Guest post: “Are you translating for her?” The problem with being the white wife of a Japanese businessman

In today’s guest post I’d like to introduce you to Grace Buchele Mineta. Grace is a Texan blogger married to her college sweetheart, Ryosuke. They live in Tokyo, where Grace runs the blog Texan in Tokyo, full of personal musings, comics, and stories about interracial marriage, travelling, living abroad, and everything else that she loves about Japan.

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My husband broke his bank card last week. It wasn’t purposeful, it was a slip of a hand and half a second later, there was jagged crack down the magnetic strip of the dark blue card. So we went to go get it fixed. And since this is Japan, it involved standing in several lines at a branch office.

When we walked up to the window together, the Japanese woman behind the counter briefly took stock for us before turning to my husband to ask: “Are you translating for her?”
“Excuse me?” My husband asked. I guess we looked like an odd pair. He’s Japanese (born and raised in Japan) and I am white (born and raised in Texas). Out in the rural sprawl of Ibaraki, we stick out more than in Tokyo.
“The foreigner,” she asked, “Are you acting as a translator for her?”
“Umm, no. My bank card broke. I would like to order a new one.”
She accepted the forms, briefly scanned them, then looked up at us again. “And, umm, what about… ummm…” She motioned toward me.
“I’m his wife,” I cut in.
“Oh.”

The entire process took another five minutes. “The card should arrive in the mail within three to four weeks,” she told us before waving the next person up.

This wasn’t an isolated event. This is life as the white wife of a Japanese businessman in Tokyo. When we shopped for apartments, the landlady and housing office asked if we were roommates. When I apply for a membership card for the dry cleaners, pharmacy, or nearby grocery store, there is a moment of confusion because my first name is written in Katakana (for foreign words in Japanese) and my last name is written in Kanji (traditional Japanese characters). When we go to the bank, phone store, or government offices together, he is viewed as my translator rather than my partner.

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It doesn’t bother my husband. He always shrugs and says “It’s rare to see a Japanese man married to a non-Asian woman in Japan. It’s not personal.” And I know it’s not personal. But it feels personal.

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Interracial marriages have become more commonplace in the last 50 years, and I can’t wait for the day (perhaps my children or grandchildren’s era) when no one bats an eye at a Latin American woman cuddling up with her African husband or two fathers pushing a baby stroller.

But in the mean time? In the mean time I’m just going to go back to having fun as a Texan living in Tokyo. Even though moving to Japan messed with my self-confidence and body issues, I have never once regretted it. Living in Japan has been, and continues to be, one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Have you ever had a similar experience? I’d love to read your stories.

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Would you like to write a guest post that is connected to the topic of this blog? Send me an e-mail at chinaelevatorstories[at]gmail.com or fill out the contact form on the about page. I reserve the right to refuse publishing guest posts for any reason.

About

Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

39 comments

  1. I must have had some similar experiences during the 30 years my Chinese husband and I were married, but I don’t remember any of them. I had the same attitude as your husband: “It’s not personal.” On the other hand, where we lived (the US and then the Philippines) I think we were generally considered a couple–even as far back as the 1960s.

  2. My foreign, Asian husband and I live in the States and people seem a little surprised that we’re a couple, too. Last week we were out with the baby. I was pushing the stroller, and a gentleman asked my husband if the baby was his. I think it was meant kindly, because he went on to tell us that our son was very beautiful, but it was, indeed, slightly awkward. Personally, I enjoy challenging people’s preconceived notions about what a family looks like.

    • I can imagine that being very awkward. My husband and I won’t have kids on the horizon for another 5-7 years, but when we do, I can imagine being one of those scary mamas.

      • sorry to hear it! Especially you Grace since I got told magic rule ‘hostess don’t wear glasses’ – yup, that’s what my husband told me when we went to Shanghai to a cheap motel (we didn’t want to stay with his family and since we both are seen as foreigners that one wouldn’t ruin our wallets) and he was like ‘be prepared that you might end up having an interview with the police, why would a white girl spend time with Asian guy in a cheap hotel’ (we really had a prostitute visiting a guy next door one night – that fake orgasm was more entertaining than any show in the TV) but then Sing popped out with a brilliant thought ‘nah, prostitutes don’t wear glasses’. don’t ask me why I married him.
        how you two deal with that kind of comments?

