I think most of the people reading this blog will have at least some concept of “white male privilege.” It’s at once omnipresent and powerful, while tacit and unvoiced (largely). For those born under its umbrella trying to notice it takes true presence of mind and introspection. Mine is something to which I’ve been trying to sensitize myself for the last couple of years and it has greatly changed the way I interact with my social environment.
It was on a 9 hour flight from Tokyo to Singapore when I picked up on another connate privilege: being a native English speaker. Being male allows me to travel alone, being white largely afforded me the opportunity to come here, but being a native English speaker allows me to exist here.
The passenger next to me on that flight, a Chinese man in his mid-thirties, was reserved and pensive. Sitting quietly in the near dark he read translation dictionaries and phrase books. For the entire flight he literally poured over definitions and passages, in alphabetical order, to memorize Thai and English (yes, two new languages - simultaneously). Not once did he turn on his inflight entertainment system. No movies, no games, no music. No digital input for 9 hours. Who was this guy? Clearly he was very studious and cerebral, maybe he was just so ingrained in what he was doing it never occurred to him to add any erroneous stimulus.
But what if something else was at play.
In my scrolling I found the offerings to be fantastic, even some first run movies still in theaters were available. Tons of games and a radio system akin to Spotify, you could even stream to your devices if you wanted a bigger screen. Then I realized everything was in English. I was excited to watch movies because I recognized them all, I had wanted to see many of them but never had the time – they were all relevant to me - but my flight buddy had likely never heard of any of them.
Then the stewardess came overhead, telling the cabin the crew would be coming through with complimentary beverages soon. The message was relayed precisely once – in English. There was no Japanese translation (our origin country), there was no Mandarin translation (one of the dominant languages in our destination country), just English – the placeholder for universal communication.
Many ask how I get around in such vastly different countries without speaking the language. It’s simple, I rely on everyone else to tend to my lingual needs and lay it all out for me. Sure, sign language goes a long way when you’re in a bind, but I rarely find myself so stuck. I know no matter where I go the road signs are going to be translated for me. I’ll be able to order a meal with no problem. Numbers and prices will be written in English numerals. I can turn on a television in any hotel and recognize at least some shows. Nobody faults me for not speaking their language, in fact they find it endearing when I even try. And when in doubt I’m always given its benefit (except in French Polynesia: they never doubted my fault for a second, but that's another story).
Even when they’re not trying to accommodate, the English language still creeps into eastern culture. As always happens when societies blend, the languages have begun to morph into a strange creole in many regions where English words pop into conversation as the new cognate.
So I say again: it’s a privilege to be here – as in I’m here because of my privilege, which by definition means I have an unearned advantage. If I were Russian or Israeli, being absent a familiarity of the English language would make it nearly impossible to sustain a journey without finding strength in numbers. Feeling guilty about this seems unproductive, but at the very least I owe my gratitude.