Japanese American identity pt. 1 – How do I feel when someone says “Gil-san”?

I had an interesting thread of conversation the other day on Facebook, after someone sent me a friend request that ended with the person (he’s Caucasian) calling me “Gil-san.”

He wrote this in good cheer and good faith, and as a sign of collegial respect. I know that. But it struck me odd somehow, that non-Japanese people (usually Caucasians) throughout my life have assumed that it’s perfectly normal to call me “Gil-san,” or to say “konnichiwa” (“hello”) or “sayonara,” as if I speak Japanese, or better yet, that I appreciate someoe else assuming that I speak Japanese.

I do — a little. But I’m not Japanese, and the only time I try to mumble and stumble my way through a conversation in Japanese is when I’m trying to speak to Japanese people… from Japan.

So I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: “Is it culturally sensitive, condescending or just plain goofy for a Euro-American to call me ‘Gil-san’? I’m Japanese American, not Japanese.”

As is often the case, I got a flurry of responses right away on Facebook. Interestingly, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as European Americans, had different perspectives on this topic.

A JA responded, “I hope it was tongue in cheek. It sounds goofy. Besides, if he was saying it for real, he’d say “Asakawa-san.” Right?”

I replied, “It was sincere, and I took it as sincere, but it bugged me enough to ask publicly about it. I’ve been addressed as both Gil-san and Asakawa-san before, both by Japanese and non-Japanese.

“It doesn’t bother me when, for instance, the Japanese woman who handles the shipping of books at my publisher sends me a note and says ‘Gil-san’ and ‘Jah, neh’ (‘Until next time’) at the end. To me, that’s speaking Japanese in email.

“But I’ve always winced a bit when a non-Japanese uses it with me. I don’t call them ‘Mr. Smith’ when I meet them. Hmm, maybe I should!”

A Chinese American friend posted: “Perhaps it’s his subtle way of suggesting that you append the courtesy title in the European style.

“(I went to a multiculti workshop years ago, and an American Indian was talking about how he hated people calling him “Chief.” Never mind that his school’s mascot is the Chiefs, and he was a high-ranking administrator there. He automatically assumed the salutation to be related to his ethnicity.)”

I replied: “This is an interesting dialogue, and I can feel it evolving into a blog post…

“This instance is definitely related to ethnicity, and I don’t think he’s subtly asking to be treated in a formal manner himself, since this was in a Facebook ‘friend request.’

“(And BTW, if you’re reading this thread, my new friend who’s a Mr., please don’t take offense, your use of the title just got me thinking, and I didn’t take offense at your use of it.)”

My new friend did indeed read these comments, because he sent me an email within Facebook apologizing for his cultural faux pax. I told him directly that there was no apology needed, it’s just that his sincere salutation got my brain buzzing and I needed to air out my thoughts publicly.

A Caucasian friend chimed in to the conversation: “I’m thinking, and I could be off, if it was sincere, he really is that formal and calls other people Mr.? Or he has not other Japanese-American friends and just for some reason assumes that is the polite way to refer to you. Or he’s a jerk”

Another Chinese American noted: “Hm, I doubt it was condescending on purpose. However, I am not sure how I feel about it. It depends on how they say it. If someone called me Wu Xiao Jie (or Miss Wu in Chinese), I’d most likely be impressed by their Chinese than anything else. Sometimes I call friends Mr. ____ or Ms. ____ for fun so what does that make me?”

Having just attended a dinner that included the Consul General of Japan for Colorado as one of the speakers, I wondered, “Here’s a question for you all: Do you feel it’s appropriate to use ‘-san’ when you’re speaking, say, to a Japanese businessperson from Japan? To the Consul General of Japan for Colorado? A ‘shin-Issei’ friend (a recent Japanese immigrant to the US)?

“Am I just reacting this way because I’m JA, and not Japanese (even though I was born in Japan)?