  3. Well I don’t have any similar stories so I’ll talk about my friend. She’s a blue eyed Spanish girl married to a Filipino and living in Philippines. People just assume he is her driver!

  4. honestly I never had that kind of situation – I think because my husband is so cheesy and huggy that it’s just hard to think he could be just my translator. but I don’t know if it really would bother me. let’s wait for the day someone really says that then I will be able to confirm 🙂 although it’s kinda sad everyone assumes we speak no local language haha 🙂

  5. Jeff

    It does get to you, I’m surprised Ryo doesn’t (although I noticed above he did when he was the “client”). It’s nothing to do with the rarity of AMWF, because there are other rare interracial couples and few assume certain roles for them. But for AMWF (like with other things re: stereotypes), society just ignores any social conventions regarding politeness and bluntly assumes things – whether it be penis size, a white prostitute for a wealthy asian businessman etc…. it’s one thing having such stereotypes in one region, but to have the same stereotypes in the “other” part where your partner resides is ridiculous.

    Even with the widely known perception of WMAF couples as gold diggers/mail order brides/ with him for a visa etc. types, society seems to keep quiet. Why are they the opposite when it comes to AMWF?

    • That’s a really good point I never thought about before. Does it have to do with how Asian men are generally looked down upon (particularly by whites) while Asian woman are seen as exotic and beautiful? Which also makes me wonder, why are Asian men looked down upon and even despised (if some of the comments I read online are any indication)? Are they perceived as a threat?

      • Its less that they are seen as a threat and more that people think they are dull.
        When I had been in Japan, I had a intensive language course with one male and three female teachers. And that male teacher was actually like “I am a untypical japanese man, I am not exactly shy and quiet, but thats because I’m from Osaka”.
        When I talked with other japanese students, they also told me they are unusual, when they were more the quirky type.
        I am from Germany and there are also shy and quirky guys, but there just seems to be this big stereotype that asian men are all quiet push-overs.

        • I know this is a common stereotype, but why is there so much opposition to non-Asian women dating Asian men? Even if Asian men were truly shy and dull, what would it matter?

  6. Though I have not such experienes I know of few AMWF couples who are by now also married who faced the very same problems in Finland. The problem was never for them with the Finnish people but with the Asian community, meaning that they were surprised “how” they could become a couple. Sadly, none of them have a blog (at least I do not know about it) however I know of one website by a Finnish married to a Chinese man where similar trouble might have been mentioned http://sarajaaksola.com/ (in case you havent seen it yet)

  7. Life is a series of challenges indeed, but you seem to be taking it well. Good for you!

    Do you find it getting any better in Japan over the last few years? I find China has changed its culture dramatically over the past decade, in many positive ways becoming more open-minded, but it may be harder for Japan to do that nowadays.

    Do you plan to stay in Japan indefinitely?

    • We are only planning on living in Japan for like 5 – 7 years before moving to the States. My husband has some “issues” with Japanese public school and doesn’t want our future children to go through the same thing – and he would rather live in the States.

      But plans change. We might live in Japan forever. Who knows?

  8. Honestly, it usually doesn’t bother me when stuff like this happens. The one time I got really upset is when a waitress gave us two different menus–my husband got one with local prices and I got the foreigner menu!

    I think most people can tell we are married, but people often assume my husband is Korean. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with blatant racism yet, which is my biggest worry. I do, however, hate the buereaucratic nightmare of being a foreigner and having a child in China.

  9. Teya

    Before I spoke fluent Chinese, my husband was always mistaken for my tour guide. On many occasions while traveling, a local would try to get my husband to con me into paying more money for something and then getting a cutback for himself (common practice in China). My sister-in-law was often called a traitor when shopping with me and trying to help me get a lower (reasonable) price for goods. The same thing happened to my husband when we shopped together. I could understand the idea that it isn’t personal, but at the same time, it does get frustrating.

  10. This is a terrific post, and definitely true for me and my husband (when we’re not holding hands and out and about). A lot of people just assume we couldn’t possibly be a couple — and are shocked if they actually catch us holding hands!

