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  • Kady Potter

Does it matter if you're blue or white?

For Halloween this year, I dressed up as a blue alien. Jumpsuit, funky shoes, LED antenna headband, the works. Even painted my face blue to complete the look.


At the time, I probably looked a bit daft. All the other women out and about were bunny girls, cute blood-covered nurses or sexy zombies, and there I was auditioning for the Blue Man Group. I was the only person who'd gone to the trouble of full face paint that wasn't a clown.


But it resulted in some unexpected developments:


1) Facebook couldn't use facial recognition to automatically find and tag me in any of those photos.


2) Without the vampire whiteness of my skin to guide them towards the 'foreigner' option, a fair few people asked me whether I'm Japanese.


The first one filled me with glee. Even on the night, some of my friends didn't recognise me at first glance. But that was shortly followed by "...why would you do that to your face?" As much as I'll secretly be forever proud that I had the guts to go blue, I'd rather keep my tagged photos full of how I normally look.


The second one... has given me a lot more to think about.


When learning a language, while pronunciation is obviously super important, the separate issue of accent often falls by the wayside.


I know people who've been here for years who still have that tinge of hometown dialect when they speak Japanese. They're fluent for all intents and purposes (better at speaking than me, in any case), but you can hear the 'foreigner' in their voice.


I've tried hard - maybe unusually hard - to learn a 'Japanese' accent.


That sound that's halfway between 'r' and 'l' is something I spent a solid 6 months on. Treating a 'n' as a syllable comes easier these days, as well. Plus I try to pronounce katakana words borrowed from foreign languages in a more 'Japanese'-sounding way: think 'kurejitto kaado' instead of 'credit card'. Call it overkill if you want, but I'm putting the work in here.


I completely understand why other people don't go to those lengths. It's something I've willingly done, but it wasn't vital. And in some ways, it doesn't make that much of a difference. Regardless of how authentic you set out to be in terms of sound, your visual 'foreign-ness' will let you down every time. Before you've opened your mouth.


In conversation, sometimes people will say they think my Japanese accent's pretty good. To be blunt: that means nothing.


Here, you get praised as fluent after just saying 'hello, nice to meet you'. Any praise about the state of my accent is hollow by default. Simply because I don't look Japanese, and so whether I sound Japanese or not matters way less.


When I was totally blue, and nobody could see my real skin colour, it was totally different. What nationality could a blue person be?


Hmmm, perhaps I'd travelled to Osaka from some hot, desert-covered country, and was just experiencing severe frostbite. I hadn't painted my hands, but by midnight they were starting to match my nose, so they weren't yielding any clues.


You might have figured it out by looking at my eyes closely enough to see their colour, but it was too dark. Without the clearest signals of my European heritage visible, people hesitated.


Instead of their first question being 'where are you from?', it was 'so are you Japanese?' or even 'are you Asian?' And that wasn't just from Japanese people asking, by the way. A whole bunch of strangers were having trouble placing me anywhere other than the moon.


And then when I 'fessed up to being a Brit, the main reaction I got was surprise.

"But... you don't sound English..."


THERE IT IS.


That's the kind of praise I've been looking for this whole time. Shame I had to literally turn blue in the face to get it.

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