Sunday, 18 October 2015

Pursuing Japanese ~ Language Exchange

My Japanese ability is still crap.

It's better than it was a year ago when I worked for a company that prohibited us from speaking it at work but it is still abysmal. I am a high beginner at best and a novice at my worst. I cannot handle speed and dealing with spontaneous situations can be rather trying at times - especially at work. But I know deep down that the more these situations arise, the more I'll be able to cope with, should the situation come again. And it is a good feeling when I've understood a customer enquiry or when my friend's card got eaten by an ATM and as the stronger Japanese speaker I had to call the bank to get them to retrieve it. It's nice having chats - albeit brief - with the ladies at my local convenience store. But I know deep down I need to step up my game. And ultimately this comes down to me. So lately, I've been doing a couple of language exchanges.

For those out of whack, a language exchange is exactly what it says on the tin. You exchange language with one another. You might spend a little bit of time speaking in your native language and the rest of the time speaking in the language you're studying. They recommend that in order to get the best out of this, it's better for language learners to be at an intermediate level (or somewhat conversational) in order to get the most out of this arrangement but being me, I jumped the gun a little.

My first exchange partner in Japan was purely text-based in that we simply exchanged messages back and forth. At this time, my Japanese was virtually zero, but I still know this person to this day; we have met a couple of times and I must say that on a computer, my reading and typing comprehension (if we're not talking about kanji) is still my strongest attribute.

My second exchange partner was via Skype and once again, it was at a time where my Japanese was still sub zero. As a result, we spoke mostly in English which was good for him but then he disappeared for a while and I was convinced that I would probably never hear from him again.

Skip forward nearly a year later. I was actively studying and I had already booked my JLPT exam. My job had changed and I could use Japanese at work as and when required. My "second exchange partner" suddenly came back into my life and we have been exchanging languages nearly every week since. The balance between our time spent in English and Japanese has significantly improved and providing neither one of us is tired, we can easily talk for two hours straight.

But it wasn't enough. Because even though I'm living here and learning the language, I still spend most of my life in English. So I started seeking out other exchange partners but it wasn't easy. After all, it has to be considered that simply having an interest in somebody else's language is not sufficient and in the same way that we choose our friends, it's important to be selective because the internet is full of all sorts.

I set up a few language exchanges to test the water but quickly discovered some of them were not to my taste. One thing I strongly dislike during an exchange is if someone decides to drop English in at random intervals when we're supposed to be speaking Japanese. I find that very unfair because when I'm exchanging English, I never drop in any Japanese unless I'm asked to confirm something. I think it's really unhelpful as I understand both as a teacher and a student that sometimes, language learners can't always understand certain words or phrases at natural speed. But if they've come across it previously and you slow it down, they'll get it. And even if they don't, they'll gain a bit of language to add to their arsenal

Another thing that winds me up is when people don't have anything to offer but are happy to talk your ear off when it's their turn. I spoke to a guy for one hour and when we would speak Japanese, he would interrupt me constantly if I couldn't generate the sentence fast enough. When we spoke in English however, he very rarely asked me questions but was happy to answer all of my questions and in a lot of detail, I might add. I don't like being talked at or talked over (I get paid to get people to talk more than I do) so I'm sure you will have guessed that I haven't spoken to him since.

Another issue I've run into are time wasters. I started off speaking to a person in Japanese but when we had to switch to English, he could barely string together a sentence. I asked him if he had been studying and he said that he hadn't studied in years. It lead me to wonder why he'd be interested in an exchange if he wasn't actively doing anything else to improve his English. He also kind of annoyed me because we were supposed to be doing a face-to-face Skype exchange but he decided that he'd rather do a voice chat so he could clean his surfboard at the same time. He was also swiftly cut.

I evidently settled on a third person who I now speak to via Skype every week as well. Said person has roughly the same level of English as I do Japanese and on a good day, is rather patient, never drops in English when we speak Japanese and is even more aware of the clock then I am. I've decided that these three plus the lessons I take every week will be enough for now.

But ultimately, while language exchanges can be a bit hit and miss, I think it's important to decide what it is you're looking for and what kind of things you can and cannot tolerate. I think it helps to find people who are of the same ability as yourself as well. Two of my exchange partners' abilities far exceed my own but I've known them a long time and they've actually crossed the border and become friends of mine. The latest one is just right for me. So if you're looking into language exchange, be sure to consider what is right for you.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

British Airways ~ One Is Not impressed

Please bear in mind that I only flew with them in one direction...and thankfully so I might add. Because you see, I was rather looking forward to flying with BA. I'd never flown with them before and I had kind of equated them to other long haul carriers like Virgin and Cathay Pacific (both of whom I have flown before). I don't know why I was expecting phenomenal service but I suppose I had to remember that I was flying economy and I had been living in Japan for two years. In terms of service, I have to say it but the Japanese do it better, but I suppose what I have to take into account as well is that this flight was also operated by another carrier - Japan Airlines, but more on them later.