  11. Marli Xu

    When we lived in China, I used to have to hide outside the produce market so my husband could get the “local” price (three times cheaper) for our fruits and vegetables! In the city, people just assumed he was also foreign (Korean or Japanese). When we visited his family In the countryside, children would follow us yelling, “foreigner!” And then after a few more visits, “foreign girlfriend of a Chinese guy!” Then after a few more visits, “wife of a Chinese man!” It was fun to watch the older kids that remembered us teach the younger ones what to say. “She’s not a foreigner, silly! She’s the wife of a Chinese man!” Hehe 😉

    • D’awww, that’s cute. I’ve heard that in Chinese a foreign wife of a Chinese national gets a special name – and if that’s true, I think that’s really awesome.

      As far as I know, the foreign wife of a Japanese man doesn’t get a special name.

  12. I am from Portland, Oregon, red hair blue eyes, and my husband is from China. When we lived in China he was asked many times if he was my tour guide or my Mandarin teacher. Like Marli, I have had to “hide” outside while my husband bargains, especially when he bargains for touristy souvenirs. One time after Peter (hubby) had agreed on a price with the shop attendant and Peter called me in, the attendant got really angry and tried to raise the price again. My husband defies the stereotype of a shy, quiet Asian man–he is very outspoken and the shopkeeper was treated to a lecture about how his behavior creates a bad impression. The funniest time, though, was when we were on the bus. I was teasing my husband about something and he was pretending to ignore me. One of the other passengers, who didn’t see us get on the bus together, approached Peter and told him he should talk to the nice foreign girl who was trying to make friends with him. Peter had to tell him I was his wife. It was very funny. We haven’t had any problems in the US with people thinking he is my tour guide, but occasionally we’ve gotten cool looks from people who are more backward-minded. I’m glad we live in a liberal part of the country, because there are still people out there that frown on interracial marriages.

  13. teyayu

    So yesterday, the neighbors backed into our parked car. My husband had scheduled a regular service for today coincidentally, but a meeting came up. I brought the car in instead for the new reasons. The (black) clerk got the information from the car and entered it to the computer and told me “it looks like the car is registered to someone else”, I said it is my husband’s car. And I looked at the screen and it was my husband’s name, so I said that is my husband. The guy looked at me a bit, then looked at the car, and then says “I don’t mean to judge”. I guess this kind of thing does happen in the US too. I was inclined to agree that it did not, and while more subtle, I would also be inclined to think that more examples can exist as well.

  14. Bill

    This is a common intersection between intentions and consequences. The bank teller most likely harbored no malicious intent. As your husband said, your relationship is not common. However, that does not diminish the fact that what she said did make you feel uncomfortable and different, when we all just want to belong. Is there a solution? Should you start to confront those who question your relationship with your husband? What can we hope to accomplish?

  15. Bill

    Reading this again, I can see how I was trying to give you the impression that you should resign yourself. That was NOT my intention. I personally think you should confront those people, but of course, take into consideration circumstances and environment. Perhaps little things like holding your husband’s hand or giving each other pecks of kisses around people who are unfamiliar/unaware/shocked with your relationship. Once they start seeing the love you two share, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the plausibility of a Asian male/Western female relationship

    • chinaelevatorstories
      Author

      I can’t answer for Grace, but this is what my husband usually does: If someone thinks he’s my translator, he’ll tell them that my spoken Mandarin Chinese is better than his own or theirs. My Chinese is definitely worse than a native speaker’s, but it gets the point across. We do usually hold hands in public, so there’s really no mistaking him for my translator (except if we get in a cab or sth and the driver doesn’t see us holding hands).

    • I think why the bank teller thing bothered me the most is that I was holding onto his jacket sleeve while playing on his phone. There was obvious touching – which isn’t terribly common in Japan.

      Which is why I cut in and said I was his wife. Usually I just kind of shrug and let it stand (or start holding hands or something).

  16. Cat

    I know this is an old post but I just discovered it and had to make a comment! Here in Australia where my Chinese-born fiance and I live I was waiting outside a hairdressing salon for him to get a haircut. He came out of the salon and asked me for change as he was $2 short for the haircut – I kid you not, the old Chinese man standing next to me (who was a complete stranger) started reaching for his wallet because he just assumed we couldn’t possibly be together!

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