So, it’s been roughly two days since my arrival in Japan. I’ve become somewhat acquainted with my fellow staff members as we rough it through together. However, having spent the vast majority of life in a country where almost everybody speaks my language, finding myself now flipped to the bottom of the food chain, as it were, has become something of a rude awakening. Now, I mentioned earlier that one of my concerns with regards to coming to Japan was the language barrier that I was due to experience. I know basic Japanese from my poor attempts at self-learning and the ten week course I took upon arrival, but while some of it has been useful, my weaknesses with Japanese are as clear as day. I can say basic sentences and my pronunciation is pretty good – I’ve been told – but my listening ability sucks horrendously which makes having a small conversation extremely difficult. What’s more, I can’t help but think that from the native language speaker perspective, I must look like that annoyingly stupid foreigner that natives roll their eyes at.
Now that I’m on the other side, I find that I get embarrassed a lot more and that’s it’s difficult to get my personality across, even with the most simplest of requests. Take this rather embarrassing encounter. (I’m really fortunate that I wasn’t alone when it happened). In an attempt to gain access to the internet, we were instructed to head to an internet café a station ride away. I’m pretty sure this “internet café” fits the description of what is known as a “mangakisa”, a place where comic book and anime fans come together to chill out, surf the internet, read manga…etc. In the UK, an internet café is just that – a place to surf the internet. There are no restrictions and no ties. You walk in; ask to use a computer; the staff member will point you in the direction of said computer; you may or may not need to log in; you surf the internet; you finish; you get up and pay and that’s it! Bob’s your uncle. At this internet café, we had to join. So this included filling out a form which was of course entirely in Japanese.
I still feel sorry for the staff members at this point – one had basic English and one had none whatsoever but we were instructed to fill out the form nonetheless. It was probably a really simple form but it look rather intricate, and as such we only filled out our names, dates of birth and the address section which I could barely remember off the top of my head. After a little more faffing around – their rates of pay were in English – we were lead to a non-smoking area (even though I could smell the smoke from the smoking area nearby). We had the option of using their computers or bringing our own and hooking it up to their ethernet cables so we did the latter. Only, I couldn’t find a plug socket and my laptop can only span roughly forty-five minutes to one hour; it also, wasn’t fully charged so I was panicking. What’s more, I didn’t know the Japanese word for ‘plug socket’. I tried to show the staff member with no English what I needed but obviously he didn’t understand and ended up merely untangling the charger wire from my laptop. So before my computer died, I loaded up Facebook and located two of my Japanese friends asking them for the word in question. Neither of them answered particularly quickly so I loaded up a picture of a plug socket and decided to find one of the members of staff. I beckoned him to follow – with my hand turned down and not up – pointed at the image and blurted out “kore wa arimasu ka?” while pointing at the image. At first, he said “no” and I had a WTF moment and then after realising that I had a travel adapter attached to my plug, he pointed to underside of the table next to me and I wondered how the hell I managed to miss it completely. I thanked him and felt stupid. Japan – 1, Melissa – 0.
I now understand why people smile a lot more when they’re put in situations where there is a language barrier. People smile because they feel awkward. They can’t quite feel themselves because they know that they’re not able to communicate to the extent that they would if they were with someone who spoke the same language. So they smile. Smiling is universal; everybody the world over understands a smile and for the most part, won’t find it offensive. But it can also, act as a barrier in itself to dissuade the “what the hell am doing” or “I have no idea what you’re saying” vibe that one feels when they’re no longer in a position of familiarity. I’ve had plenty of these moments in the last couple of days and for someone like me, who’s used to being able to put myself forward correctly, it feels like it won’t get any easier.
Another shocker for me was how prevalent katakana is. For those not in the know, the Japanese language has three alphabets, for lack of a better term. Hiragana: used for Japanese words; Kanji: derived from Chinese characters; and Katakana: used for foreign words. For example, my name would be written in katakana because of course, it’s a foreign word. Katakana is virtually everywhere – at least in Nagoya anyway. I see it more than I see Hiragana which is often at times mind-boggling. I had actually promised myself that I would learn Katakana before I arrived in Japan but didn’t do so. My back’s against the wall now.
On a lighter note, one of my customer’s at my previous company recommended a book called “Japan – The Original Point-and-Speak Phrasebook”. This book has images with words in English, Romaji and Japanese characters and came in handy when I went to a couple of Japanese restaurants. I was able to ask a waitress what she would recommend as I wanted something with chicken in it; I was also, able to ask if the food was spicy and all I had to do was point at the word/image and put it into question form. In the second restaurant, I’m pretty sure the waitress commented positively on using the book so I intend to carry it around with me until I become a bit more competent with my language abilities. I would recommend it to anyone with as limited Japanese ability as I have. It includes sections on being at the airport, taking a train, food, sports, emergencies and my personal favourite – being at a pharmacy/clinic/hospital. I expect I’ll catch a cold at some point so that section will serve as an absolute gem when I need to describe my symptoms.
I feel odd and sometimes, I want to hide away, but I know that I have to keep throwing myself in the deep end. I have to attempt things on my own as well if I intend to get anywhere. And above all, I have to study. Right now, I have the support of my colleagues who are pretty much in the same predicament as me, but it won’t be like that forever – especially when I head over to Hiroshima. So I will push, because even though it feels like a mountain to climb, it’s something that I must overcome.
I’m sure there will be more “stupid foreigner moments” to come however.