I am ethnically Japanese (mother from Japan, late father was Canadian-born and not very fluent) and while I’ve never been a waitress in a Japanese restaurant, I spent my youth working a range of service jobs, including for a time in a tourist town where there were quite a few Japanese, both as residents and as tourists.
Personally, I find it super irritating when people who obviously don’t speak Japanese very well and who don’t know me start speaking to me in Japanese. Though this happened to me more often when I was a retail worker or barista, particularly in said tourist town, it still happens occasionally, with random strangers saying “konnichiwa” or something to me in the elevator or in the street. (I often also get people saying “ni hao” or something too, though I don’t speak Chinese.) Most of the time, it comes down to one or more of the following:
- Men trying to pick me up
- People assuming I don’t speak English
- People who want to unnecessarily call attention to my ethnic origins out of context. It feels “othering” and borderline racist.
(I am not counting the Asians who greet me with a “ni hao” or something; though it’s slightly irritating too, I chalk it up to people wanting to speak to others in their own language.)
If I was, say, volunteering at a Japanese festival (which I have done), I would be a lot less bothered, because (a) it would be fair to assume my ethnic origins and (b) I would assume the person is interested in the language and culture rather than in me personally, whether the intention is “hey, you’re cute” or “hey, you’re not white.”
I have occasionally met people who either want to practice Japanese with me or ask me about Japanese culture. The ones who didn’t irritate me approached me:
- When I wasn’t busy
- In English first
- By explaining who they were and what they wanted
- And gave me a chance to get a word in edgewise, for instance by explaining that I’m not from Japan and not all that fluent in Japanese.