It’s quite natural to be curious about visitors from other countries – when I was in India many years ago people would often strike up a conversation and ask where I was from, what my religion was… Generally enjoyable, and if their English was up to it I’d be able to get in some questions of my own. The inquisitorial approach reached a peak one day on a local train in South India when some high school (or university?) students were in the same compartment, curious about me but couldn’t figure out how to ask what they wanted to know. Discussions followed, and eventually I was given a piece of paper with… a form to fill in! Name… Occupation… Address… I suppose they’d seen foreigners being made to fill in forms everywhere and thought that was the proper procedure.
So when I got to Japan and a young salary man came up on a train and asked if he could talk for a while I was really disappointed when after the standard “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” had been answered it was “Thank you very much.” and off he went! No actual conversation at all, just some questions he had learnt somewhere. I don’t know if he even understood my answers. I soon came to recognize this as a pretty normal encounter. These days many peoples’ English ability – and, I like to think, my Japanese – is quite up to a real exchange of ideas, but that kind of formalized interaction is still the norm I suppose.
A young student came into Raffles the other day, and because the place was pretty quiet at the time we got chatting. Turned out he’d spent 3 months in Manchester and because his English was pretty good we switched languages. Then comes “May I ask you a question?”. Expected “Can you use chopsticks?” or something but got “What is the purpose of your life?”.