Reading Time: 9 minutes

You know, I wasn’t very old when I moved to Japan with my preacher husband Biff–24. I was in the middle of deconverting from Christianity, and I know that being part of the right-wingiest of far right wings of that religion had sheltered me to a large extent. And one of the ways it had sheltered me was making me super-comfortable with what is called “privilege.” I was learning some very hard lessons, some of which I wouldn’t even identify or have names for until years later. One of those lessons involved the privilege involved in fluently speaking the correct language.

Japanese-English dictionary
Japanese-English dictionary (Photo credit: takako tominaga)

A “monoglot” is somebody who only fluently speaks one language. A “polyglot” is someone who can speak more than one language fluently. In some parts of the world, kids grow up speaking a number of languages and can switch between one to another in mid-sentence and understand each other perfectly (one set of Biff’s grandparents were from Eastern Europe and often argued that way; it was hilarious). But in America, there’s a real antipathy toward people who don’t speak English–and a great amount of privilege attached to those who do.

“Privilege” is one of those poorly-understood words that can make people bristle. It’s not an accusation but a simple description; it’s not meant to make someone feel guilty but to identify a problem. It’s just a shorthand term that refers to those benefits that seem to happen most for people who belong to the in-group but which are more limited for those who don’t. We confuse the word with the growing-up-rich and getting-stuff-handed-to-you spoiling that we imagine happens for wealthy kids. In this case, growing up speaking the dominant language of America didn’t mean that I had it easy or that anything got handed to me; it meant that I didn’t even notice that those who couldn’t speak English had it a lot harder, and maybe even that if I’d noticed they had it harder, I’d have thought that they, being part of the out-group, deserved their harder life because they didn’t speak English.

It ain’t difficult to find someone who has a Facebook friend or a relative who sends those frothing-mad “press 1 for English” type of forwards, always accompanied by total outrage about having to live in a culture where not everybody speaks English and angry denunciations of the freeloading immigrants who come to America and are seen as too lazy to blend in by learning a new language. There’s such a strong whiff of racism and xenophobia about these furious forwards, a sense of anger over the challenge to dominance, a feeling of being cheated somehow if the other group gets any help, and yes, a self-pitying egocentric whine that the conversation is, alarmingly, not centered around the bigot in question for a change.

Forget that the vast majority of those immigrants do in fact know other languages–just maybe not English, and that those who are so outraged generally don’t know any other languages at all. Forget that most of those immigrants are dirt poor or terrified for their lives, which aren’t the best circumstances in which to learn one of the hardest things there is to learn, which is another language. And forget that there is a reason why the United States doesn’t have an official language: because we are a nation of immigrants. But more importantly, we don’t have an official language because 17% of our country speaks a language other than English at home, even if we’re totally American. And even more importantly than that, having an official language paints a serious stigma on those who don’t speak that language. It creates an underclass of those who don’t belong, an underclass that is unable to vote or to otherwise participate in the democratic process representing them. Hell, non-English-speakers wouldn’t even be able to defend themselves in the legal system, which currently provides translators and facilitators for those who need help; that help would stop immediately if English were the only recognized language in our country.

But the everyday burdens of such a move would be almost worse than not being able to meaningfully vote or defend oneself in court. English-only laws make the burden of fitting into America even harder by making educational materials even more difficult to access. For example, public schools often incorporate English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, into their curricula for non-English-speaking students, but that would end immediately if English were enshrined as the only language in which business could be conducted! It’s ridiculous to assume that immigrants don’t want to learn the dominant language of their new home; as that ACLU paper points out, ESL courses at all levels have way more demand than they can ever fulfill. And, too, most immigrants are well aware that to really get ahead in America, they need to learn English. But weirdly, English-only proponents don’t ever seem to want to enhance those programs so everybody who wants to learn English can do so.

And I saw every one of those negative things in action when I moved to Japan, which has an official language that I didn’t speak and no support for those who didn’t speak it.

Imagine getting up in the morning and being somewhere with a language you don’t speak. Imagine the huge burden just getting through the day would be. Here are some of the hurdles I had to leap almost every day because I was dumb enough to believe the press about Japan being very English-friendly:

* I couldn’t read any signage that used anything but my familiar alphabet, or follow any directions, or figure out public transportation beyond the most elementary stuff.

* When shopping, I had to rely on pictographs. Was that package laundry detergent or fabric softener? Who knows? Hopefully it was detergent. What flavor of tea is that? No idea. It shows a cup of tea on the box, so hopefully it’s something I’ll like. What’s in that weird-ass big tub with the dancing chickens and pigs on it? Meat paste? Who knows? How long do I cook this package of noodles? How do I preheat my oven, and am I removing the foil from this box or leaving it on? I did learn “give me that” pretty quickly and some basic symbols like the one for yen to figure out what stuff cost, but shopping and cooking any prepared food was always a total mystery.

* I couldn’t use my apartment’s heater because it was a series of floor-to-ceiling gas pipes with valves on them, all helpfully labeled in katakana, which I couldn’t read. You turned this valve this way and that valve that way, and it’d let hot air into the apartment. Not even Post-It notes could help me here; I had two different people explain it to me, but in the end, I had no idea how they worked. I did mention the snap winter Sapporo had while I was there, right? I was always freezing because I was terrified to try to use the valves and either poison myself or blow up the building. Later on, I’d learn that my heating bill was easily ten times that of my neighbors because of improperly using these valves.