Checking in was easy. The woman didn't waste much time on me but I suspect it was due to her limited English. It's not uncommon for some Japanese folk to become fiercely uncomfortable when they have to speak another language. Even the customs agents barely spoke to me. I wondered around the airport - Haneda was nice but a little small methinks - and waited until roughly an hour before my flight, went through customs and went straight to the gate. I boarded with ease and parked myself in my aisle seat while everyone around me tried to figure out how to get their suitcases into overhead compartments with little space remaining.

A man and his son found themselves next to me but neither one bothered me throughout the entire flight even though I knew they could speak English (they had to interact with the cabin crew on occasion). This was fine. It meant that whenever one had to get up, they bothered each other and I wasn't in the mood to socialise after only getting two hours sleep prior to my flight.
The plane took off but it took a long time for the plane to stabilise so the seat belt sign stayed on for the longest time and I really wanted to go to the bathroom. Then we ran into some turbulence... Now I have to say that I'm honestly not afraid of flying. And I've experienced turbulence before but not like that. I couldn't even focus on the movie in front of me. I felt so uncomfortable. Obviously a crash is always a possibility and obviously, I have no idea about flying and even trying to stabilise a plane at high winds but I don't ever want to experience that again.

The in-flight entertainment was passable but the touch-screen was absolute rubbish. I had to really press the screen for it to register and the dude behind me was also having a hard time because I could constantly feel him pressing into the screen behind me. (I swear it was like a pogo stick at the back of my head at times). I dunno if he just had no sense or fat fingers but it was a constant and annoyed me through the whole flight. The headphones were also rubbish. I had to press the earphones against my ear to hear certain movies while others were fine. I wondered if the business customers/first class folk were experiencing the same garbage we had to because I was not impressed.

The first meal was bacon and eggs but the eggs were a bit lacking (but what can I expect from plane food really though). The beef casserole was nice however. Like Cathay Pacific, most people paid no attention when the seat belt sign was switched on. And even after they were told to return to their seats instead of waiting for the bathroom, they continued to ignore it. (This was not the fault of the staff however). There was somebody else's hair on my blanket (they "wash" and repackage them, don't they?) but there was plausible leg room so I was able to kick off my shoes and stretch  bit. This was also the first flight I'd been on where there was no emergency demonstration. (Are we British just a little over-confident? I mean, most people don't pay attention but I think it's kind of necessary as you never know). I had an aisle seat and I was about four seats out from the bathroom so getting in and out was child's play and we arrived a little earlier than scheduled which was nice.

Overall though, compared to some of the other airlines I've flown with, I wasn't overly impressed with British Airways. I guess I can't completely blame the airline but the in-flight entertainment is kind of important to me. It kills time and occupies most of my journey when I'm not sleeping - so having it fail to function adequately killed the quality of the flight for me. I could have complained I guess but the flight was actually full to the brim  - or at least Business Class was when I'd walked through - so I couldn't see them moving me to another aisle seat. They might have given me some new headphones now that I think about it but I don't think the problem lied there.

I dunno. BA, sort it out. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The London Files ~ Return to Oz

So after almost two years of living and teaching English in Japan, I (and my finances) decided that it was time to cross the world and pay my family and friends a visit. Immense preparation went into it (e.g. a quick transferral of funds and a packed suitcase) and I was off on a 12 hour flight for a week full of fun and nostalgia. But as I reflect on the brief time I spent back home, I can't help but remember the frequent comparisons I would make. And I could hear myself doing it...

"In Japan, they do this...", "In Japan, they don't do that..."

I became that annoying. But I couldn't stop myself. I'd spent so long in a bubble that the minute I popped it, I found myself almost re-learning about everything I'd left behind so allow me to begin.

Picture courtesy
I'd always said it. A lot of people seem to be enamoured by London; they all want to visit some day if they already haven't, and even those who have been already are keen to go back. But London is not a place known for its cleanliness. I remember working with a guy who told me that his mother had always taught him to watch the ground when he walked because you have no idea what you might step in. And I was instantly reminded of that when I left the airport and got the tube (or subway for my North American audience). The paintwork was chipped, there was a crumbled up tissue sitting in the corner of a seat. Oh, and let's not forget the chips I saw squashed beneath somebody's buggy on the bus. Not all of Japan is perfect but it wins hands down in this department.

