Saturday, August 07, 2010

Hiroshima Trip, Post 6: International Incident Win

At the 2010 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, everything is conducted in English and Japanese. Since most of the people attending the conference are from Japan and do not speak English, all the overseas delegates have headsets and during the proceedings off to the side there is an interpreter who is telling us what people are saying. While I was in South Korea I had the experience of attending a conference where I did not understand a single word, and while I did get a lot of other work done during that time, it was disappointing to not be able to follow what was being said.

One thing that the organizers of the conference request in order to make their job easier is that we turn in our speeches ahead of time so that it can be translated into Japanese ahead of time, or so the interpreter can have it in front of them while you speak to help guide them. I submitted my speech a week ahead of time, but was told the day I arrived to make some changes and cut its length. Instead of doing so (since I liked the longer version and will probably present it elsewhere), I took the report on the military buildup on Guam that I had prepared when I traveled to South Korea and made some small changes to it and turned it in. One of the translators asked me in a very direct but polite way, if there were any jokes in my speech and if I was planning on making any jokes while I speak, that I please avoid doing so, or that I can, but have to try to explain to the interpreter ahead of time what the joke means.

I was wondering how she knew that I like to make jokes when I speak publicly, not in an effort to make interpreters groan, but simply as a way to make my speeches more interesting, endearing or colorful. I swore to her that I didn’t have any jokes planned. What usually happens though before I make a public speech is to try and come up with one or two, to make me feel more at ease, but also make the audience more inclined to listen to what I’m saying and not fall asleep.

In my interactions with other delegates at this conference, I always try to make them laugh in order to ease their nervousness, and have succeeded in making a few people crack up, which is always nice. But at least once however, my attempts at humor have created a very awkward international incident.

Once in South Korea, an elderly activist, after meeting me and sizing me up, told me in broken English that he had never met someone from Guam before, but that I was dressed well and very smart and so from now on he will assume that all people from Guam dress well and are as smart and nice as I am. Like most things which old people say, this remark is cute, sweet, endearing, and potentially racist and screwed up. For someone reason, despite knowing how weird it might be for me to say it to other delegates, I decided to go for it.

So when I met some delegates from countries that I literally don’t know many people from, I would make a similar remark to that elderly South Korean man’s. When they would look at me with a strange incredulous face, then I would chuckle and tell the story of that South Korean activist. Nearly all would then laugh.

While taking a field trip with different delegates, I met two delegates from a country where I had gi minagahet, never met a person from before. I greeted them, they said hello, and then I started to talk about I had never met someone from their country, and how well dressed they were (they actually were very well dressed) – but before I could go on and say anything further, we were called away by our guide and I couldn’t finish the story of why I had said that. At first I didn’t think too much of the exchange. But as we went on with our day, those delegates never came back to talk to me, never even so much as looked at me again. For a conference which is about pas and guinaya, it was strange for them to be like that, and so I began to realize that those two guys might of that of me as being real racist jerk. I meet some people from another country and the first thing I say is that they are dressed so well, it sounds so stupid and condescending, and so I was certain that I had really pissed them off, and so they would leave this conference thinking that people from Guam are big mean jerks.

When I realized this and even as I am writing this now several days later, it seems so silly and improbably to bring it up now. But as I see them across rooms or waiting to travel to different venues for the conference, I feel like I’m in some progressive, anti-nuclear weapons version of Seinfeld. I’m trapped in one of those ridiculous human social faux-paus which we all wish we could live without, but actually bring a silly richness and much needed drama to our lives. I wish though that I had a crew of mafñot na ga’chong here in Hiroshima and that we could go sit in an Okonomiyaki Bar wasting away the hours talking about tåya’, US imperialism and more tåya’.

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