* Forget filling out paperwork without lots of help. Or going to the bank. Or conducting any kind of business.

* Almost nobody actually spoke meaningful English. A lot of people there took English classes and thought they could speak it, but no, sorry, they couldn’t. At all. But that didn’t stop them from trying constantly; total strangers loved to try to make small talk with me, and while it was nice to hear hints of familiar language sometimes, it got tiring to be on-demand that way to people who just wanted to brag later that they’d spoken English with a real live American. I wasn’t there to be someone’s exotic encounter. (Later, I would hear about black women’s frustration with strangers trying to touch their hair and I’d understand a little about why.)

* I didn’t learn till a week or two before leaving that Sapporo had a mandatory recycling program that Biff and I were supposed to follow. Some poor guy kept leaving these increasingly-more-agitated-looking handwritten notes on our building’s front door, which we found out at the end were directed to whatever residents weren’t separating their trash correctly (which was us). We couldn’t read the notes, though, and certainly had no idea where to dispose of our trash or even how to separate it out. I still don’t know where Biff was throwing away our trash. I never found out. I like to think of him leaving the building every night, Batman-like, with trash bags in hand, looking for an unattended Dumpster somewhere to sneak the bags into and then dash away. I felt very guilty about not knowing this stuff, but seriously, I had nobody to ask. By then Biff was so angry about having to leave that I think he got a rush out of improperly disposing of trash, anyway.

* I lived in the fear of legal entanglement. What I was doing wasn’t, strictly speaking, legal right then; my school had procedures for fixing me up with a worker’s visa, so I’d be okay then if I could only go full-time. But every time I saw a police officer, I tensed up. I wouldn’t know what they were saying to me, and I wouldn’t be able to adequately defend myself. I’d heard rumors that sometimes they dragged people to their local offices to write huge essays on The Many and Glorious Virtues of Not Flouting Japanese Laws, and I wouldn’t be able to do that in Japanese. I got approached a few times by minicam news teams who wanted to talk to me about various things (I was there over White Day, a sort of reverse Valentine’s Day, and apparently some other day whose name sounded like “Sneaker Day” or something, and I guess they just had to get that all-important White Woman on the Street point of view), and I’d always skitter away like I was terrified–which I kind of was.

In retrospect, moving there not knowing the language was pretty dumb. Okay, it was ridiculously stupid, like galactically so. I don’t recommend that idea to anybody. But I was trying my best to learn and you must admit I’d chosen a rather immersive way to go about the task. I still remember the first times I ever actually talked to someone and was understood–sure, they were very short conversations, but I was on cloud nine. (The first of these was a question in Japanese directed to a toy store clerk regarding a glass display of shockingly-realistic handguns and rifles: “Those are toys?” He looked at me carefully, then nodded and very slowly said back to me in Japanese, “Yes, those are toys.” I’d been understood and I understood what I got in return; I was sailing for days! But I never did learn what those delicious strawberry buns were at the bakery.)

English-only movements exist for one reason and one reason only: racism and the xenophobia that racism engenders. It’s no surprise at all that most of the states that have an official language passed their laws after the 1970s–after the right wing began seriously ginning up white folks’ fears of being outnumbered. The proponents of these laws just want to outlaw any and all support for non-English-speakers and make sure those undesirables know that they’re ultra-mega-plus-bad unwanted. They want these newcomers to know beyond all shadow of doubt whose country this “really” is. It’s more important that they disapprove at non-English-speakers than to do anything meaningful to help them learn English. (I’m suddenly thinking of the fight against abortion access; I wonder why?)

I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity, however briefly, to be on the other side of that divide to see what it’s like for those who’d be affected by such terrible laws. I’m sorry that it took walking a few miles in their shoes to spark compassion in me, but I guess the important thing is that I figured it out in the end. It’s a shame we can’t send all the bigots over to foreign countries and let them slog it out for a bit to find out what it’s like.

If I’d been genuinely compassionate, it wouldn’t have taken something that extreme in the first place to get me to grow a little basic fucking human empathy. Isn’t it odd that I’d been a lifelong member of a religion whose very founder had commanded his followers to be compassionate, yet couldn’t summon the emotion at all until forced into the situation myself? Kind of weird. And I see people following the same founder who seem to suffer from the same problem I did back then; in fact, those followers are in large part the folks behind all these English-only laws that have been getting raised and defeated every single time in each and every convened session of Congress. It’s almost as if the religion’s not doing a whole hell of a lot of good teaching people how to be loving, isn’t it?

There are other ways to feel and show compassion toward others that don’t require anything as extreme as moving to a foreign country for a few months. Listening is a good start. Caring more about making a solution than about judging or condemning others is not only more loving, but it’s also bound to actually help newcomers to our country acclimate better. Unless of course that wasn’t the goal in the first place. But that can’t be right, can it?

We’re going to talk about food, glorious food next, and about how people connect through it. There’ll also be talk of the volleyball scene in Top Gun, I think. If you’re too young to remember that movie, YouTube probably has the scene in all its Kenny Loggins-tracked glory, and yes, you should definitely check it out. See you soon.


* Here’s a neat link about discussing privilege with those who may bristle at the idea that they’re privileged.

* A Nation Divided by One Language – this link does a great job of talking about how English-only measures are presented to the voting public and how language dominance (and fears of losing language dominance) is used to manipulate the ignorant.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...