“It’s a little like people who say ‘ohayo’ (good morning) or ‘sayonara’ (goodbye) when they meet me, because they assume not only that I’m Japanese (not always a good assumption to make in this pan-Asian society) but that I speak Japanese.

“In the past when that happened, it’s been because those people speak a few words of Japanese and they wanted to impress me. What if I didn’t speak any Japanese? Lots of Japanese Americans can’t speak hardly any Japanese.

“If a non-Japanese can speak perfect ‘Nihongo’ I too am dazzled and impressed, because I sure can’t speak it well. But the few words I’ve heard all my life from non-Japanese have been from people who only know a few words and want to show me what they know.

“As a personal example, I say ‘xie xie’ (thank you) to Chinese speakers sometimes (I try real hard not to assume they speak Chinese, and try to ask if they speak Cantonese or Mandarin). Or ‘kamsamida’ (‘thank you’ in Korean) to Korean speakers, and I wonder if they think I’m being a dork.”

A Chinese American response: “It would not only be appropriate, it would be impressive to use ‘san’ under those circumstances, right?

“I think it only becomes an issue if we feel we might be made into ‘the other’ or if people see us as one dimensional (the one dimension being our ethnicity). I dunno, now that I think of it it some more. If someone called me senorita (I was born in South America), I’d be fine.

“In fact, now that I think about it some more, south americans are the antithesis of P.C. and are just more easy-going about stuff like that. They call all asians ‘chinos,’ all middle eastern people ‘turcos,’ so that gives you an idea of how important culture is to them. Or not. 🙂 It can be annoying in one sense but sometimes it’s also liberating.”

A smart-alecky JA friend of mine piled on with this comment: “Or they were watching The Karate Kid and thought ‘Daniel-san’ was something that every Mr. Miyagi would say. Folks learn the strangest things from the strangest places.”

The Chinese American woman added this: “Gil: Since I don’t think it’s dorky when you say xiexie or kamsamida, I guess it can’t be dorky for someone to say arigato to you, can it? And yet…

“You’re right, lots of Asian Americans don’t speak their native language. Lots of Latino Americans don’t speak Spanish and lots of people don’t speak French. But we’re all aware of some common words: merci, gracias, chao, xiexie, arigato, etc etc. Is it wrong to use these words when we’re all so multicultural these days? I often say bon voyage to friends who are travelling. A few times to Frenchy friends. ;-)”

And a Caucasian woman I know submitted the last comment on the thread: “I think it depends on context. It would be just as weird for me to say “ohayo” to you as it would for you to say ‘cheerio’ to me. But if I didn’t know you and we both met at a karaoke bar in London, well…”

So maybe context is what’s important. In the case of the white guy who wanted to “friend” me on Facebook, there was no context — he simply made a bunch of assumptions about me. He didn’t meant to offend, in fact he meant to show some cultural respect (I think… I hope). But because there was no context and his “Gil-san” came out of the blue, it felt jarring to me.

If we had met at a Japan America Society event, or if he were Japanese or Japanese American himself, the context would already be established.

I think that’s the lesson I finally learned after all this thinking and chatting.

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15 Responses to Japanese American identity pt. 1 – How do I feel when someone says “Gil-san”?

  1. yoko says:

    I had an interesting exchange the other day on the subway, where an African American man hailed me with “Ni hao” and “Anyong haseyo.” After telling him that I speak neither Chinese nor Korean, he asked me what my native language was. I told him “English.”

    He didn’t let up, though. He said that he started out saying both greetings because he thought it would make me feel closer to him. (his words, not mine.) Yes, it was a little creepy coming from a stranger, but it was the first time I’ve heard that verbalized in that way.

    I suppose that being addressed as “Gil-san” would have been done with a similar intention. But, as I told this guy on the subway, why do you have to assume that I don’t speak English? How about starting from the other direction and saying “hello,” and then perhaps switching to another language if that’s not understood?

