A typical Japanese classroom.
Sachiko must be considered “different” here in Japan. She works in the male-dominated research and development section of a major automobile company. Her interests include English, Hollywood movies, and fast cars. She wears dark, thick-framed glasses that cover most of her round, childlike face. She could easily pass as an elementary school student, but was taking an adult, basic-level English class I was teaching.
One day, she stayed behind to ask me a question. She could hardly put two words together. But no matter. After my having taught English for more than 10 years in Japan, my teacher instincts fill in those pesky prepositions or pronouns that often make even the more advanced students cringe with fear. It’s amazing how ideas can be conveyed without these trimmings. Such bare, stripped-down sentences deliver more impact to what the speaker wants to say.
“Very sorry. I have question. What do you say, ‘don’t touch me’ in English?” she asked, in broken, uncertain English.
I asked what she meant. And she began to tell me a story in a pidgin mix of English and Japanese about what had happened to her.
It was at an art museum, she said. While she was examining a print, a man came up to her and began stroking her on the buttocks. She pleaded with him in Japanese to stop, but he continued to harass her, and then began touching her breasts with impunity.
I asked why she didn’t scream out for help or run away, but she only said she didn’t want to make trouble, and therefore endured the harassment. Then she told me it was not the first time. Her pleas in Japanese were always ignored.
If her pleas were in English, she said, everything would change. She’s seen the movies — the Western women on celluloid who take no shit from anyone. Even if the guys who touched her didn’t understand a word, it wouldn’t matter. The English would be enough to send them scurrying away.
The language has the potency of a karate chop to the head. The economic and military superpowers of the English-speaking world were to thank for that. And an appreciative nod goes to Hollywood as well for making English the world language. Thank God Johnny Depp was endowed with a native English tongue.
The dialog in our classroom’s English textbook always seemed dead to me: a utopia on paper where everyone wants to be your friend, where a “Hi, how are you?” will make you the instant life of the party.
Finally, here arose a lesson that was practical, one a student could finally use and benefit from, as opposed to the American middle-class values instilled by those textbooks.
After some hesitation, I finally wrote “Get the fuck off me!” on the blackboard, and began teaching her the unsubtle nuances of the word “fuck.”
She read the words slowly, deliberately, and in monotone: “Get … the … fuck … off … me.”
The softness in Sachiko’s voice sounded as if she were reciting “Mother Goose” to a group of children. “Fuck” never sounded so sweet.
English, especially “combative English” (for lack of a better term), was all about stress, I emphasized while pointing at the word “fuck” on the blackboard. This, I said — tapping at the word — is where the stress should lie.
Even if the intended listener didn’t understand, it wouldn’t matter. The strong vocalization of the one word alone would do the job. Even the formation of the sound of the letter “f” looks intimidating. The raised upper lip reveals the front teeth while the lower lip is tucked underneath. Any such articulation that bares a set of teeth brings us closer to our primal instincts of survival. If that isn’t enough to scare off a predator, the hard, menacing sound of the “k” could be the coup de grâce.
Sachiko repeated the phrase on the blackboard with more emphasis, more confident about what she had to do. While most of her classmates talk about learning English to learn about other cultures, to have an advantage in the workplace, and to meet Westerners, Sachiko won’t be making new friends with this newly acquired phrase. She said it to herself a few times, and even began to sound a little menacing.
For her, it’s just a sound, a magic word. She knows it’s swearing, but she’s unaware of the hatred, anger, and confrontation that its English speakers intend to express when using the word. You could say baka yaro until your face turns blue, but more likely than not, you wouldn’t get that same tingling in your stomach as you would from saying “Fucking idiot.”
English sells. Or rather, the likeness of English sells. In Japan, the language is hip, even if you don’t understand what is being said.
Sachiko thanked me and practiced the phrase over and over again under her breath as she walked out the door. She’s finally mastered it. She’s armed — with a phrase that will embolden her.