Let me write about an unforgettable incident that happened to me at my part-time job. I’ve been working as an employee at UNIQLO since my freshman year. After so much time, I’m pretty much used to my job – I even teach new workers some of the duties now. However, after a five-month break (I was studying abroad for a semester in Korea), I temporarily experienced a chain of bad luck. Every time at work, I received some complaints from our customers such as “why are things out of stock” or “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say to me.” Although I’ve always liked working at UNIQLO, I was starting to feel anxious going to work, and then the unforgettable incident came.
One day while working an ordinary day at UNIQLO, I was assigned to the fitting room, welcoming customers who wanted to try our products on. It was a little bit crowded with two or three customers waiting outside in a line. I was guiding the customers to the available rooms while another employee was cleaning. And then, a tall English customer, probably in his late forties or early fifties, came in. Of course this was not a rare event, our store is located in an area near an international school. He was listening to music and had two or three pieces of clothing he wanted to try on. Just like I would ask any other customer, I asked him first in Japanese, “How many would you like to try on?” We always ask this question to our customers so we could keep in mind how much he or she is trying on, to prevent shoplifting. Because he supposedly was listening to music, or because my voice was a little too small, he couldn’t hear or understand my question. So next, I asked him in English, “Just two? Or three pieces?”
I still regret asking this question. Soon after I said those few words, he was outraged. He started screaming at me in his perfect Japanese, “Are you making fun of me? Did you SUPPOSE I couldn’t speak Japanese because I don’t LOOK Japanese?”
I was too surprised to even feel shocked. Seeing other customers passing by, I immediately apologized. With a little smaller voice, he then said, “Why would you even talk to a foreigner in English if YOU don’t speak it?”
Unfortunately, that outraged me. I felt extremely offended and actually, that was the first time ever in my life, someone criticized my English.
“Sir, I’m sorry but I do speak English.”
I said that. As much as he was angry, I became angry too, and that was against a definite rule every employee should follow: “never go against your customers.” After the outraged customer came out of the fitting room, he came up to me again with bloodshot eyes.
“YOU, do you realize how you have offended me? Do you realize I felt horribly discriminated? I’ve lived in this country for twenty years, and it feels awful when someone like you talks to me like I obviously don’t speak your language!”
In addition to what I mentioned above, he did say many rude things besides that I couldn’t get myself out of the situation. What he was saying did, to some point, make sense to me. After nearly five minutes, which seemed like the longest five minutes of my life, he finally left, still outraged, from the fitting room. For the first time ever while working at UNIQLO, I couldn’t keep myself from crying. I raced to the employee’s room, and burst into tears. Why was this happening to me? Why did he have to say such horrible things about me, especially about my English? Those questions didn’t go away from my mind for a long time. Yes, this customer who I unfortunately encountered was pretty extreme and, no offense, overreacted to what had happened to him.
But now that I think about it, very calmly, how would I have felt if I were in his shoes? When I was studying abroad in Korea, I remember feeling incredibly fulfilled whenever I managed to order food at a local restaurant or cafe, in other words just be generally treated as if it were obvious for me to be able to speak their language. At the same time, I remember feeling very disappointed whenever a shop staff talked to me in English or Japanese even though I was attempting to speak in Korean.
One time, at a local Gong-Cha (Taiwan-style tea shop) at Hongdae, I ordered in Korean, probably correctly because it wasn’t my first time ordering the same drink. Then the shop staff repeated what I ordered in very slow, (no offense but) poor Japanese. He didn’t seem like he was trying to be nice, he just assumed I couldn’t speak Korean, and had no choice but to ask me back in Japanese. More than being mad, I felt pathetic and even embarrassed. Because it wasn’t like I had lived in Korea for a long period, I thought I was the one to be blamed, for having poor Korean. For the rest of the week, I lingered on that moment at Gong-Cha to the extent of being a little afraid of ordering food in Korean. I’m sure anyone who has been abroad, especially for studying, has had the same experience before; those moments when you feel that what you had prepared for such a long time, whether it was from studying, making friends on or off campus, anything, had been completely turned down.
To keep note, I was only in Korea for a semester, for four months, and had studied Korean for two years until then. The English man who I had encountered, claimed to be in Japan for twenty years, and I do believe his words because his Japanese was absolutely perfect. Even I felt depressed in a similar situation with this shop staff in Korea, then how would he not be? I had probably acted the same way to the poor man as the Gong-Cha staff did to me. While writing this, I think I’ve finally realized it was my fault for upsetting this man, and have learned a lifetime lesson: there shouldn’t be any kind of borders between people regardless of their backgrounds. Whether it’s nationality, language, ethnic background, family background, whatsoever, there absolutely shouldn’t be any form of “walls (kabe)”, as Japanese people would say, between people who you know nothing about. We tend to think that language is a crucial tool in communication, but I completely disagree with that. Ever since the incident I came across, I hardly talk to customers in English anymore, unless they ask for an English speaker. I talk to them in Japanese, a little slowly but not in a noticeable way and surprisingly non-Japanese customers enjoy talking to local shop staffs in Japanese. After all, most tourists or people who’ve moved to Japan probably were hoping to experience this. Treating someone differently just because they ‘seem’ different is like creating an automatic, unfair filter. I mean, we were taught to ‘treat others how we want to be treated’ right? Since when did that golden rule only apply to people within our very small community of friends, families, co-workers and so on?
Since the incident, I have a very simple but strong motto that could be well said in just two words: “Shrimp happens” as I wrote in my title. I purposely used the word “shrimp,” remembering my high school English teacher telling us to do our best to say “shrimp” whenever we felt like swearing. The incident I went through was out of bad luck in a sense, but I did learn a fortune out of it. Being scolded at for something I had confidence in, made me change my values completely, in addition to broadening my views. To be honest, how many great lessons can you recall from joyful, happy situations in your life? I’m sure most of the lessons you have learned were through “shrimpy” experiences.
Before ending my story, I would like you to compare yourself with my “shrimpy” experience. Living in Japan, I’m sure we’re all sick and tired of being told how “English is the most important skill” we need to acquire in order to get into a prestigious school or to get a well-off job. If you’re reading this, you’ve pretty much aced what our country is striving for its people to acquire. Do you feel that with your English, you’re confident enough to become well off in the future? I suppose ‘no.’ People would say to me that I’d be fine or there’s nothing to worry about my future because I speak English. The man I encountered forced me to open up my mind. For instance since then, I noticed that while we’re being told to study English, non-Japanese people in Japan face cold mistreatment because they don’t speak Japanese. I find that quite ironic, and pretty rude. In addition, I realized that language isn’t a big deal in terms of everyday life. The fact that someone came to your country or even your community means they unconditionally like something about it, and hope to be treated in the same way. The next time you meet a non-Japanese person, talk to them in Japanese, you’ll see what I’ve learned is true. So, I want to emphasize that through that single experience, I’ve learned so much. That is why I would like to tell everyone, “Shrimp happens. Don’t hold on to it. Learn from it.”