Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Expat Newspaper Whiner ( Preaching in the Desert)

I remember once I worked in downtown Los Angeles, on a street where most passers-by were recent Mexican and Central American immigrants, 99.999% of whom could speak very little or no English.

This did not deter a lonely preacher who was standing on the corner of Broadway and 5th street, delivering a long sermon in English and telling everyone to accept Jesus. I plucked up my courage, walked up to him and tried to give him an advice: “Sir, wouldn’t it be better if you could deliver your sermon in Spanish? After all, most people here cannot understand a word you are saying. Maybe you could give out flyers in Spanish, as well?”

He took it as an affront and snapped back at me: “ Don’t tell me what to do! I know what I am doing! Buenos Dias,Como Esta, Senor?!” He could not speak much Spanish beyond that. I, naturally, backed off and later would see him day after day standing on the same street corner and passionately telling the huge Latin American stream of people rushing past him about how much they needed to be saved, in English, a language almost none of them could understand.

Similarly, I read lots of English language periodicals all over the world since every country now has some kind of “Times” ,” The Moscow Times”, “The Korea Times” ,etc. and few things make me laugh more than another expat venting his steam in an English-language newspaper in a non-English speaking country somewhere. Take “The Japan Times” for one. Not a day goes by without some foreign English teacher or another “gaijin talento” criticizing Japan, making suggestions and /or appealing to the Japanese to understand that, say, the true meaning of internationalization (a catch word in that country for a long time) is to treat people of other countries as equals. Some get overbearing and cheeky: “You Japanese! Let me tell you what I think. I think your country is… this and that.”

“The Japan Times” likes those letters- they are publishable material, aren’t they? - and they let us see so many of them every week. The expat is relieved by seeing that now the country (and the world, he thinks) is seeing his name and his point of view, can share in his vicissitudes and maybe someone somewhere will take a step towards improving the situation.

What is the main problem here, though? It is basically the fact that most Japanese, even the most educated ones do not, as a rule, read “The Japan Times” since it is in English.” The Japan Times” is basically read by other expats, mostly Western ones, who are just as aware of the problems as the writer of the letter is. Hence, little of any change is happening in Japan as a result of all these ebullient and passionate letters except another foreigner is reminded of the same annoying fact of living in Japan once again.

Usefulness of letters to the editor is disputable at best, but one can hardly doubt the almost certain uselessness of a letter written in English in a nation where it will most probably never be read by anyone who would be able to make any changes related to the matter addressed.
In case of countries where the level of English is low such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Italy, etc. an amateur expat commentator would do much better if he/she would write a letter to a big national newspaper in the local language. If he/she cannot speak/write it well, it can be translated most often than not quite inexpensively and then, sent out to where most people, businessmen and, possibly, some decision makers can read them. In the language of the country which, in many cases, is not English.

Otherwise, one turns into that preacher on the street corner in LA :confident of his righteousness but not understood by anyone. What a waste of time!

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