“Do you like cow piss?” a student asks me enthusiastically, in my first few weeks of being an English teacher in this country.
“Um, cow piss? In what sense?”
“Cow piss,” he repeats, making the universal gesture for drinking. Is this guy for real?
“No, not really,” I reply evenly, searching his face for any sign that might give his joke away. “Do you like cow piss?”
“Oh, yes! Oishii! It is delicious!” he says with a bright, earnest grin.
Well, whatever turns your crank, dude, but I can think of a lot of things I would much rather drink.
Much is made of Japan’s abundance of terribly mangled English. And it is true that you can fill notebooks with it. I mean, there are whole websites dedicated to this so-called ‘Engrish’. And I used to ask the question a lot myself – why don’t Japanese businesses, some of them huge corporations with a global reach, get somebody to check the English that goes out on their ads, their signage, their brands. How hard is it to hire a translator?
But eventually it hits you. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care. They don’t care how amusing or just plain idiotic something may sound to you, a native speaker. See, English in this country is simply for decoration in many cases. For a host of historical and cultural reasons, having any message written in Roman letters adds a sense of sophistication or modernity to any product. As for mistakes, not many people here, besides the one percent or so of the population that are English-speaking foreigners, will notice it. To everyone else, the English is nothing more than an element of design. That’s why my three-year-old student wears a t-shirt emblazoned with “HELL 69” on it and another’s says, “Stand naturally, Keep your pecker up”. Or why crossing the intersection I see an old lady with a black sweatshirt with “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck” set in some sort of visual collage.
Within a stone’s throw of my office building is a store selling “Jeans for Aggressive Women”, a shop called “Book-Off” (not to be confused with its sister chain “Hard-Off”), and best of all a hair salon named, rather inappropriately, I think, “Oops!”.
Let’s say its lunchtime and I’m in the mood for a light snack and a beverage. I’d just pop into the convenience store across the street. I could get some tasty, cream-filled sweets called “Collon”, or maybe some chocolate that goes by the name “Asse”. Or maybe it’s hot. How about cooling down with a massive, phallic-shaped popsicle called “Ice Guy”.
Or maybe I’d better just get a bottled drink. Those Ice Guys tend to drip. Well, I’d just walk over to the refrigerated section and reach in for a nice, refreshing concoction named “Pocari Sweat”, bearing an uncanny resemblance in color and opacity to actual bottled sweat. Yum! Or just up and to the left on the rack, a nice bottle of sweet, whitish fluid that bears the name “Calpis”, pronounced by the locals “Cow piss”.
I can tell you one thing for sure. Even though I now know what my student meant by “cow piss”, I can honestly say that I don’t very much care for either variety.