On a more positive note however, London does win in terms of diversity. Things have definitely changed from when I was a child. I remember my primary school beings rather multicultural now that I think about it. But back then, whereas we might have had five to ten different languages walking around, I'm pretty sure it's close to thirty odd now. And we have everybody. Africans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, South Americans...etc I love that we have everybody in one city. Nobody stares or gawks at one another. While not always a utopia, people from different cultures become friends and even more. And more than anything, I'm just another face in the crowd. I'm not special and it's kind of nice not feeling so abnormal or out of place.

I went to visit family one day and I had to interact with people because I was either asking directions or buying something at the shop, and I was immediately reminded of how poor the customer service is in London. I used to work in a coffee shop and had to really amp up my customer service when I would deal with people. I learnt a lot from working in that environment but I've learnt even moreso since coming to Japan and I don't even work in that sector anymore. In those two cases that I mentioned earlier, the man whom I asked directions from didn't even look at me once, and the lady who served me thought it would be funny to make me pick up my £46.45 change off of the counter. I'm not a confrontational person and maybe living in Japan has made me a lot more tolerant but seriously? In England, retail jobs and a few other service sector professions are not highly sort after - it's usually considered a first job type deal and as a result they usually have a high staff turnover - but it leads me to wonder why these people are still in these professions. In Japan, that type of treatment would not fly.

When two buses go by and neither one
is yours...
Catching up with my family and friends however, was awesome. I didn't get to see everyone - one week is not long - but it was nice to see how everyone had either grown or changed because a lot had happened with them over the last couple of years. I got to really catch up, relay my adventures and hear theirs. For a moment, it was almost as if my old life had come back. I snapped a load of pictures and laughed a lot, and I also got to eat some really good food. I was actually convinced I'd come back ten pounds heavier but I think I'm actually okay.

Of course, in order to see everyone however, I had to get around somehow. And unfortunately, I never did get my driver's license so I had to depend on the infamous London transport. In Japan, I frequently use Hyperdia or GoogleMaps for all my transportation needs. In London, I had no phone and didn't see the point in using the Transport for London website. Train delays occurred, one point at which my train was cancelled so I was forced to wait an extra twenty minutes in the cold. I recall sitting at a bus stop and seeing three of the same bus (of which I wasn't after) whiz passed, and one of each bus in the opposite direction, while I was sat there waiting for my bus. I do not miss the incompetence of London transport at all. Japan has it problems, especially when someone decides to fling themselves into the train tracks but once again, it wins in this department.

But let's get back to the food, shall we? Because I promise you, I ate very well during that week. I made it my business to have Fish and Chips the minute I touched down. And believe you me, it was glorious. I couldn't finish the whole thing in one day but it was worth it. Screw beer batter. Nothing even comes close to the taste of proper fat chips - salt, vinegar and ketchup - and a good old-fashioned cod. I also got to eat my family's home cooking again (ackee and saltfish anyone?), went to both GBK and Nandos and even tried a new restaurant called Burger and Lobster - a little expensive but I recommend it. Japan has good food but England had good food too (I don't care what anyone says).

While it may not have been too cold in England when I went - people were happily walking around with jackets while my tolerance seemed to have diminished - my skin told me a different story. Now, I was always convinced that I had dry skin but when I came to Japan, I found that my skin didn't dry out as much. And I'm wondering if it just never got accustomed to the climate in England. Because it is much colder than Japan; it's definitely slightly more north that's for sure. Granted I think the weather in England has shifted somewhat over time. It used to get really hot during the summer but now there are hot days in April and warm days in Autumn (but of course, there's rain; there will always be rain). I realised however that I needed to moisturise a lot more when I was in London but in Japan, one coat is enough.

And speaking of coats. While I didn't require one at all during this holiday, it was lovely to be able to walk into almost any and every clothes shop and realise that nearly everything on the shelf could actually fit me. For two years, I couldn't full enjoy the true extent of shopping. I can buy tops in Japan but anything else requires me to search online. But in London, I went a little bit over the top and ended up spending well over £300 on stuff. It was almost as if for that week, I could afford everything and anything. It was a nice feeling to know that in some cases, things were even too big for me whereas in Japan, I am bigger than almost everything (more often then not, people too). It was a glorious week and my wardrobes thanks me so very much.


So there you have it; the comparisons I noted between my homeland and my adopted country. I have to say though that despite seeing everyone and re-experiencing London life, while I still miss little conveniences (like being able to understand everything), I've still yet to experience homesickness and I'm wondering if there's something seriously wrong with me...