Thursday, April 29, 2010


Though I've only been here in Japan for a short time, like many ALTs and other foreign English teachers here in Japan, I've developed my own rather complex relationship with the “How are you today?” “I'm fine thank you and you,” conversational dynamic that EVERY Japanese school child has drilled into them from the moment they step into any kind of English class. This statement is so reflexive among children and adults, when asked the question “How are you?” they often blurt out the response without thinking, and then at the end of the statement stand blinking, eyes a little bit glazed like they just ran a really short sprint. This is especially true of adults. Kind of like if someone walked up to you and asked: “What is the numerical value of Pi” and you were well into 3.14159 before you even realized you'd started talking. And then you stop, gaze expectantly at the questioner, not 100% sure if you got it right but hopeful at least.

There are pluses and minuses to this. I admit, when I first arrived in Japan, and I'd say hello to some random school aged child as I wandered about, I found it charming and a bit comforting to know at least that I could have some kind of English conversation with somebody. But as I started teaching, greeting students by the tens and hundreds, the weaknesses of this drilled conversation pattern also became obvious. Like when I'd say “hello” or “good morning” to a student and they'd respond with “I'm fine thank you and you?” Or “I'mfinethankyou” or “HelloI'mfinethankyouandyou?” it became painfully obvious that as a rule, this response has very little meaning to my students beyond “it's what you say after hello, well, at some point after hello, yeah.”

I think this is complicated for a number of reasons. The first is that in Japan, from my experience, there isn't an equivalent phrase that holds the same weight. I'll occasionally ask someone if they're Genki? (“Ogenki desu ka?” or “Genki?”) and while I do get a response, it's not a standard greeting. “Genki,” in this usage, seems to read more to me like “So, are you in good spirits, with good energy and ready to conquer your day?!” Not quite the same thing. There's also “choushi wa dou desu ka?” which I think is closer in meaning to “how are you?” but it's not a standard greeting by any means, at least not in regards to how people talk to me.

So already we're having some cross cultural confusion (and as an aside, a confusion that doesn't exist in Chinese, as Chinese has Ni hao ma?” which appears to be quite similar in usage to “how are you?” at least from the Mandarin class I took.) And now, after participating in a number of classes where this construction has been taught and reinforced, I've noticed some interesting interpretations of “fine” that have lent me some insight into why it's so prevalent.

The first and most obvious is that “I'm fine thank you,” is about the most innocuous possible way to answer this question. You're not going to offend someone or confuse them in any way with “I'm fine thank you and you.” So in that sense, it's a good answer to start with. Like in the same way that when we start learning Japanese, we're generally taught the ~masu forms first. In my opinion, this does us (gaikokujin) as budding Japanese speakers a far greater disservice than “I'm fine thank you and you,” will ever do to budding English speakers, as learning the ~masu forms as our primary gateway into verb conjugation gives us an unnatural relationship with the Japanese verb. Even with the massive amount of studying I've tried to do working from the plain form of the verb, (and I started early on this) because I learned many of the basic verbs as~masu first, under stress I drop back into them, (or I don't recognize the plain form when I hear it) which is unfortunate in regards to natural speaking and comprehension. But it is what it is, and the imperative not to make an ass out of yourself in another country is of huge importance.

The second reason that I've noticed is a bit more subtle, and maybe related to the fact that there really isn't an expression like “How are you?” that holds the same weight and usage here (in my experience, which is limited and narrow, so take this as you will). In multiple classes, I've seen the word “fine” translated by teachers as “genki!” This is often accompanied by a muscle flexing “strong” gesture and a huge smile. In short, in Japan “fine” (seems like it) equals “genki,” that is “in good spirits, with good energy and ready to conquer your day!”

Of course, “fine” doesn't really have that same undercurrent of meaning. It's right around “can't complain” on the scale of general life happiness, that is “yeah, I'm alive. Nothing's particularly wrong. Nothing's particularly right. Gonna try and get some stuff done today I guess. Yeah.” This is a subtle but rather important distinction in my mind, and one explanation for why teachers and the school system here are so intense about getting this phrase into the kids early on. And in defense of it, as a default, it's not a bad choice. I mean, if we taught the kids “I'm feeling awesome, in good cheer and ready to face my day!” that would be a bit much.

The thing to do in regards to this is to really get students to think of “how are you?” as a question, as opposed to a general greeting. This is a bit problematic because to a large degree “how are you” is used as a general greeting in English. Truthfully, how many of us are really looking for an in depth answer to this question, most of the time? As we move more to colloquial speech, the answer to this becomes obviously NO. For example, there's the Philly conversational staple:
Question: “Hey, hiya doin'?”
Response: “Yeah, hiya doin?” which serves the same function as “hello”.
As an aside, if I'm not thinking about it, I drift into “Hiya doin'” which is always met here with a blank stare. In the States, I never ask “How are you?” as an exact phrase, unless I think something is actually going wrong with one of my friends. Which does actually dovetail back to the original problem of what does “How are you? “ actually mean? And maybe lend some insight into the general ALT's instinctual movement towards adding variety and nuance to this conversational dynamic. Regionally speaking, we have two “how are you”s , the general greeting (which “I'm fine thank you” is as good as any neutral answer) and then the “How are you?” as a request for information, which ultimately is a lot more common (as other regional phrasings seem to replace the more formal “how are you” as a general greeting.)

In schools, there is a solid movement towards teaching students IN THE LESSON about other responses, what they mean, pronunciation, etc. But if asked the question, the teacher always as a default pushes the kids right back to “fine thank you and you.” It's a generational ingrained reflex. What can you do? I've been trying out a variety of solutions. This week my approach has been to work within the fine dynamic and add other words, to show that there are gradations of fine. So this week, I've been saying “I'm SUPER fine!” with a huge thumbs up and a vaguely 70's tone. I also (as a rule) make sure to teach "great, good, and okay" (or reinforce it) in every greetings related class. Probably I use “great” the most. For me, it's the closest to “genki” and I feel “genki” most of the time here. I've also tried to teach other physical responses “I'm stinky” “I'm hungry” etc. As I said before, the schools are really working at this too. At least the ones I work at.

Ultimately, the distinction of what does “How are you?” mean in what context, and how upbeat the response needs to be (in Japan, it's important to be Genki; in the States, it's important to be plugging along without complaint, it seems to me). So while “I'm fine” doesn't mean “genki” to me, it does mean “normal, alright, no worries,” which carries the same conversational weight as “genki”, if not the exact same meaning related weight.

I'm sure as time advances and I learn more, I'll have other, probably opposing thoughts on this subject. But here is a snapshot of my current thought process. How am I? I'm fine, okay, good, great, in good cheer and ready to conquer my dreams! Literally. That is, to bed.

Tomorrow: back to our regularly schedule daily summaries.