    Back to your story- I agree with your other commenters that it’s about context. A non-Japanese stranger calling me “Yoko-san” sounds weird to me. It’s a little less weird (but not entirely comfortable to me) when addressed as such at aikido practice by non-Japanese. My non-Japanese friends will teasingly call me “Yoko-san,” but it’s not how they usually address me. At home, I’m just called “Yoko” or “o-neesan,” since I’m the first-born.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Yoko — that’s a very odd encounter. I’ve had all sorts of variations of the “Where are you from? You speak English so well” conversation, but never someone who tosses both Chinese and Korean at me just to be “close” and presumably, open a conversation.

  3. yoko says:

    I think because there are more Chinese where I live than Japanese, people here tend to assume I’m Chinese. I get this even with Chinese folks! (I wrote about this a while back here- http://balladofyoko.wordpress.com/2006/06/15/on-languages/)

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Looks like your commenting has been turned off on the old posts. Or at least, on that one. I couldn’t figger out how to post a comment. But that’s interesting that Chinese assume you’re Chinese. To me, the context oif that interaction is different from a European American person assuming I’m Chinese, or Japanese.

  5. enfu says:

    I think if anything more and more people are trying to relate to each other in their own special crosscultural way. And there is no way everyone will be dialed to the same wavelength in sensitivity.

    I am less offended if someone tries to relate to me by throwing some kind of Japanese anecdote at me than I am if they used another culture’s anecdote.

  6. Masao says:

    This was an interesting thread. At first, I thought you were overly sensitive to what has become a common multicultural society. At sushi bars, mostly frequented by occidental people (Euroamericans?), I hear attempts to speak Japanese to the (usually) Japanese sushi chefs. Were these customers insulting or trying to fit in?

    Back when I used to be told how good my English was, I’d respond with my best Mr. Miyagi accent, “Hah, sank yew. I have rived in Carifornia for (however old I was at the time) iahs.”

    You probably know that Pat Morita, a Canadian, spoke very little Japanese. His accent was invented for the movie. Was he playing to a stereotype? Of course. In Happy Days, he was simply Arnold, an American-speaking uptight burger joint owner.

    In a perfect world, we would see others simply as fellow humans. Since we don’t live in such a world, I would rather be thought of in positive stereotypes rather than negative ones (such as the post-WWII era when we were the buck-toothed yellow-bellied, four-eyed Japs, Nips, or Slant-eyed enemy).

  7. Jan says:

    Over the years, there have probably been 10 or so people who called me “Jan-san”. They were almost always people I had just met. I don’t think I ever took offense to it because I believed that they were trying to make a connection (even if it was awkward). One thing I didn’t like was when a person I just met would mention, “my best friend is Japanese” or “my brother-in-law is Japanese”.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Jan, thanks for your comment. That’s funny, I’ve also had the “Oh really? My sister-in-law is Japanese” conversation. I know people are just trying to find a way to make conversation, but awkward is the perfect word for it. It’s like, “that’s nice… Hmm, I know lots of European Americans, that means we should be friends!”

    When I was in college in NYC, I used to get a related comment, “Oh, you’re from Colorado! Do you know Jane Smith? She lives in Colorado!”

  9. H says:

    Hi. I stumbled upon your blog while surfing google, and I found your article very interesting. I agree that context is everything.

    For example. I’m euro American and studying Japanese language. Even among my Japanese friends from Japan, I will often use Mr or Mrs, since that is the proper English way of addressing people, and they are trying to learn about English. If we are speaking in Japanese, however, then I’ll switch to san. It’s very common for them to refer to me as “san” even while speaking English, and even though I’m not Japanese. So I’ve grown accustomed to doing the same.

    But that’s different than going up to some random Asian American and saying hello in Japanese. I think that I would be quite embarrassed to do that.

