Carbon-Dating Expats

January 20th, 2008

Talking with various foreign friends, I’ve realized that you can determine a sort of threshold value for when they moved to Japan: pre or post late 90’s.

When I came to Japan (1996), beepers were all the rage in the US.  Cell-phones were rare if not virtually unknown.  Car phones, sure, but not cell-phones.  In Japan, however, EVERYBODY had a cell-phone.  What this meant for me was that “cell-phone”, as a word, wasn’t really part of my lexicon.  Sure, I knew it, but it didn’t roll off the tongue like “apple” or “recycling bin”.  The Japanese word, “keitai” (携帯), on the other hand, quickly became a daily word for me.

As a result, “keitai” became on of the words (like “salaryman” or “gaijin”) which were technically Japanese but used even when speaking English to other foreigners.  I’d have to take care, when I visited the States, not to use “keitai”, but to say “cell phone” (or “mobile phone” or the like).

I didn’t really think anything of it.  It’s always the case that in the expat community, some words from the host culture insinuate themselves into one’s own mother tongue.

But, after living here for quite a while, I started noticing something: generally (but not always), young expats would say “mobile” or “cell phone” or “cellular” instead of “keitai”.  At first, I thought it was a generational thing, but on reflection, that didn’t really hold water.  It’s not like the younger generation was eschewing words like “yukyu” or “yanki”.  In fact, it wasn’t an age thing at all.  It was a matter of correlation, not causation: young people didn’t say “cell phone” because they were younger, young people were just far more statistically likely to have arrived in Japan recently.  During my time in Japan, cell phones had blossomed in the US, so when the whippersnappers came to Japan, “cell phone” was as ordinary a word to them as “table”.

For a while, I even tried to recalibrate my English, replacing “keitai” with “cell phone”.  But (and perhaps this is related to age), I eventually quit, and decided to stick with “keitai”.  That’s how I roll.

2 Responses to “Carbon-Dating Expats”

  1. Victor Vorski Says:

    If you had come earlier you wouldn’t be writing beepers, you’d say pocket-bell. ;-)

    Yeah, language carbon dating is interesting.

    I wonder what the 21st century equivalent will be?

  2. bugbread Says:

    Considering the tech lag with Japan recently, I doubt there would be one. I can’t think of any technology that’s ubiquitous in Japan now that will hit the US later. Either it hits both at the same time and takes off at the same time, or it hits both at the same time and fails in one, never to reach popularity.

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