or Jackie Chan (though Jet Li doing that Mummy sequel is a step backward in my book, lol!)

YTSL said...

Hi again Glenn --

Funny you should ask about the new Tsui Hark flick: Have been told that it's coming out later this month but no distributor is claiming it -- or at least, letting us (the magazine I work for) know about it. *And* we're having problems getting a preview of Johnnie To's "The Sparrow" before our upcoming issue's deadline as well. So very frustrating, really. :(

Changing subjects: Yes, it is interesting that many Hong Kong stars and filmmakers are not from Hong Kong. Also, how many of them *can* speak English -- something that I am, of course, very grateful for! ;b

Getting back to our original discussion point: Did you ever read about Michelle Yeoh's story about how the Hong Kong crew used to be regularly reduced to hysterics by her as well as Michael Wong and Hiroyuki 'Henry' Sanada's Cantonese pronounciations when shooting "Royal Warriors"? (And for my part, I'm terrified of saying the Cantonese word for 'crab' since it's just a tone that stops it from becoming... umm... the Cantonese word for women's private parts! ;b)

P.S. I'm a fan of Anthony Bourdain too! In fact, he's one reason why I've subscribed to the Discovery channel packages here -- and also was inspired to go on my Osaka eating expedition! :)

Glenn, kenixfan said...

That's a great anecdote about Michelle Yeoh. I had not heard that yet.

Bourdain's episode in Osaka is one of my favorites -- especially the sushi place he finds at the end of the episode as it's so quiet compared to the rest of Osaka.

But now I've got to ask: did you see his episode in Malaysia and what did you think?

YTSL said...

Hi once more Glenn --

Yeah, I saw Bourdain's Malaysia episode. Interesting -- and I thought he got in a good mix of urban and rural, and East and West Malaysia. Still, wish he had visited Penang -- not only my homestate but the country's food capital. Seriously!!! :b

(BTW, was leafing through a Bourdain book during my lunch break today in which he said that Asia spoilt him in terms of food and culture, leaving the rest of the world paling in comparison... ;b)

Glenn, kenixfan said...

I'm reading his book Nasty Bits at the moment and I like it quite a bit more than Kitchen Condifential.

I probably wouldn't enjoy all the food that he does but I do like how he manages to explore cultures through his eating adventures without turning it into a weird food show like others on that channel.

I was weirdly happy that his choice of sushi place in Osaka looked like the kind of place I would love to find.

There's a good Malaysian food place near here in Bethesda, Penang, and it's a chain with spots in Philly and NYC I think. I'm beginning to like it almost as much as the Burmese place here in Silver Spring.

At Penang, Bobo cha (?), the dessert, is awesome and the okra is quite good -- it's almost like Bhindee Bhagee (sp?), which is an Indian dish (the Indian population in your home country obviously a factor there).

The Burmese restaurant here in Silver Spring, Mandalay, is a local treasure and has never disappointed me over the years.

(Boy, I *really* derailed this comments thread didn't I? LOL!)

YTSL said...

Hi once again Glenn --

"I do like how he manages to explore cultures through his eating adventures without turning it into a weird food show like others on that channel."

Hear, hear.

Re Penang: I've visited the branches in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Atlanta -- or, at least, restaurants with the same name. Funny thing: The owner of the Philadelphia and New York "Penangs" is actually from Kuala Lumpur. But guess he realizes what's the food capital of Malaysia... :)))

As for derailing the comments thread: Derail away since it seems to have led to a fun and interesting topic! :)