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Being a Chigaijin

Written By: chigaijin on October 15, 2007 4 Comments

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
Trilingual
What about someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual
Someone who speaks one language?
Monolingual?
American.

I came up with the name “chigaijin” a bit less than two years ago. It’s a pseudo-Japanese compound, which I chose for its ambiguity. The original decomposition is “Chigai-jin” (違い人), which literally means “different person”. But the compound also contains the word “gaijin” (外人), a somewhat derogatory slang term for “foreigner”. (I never found an appropriate use for the leftover “chi”, so I generally write it in Katakana, the script for loanwords: チ.)

I took Japanese for four years in high school, and with each higher level it did seem that the percentage of Caucasians in the class diminished. So I was singling myself out a bit by continuing on in Japanese, but I really did (and do) like the language. (Unlike most people, I didn’t get into it from anime, either.) I can’t even claim to be the most unusual student there, though, because we did have a language genius taking Mandarin and Japanese at the same time. He happened to be from Kenya and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes a translator or something, because he really had a gift for learning languages.

When I got to Berkeley I decided to take a break from Japanese; I’m currently taking Chinese 1A. With the classes separated between non-speakers, speakers of other Chineses, and existing Mandarin speakers, it’s harder to get a full picture of the Chinese 1 group…but on the other hand, it seems like a more balanced class environment. In Japanese I remember a quote one time from a Chinese-reading friend: “I can read this, I know what it says, but I can’t say it!”

So, OK, why did I lifeblog here? Because the term “chigaijin” is still descriptive, referring to positive and negative effects. When, in an AIM chat, I typed “my name mei you ie” (meaning “my name doesn’t have an ‘ie’ in it”), my friend replied “white people speaking chinglish confuses me”. This is a friend to whom I’ve spoken in Japanese, and mixed Japanese/English, with no problem. But when I touched one of her first languages, suddenly she got “confused”. I would describe it as something closer to “offended sensibilities.” I’m just a gaijin, or the Mandarin equivalent; I can’t use slang or casual speech or mixed languages.

But it’s not true. I’m different but not because I’m a gaijin. That part of me I can’t control. It’s the chigai part, that I choose to be different and take Japanese and Mandarin, that defines me. And my chigaiism extends from and through most of my life; why should we be defined by society when we can choose who we are for ourselves?

So I’ll continue to be a chigaijin, and struggle along in my first tonal language and praise Japanese grammar and mix languages as I please. Because language and ethnicity and even cultural background don’t need to go together. And I enjoy becoming multilingual.

I accept that I’m a gaijin, and choose to be a chigaijin.

Nǐ xǐang Nihongo ka Zhōngwén wo renshuu suru ma?

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4 Responses to “Being a Chigaijin”

  1. daveski on: 17 October 2007 at 1:28 pm

    There are some really interesting perspectives here. What’s been the response of Japanese speakers to the term “chigaijin”? If you’re defining yourself as different (from the American populace, I guess) by the very fact that you speak Japanese, does this term ‘work’ in Japanese-speaking contexts?

    I know there have been debates in Japan over the way the term “gaijin” is used, with some people insisting that the fuller term “gaikokujin” (外国人)is more neutral. It makes me think about how in the English speaking mainstream in the U.S., words like “alien” are still commonly used as ‘neutral descriptors’…

  2. chigaijin on: 19 October 2007 at 11:38 am

    Hmm…the original term “chigaijin” wasn’t just about the language, although to support the purpose of this blog I tried to focus on that. While a white American speaking Japanese is (I think) pretty unusual even for native Japanese speakers, I can’t say I’ve actually tested this, because I only use the name online, in only a few contexts so far, and I (unfortunately?) don’t have many native-Japanese-speaking friends. (One said “Do you mean ‘chigau hito’?” which is the correct way to say “different person” in Japanese.)

    But my being different (which I called chigaiism) isn’t really about the language issue, it’s in my way of life. Which is a separate topic altogether. I’d like to say I’m different from most people (not just the American populace) but that’s perhaps a touch of good old-fashioned human arrogance, since I consider my chigaiism a positive part of my personality.

    And yeah, with science fiction having made the term “alien” into a species from another planet, generally with mild negative connotations for being “nonhuman”, there’s no way the term is still neutral, or even really a good term to use for “noncitizen nonresident”. In Japan it seems more direct, with the historical negative connotations of “gaijin” (which would more literally be “outsider”) driving the effort to use “gaikokujin”.

  3. daveski on: 23 October 2007 at 4:37 am

    そうですね。「外人」と「外国人」の歴史についてもっと知りたいですが、何かいいサイトがありませんか。(Are there any good sites for learning more about the history of the terms “gaijin” and “gaikokujin?)

  4. chigaijin on: 23 October 2007 at 6:31 pm

    Unfortunately, 覚えられない and 知らない (Can’t remember, don’t know.) My knowledge of 外人/外国人 has filtered in from nowhere in particular…just books and a few things online and…I can’t pin down any one source. Which means, of course, that my conclusion has to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Meta: another subject for the L&T seminar: comments becoming conversations between a few people.

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