When I travel, people frequently mistake me for being Japanese- like the stall owner at the Chiangmai night bazaar who greeted me in Japanese and was surprised I could speak Thai, or the old lady next to Jeff on the MTR in Hong Kong who asked him if I came from Japan.
I guess it is no surprise then that everyone here assumes I am local and speak to me in Japanese.
My first reaction is always "Eh?", followed by a blank stare. But now I try to coin together the little Japanese words I know to communicate, and they immediately realize I am not native from the way I struggle with my speech.
A salesman walks up to me inside the Ikebukuro station with brochure featuring SMAP and pitches to me in Japanese.
Me: Gomenasai, I don't speak Japanese. Him: Anoo... passporto? (draws the shape of a passport with his index fingers) Me: Do you mean what language I speak? He nods. Me: Eigo desu. Him: Eigo? Aaaa... chotto matte... (runs to get help but his colleague shrugs helplessly, and he runs back to apologize) Sumimasen... kore, interneto. Me: Interneto? (awkward smile) Hai, wakata. Arigato.
I am introduced to P's friend Sayuri who is half-Japanese, half-American. She speaks to him in a mix of the two languages and turns to me.
Sayuri: Do... you... speak... English? Me: I don't speak Japanese. Sayuri: Honto? Sorry, I couldn't tell!
Her friend addresses everyone else in English and then turns to me.
Her: Zen zen daijobu desu ka? Me: Eh... (turns to P for help but he is busy) Hai, daijobu.
I am at the counter of Muji buying gifts for the siblings.
Me: Kore, gift wrap kudasai. Salesgirl: Ishio? Me: No. Kore, one wrap. Kore, one wrap. No. Iie. Salesgirl: Oh, betsu? (motions separate) Me: Hai, betsu. Arigato.
Situations like these repeat themselves day after day. At the convenience store, cafe, restaurants, when I am walking along the street, even random Japanese men trying to pick me up.