  10. saeb says:

    hi, nice post. same here in the arab world people tend to try to speak in each other’s dialect (since we have diff dialects). It’s actually very funny hearing someone trying to speak your tongue with little success and does sometimes break the ice in new meetings. However, sometimes it does seem as if the other person is exaggerating the pronounciation (since the vocab is the same) to force a mockery. In that case, it’s very offending and can have the opposite effect, ending a connection prematurely.

    I guess it depends on how good you are in speaking another dialect. I personally speak in four different dialects fluently that natives tend to mistaken me for being of their own, then become startled later when they find out i’m not.

  11. saeb says:

    wanted to add:

    very nice, especially in a foreign country they tend to treat you like a long lost cousin.

  12. saeb says:

    Note: arabs consider other arabs of a different nationality to be foreigners and treat them as such.

  13. Philip Fullington Ripper says:

    There is a subset of non-asian americans, well, asian americans as well, that idealizes some or all asian cultures. Sinophiles are nothing new. This societal sample is more likely to approach you than your average joe. All obvious stuff.

    The sad bit, on both ends, is that the first thing many of these people will feel when they realize that you’re American, is disappointment. Their presumption that your ancestry is your culture, character, or their fantasy, is unfortunate. I imagine that this is extremely common. I imagine if I was a disappointment to a long string of strangers because of their expectations based on my race, or based on much of anything really, I’d take it quite hard. I don’t know if I’d get depressed or annoyed, angry or disdainful. I’m sure it would affect me deeply.

    I’m sure Gil-San is an object of malice for Gil. How can you possibly stand being compaired to a version of yourself that never even existed, and measured by that illusion as a standard?

    I am a sinophile. If I met you randomly, I would make the same mistake inside my head. Especially here in colorado, with such a small asian community. I hope I would keep my mistake to myself though, long enough to figure out the truth. I’m quiet in front of new people, so that’s likely. But it doesn’t make me much better than any of the other people I’ve been speaking about in generality.

    I don’t really know what else to say. Your perspective must be quite something.

    I wonder how many more decades it will take before people stop presuming asians are not first generation immigrants? We do not presume this of black americans. We reserve judgement on hispanics depending on their conduct. We do not presume this of caucasions or native americans or the many aboriginal peoples that resemble them.

    Asians, and poor hispanics, I suppose, are most judged to be a part of a particular culture because of their race.

    A Question: You probably talk about this elsewhere on your blog, so I apologize if it is rude to ask it here instead of searching; what does it feel like when someone is attracted to you because they have a fetish for japanese or asian girls?

  14. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Philip, and thanks for your comment. In theory, I don’ mind anyone who is interested in Asian countries, cultures or even people. Yeah, Asiaphiles, Sinophiles and Japanophiles may have negative connotations, but at heart, most are simply deeply interested in Asian culture. I see it often, for instance, in fans of anime, who might go on to study Japanese, travel to Japan and generally be “wannabe Japanese.”

    That wannabe part is the tricky one, because it’s a thin line between appreciation and obsession. However, I think it’s good for people to show an interest in and learn about Asian cultures. But only if he interest is sincere, and authentic — it bugs me to see anime fans wearing bathrobes as kimonos as part of their cosplay.

    As for your question: I can’t answer on behalf of Asian women who are fetishized, but I have written about the “Hot Asian Babe” syndrome, in the pre-blog Nikkei View website: https://nikkeiview.com/nv/archives03/022403.htm

  15. Philip Fullington Ripper says:

    Thank-you for taking the time to reply, Gil. I didn’t really mean enthusiasts of a given culture. I was more talking about those people who have idealized, unrealistic views.

    As someone who studies japanese language and history, I sometimes feel awkward and worry that I may have crossed that line. But that’s a personal issue, and not really relevent. In several years, I plan to relocate to Hokkaido and study the northern folklore of Japan. Japan is all around a pretty central issue in my life. Though I know little about modern japanese society.

    Oh, and I happened accross this post via google, searching Japanese-American. I think you were 1st.

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