August 10, 2009
One of the questions everyone at the Tokyo orientation asked one another during the various awkward points where small talk was required was “do you know any Japanese?” I was surprised by how many people, like myself, said “none at all” but also caught off-guard by how many seemed like they were Nippon-born, saying “genki” all the time and talking to hotel staff like they were family. I applied to JET knowing that no Japanese was required if I did get the job, a comforting fact seeing as I knew no Japanese. So all these Japanese experts wandering around the hotel didn’t make me feel bad for slacking off big-time before coming to Japan.
Turns out I should have opened the language book after all!
I knew full well I would have no idea what anyone around me was saying, but the actual reality of that is kind of jarring. My current TV watching habits sum it up pretty well – any program aimed at a citizen over the age of 13 instantly gets changed, meaning my set usually either has a children’s show or a cartoon on (currently, I’m watching some anime where tiny little people float above regular people and fly into them to give them super powers. But look at all the pretty colors!). I can’t understand the real world, but I can still get a kick out of sock puppets dancing.
Unfortunately, there are no sock puppets outside my apartment. I have no idea what any Japanese person is saying to me. I’ve started speaking in a series of unintelligents grunts and sighs, hoping my facial expressions (“forgive me, I am so confused right now”) explain my caveman-like behavior. I’ve been super lucky to have some very nice (and patient) people basically act as my translators, doing activities I simply can’t like fill out forms and talk to other human beings.
Meeting people is the hardest. I actually have to say a few words, either some chunks of English or (gulp) a few sentences of Japanese fed to me by my sorta-entourage. I tried to say “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (translates to “please take care of me”) to one dude working in the Board of Education office, and it took me a good minute-and-a-half to get “yoroshiku” good enough. Thankfully, nobody seems to expect anything from me in terms of Japanese knowledge, as my bumpkin-ized Japanese usually gets met with polite laughter and “keep on studying.”
The most terrifying self-introduction I delivered came when I met with the head of the Board of Education. After shaking his hand and recieving his business card (the one skill I’m really good at: accept with both hands, with intent to cherish), I sat down in his office for some small talk. He asked me various questions, which I responded to by saying “yes” or, more frequently, “yeah.” Mid-way through the conversation, one of the people helping me whispered into my ear to stop saying “yeah” – turns out in Japanese that means “I don’t like it” and I was confusing the guy majorly. He didn’t fire me on the spot though, and now I’m monitoring my use of that horrible word.
Following said introduction, we went to a supermarket where I bought a few groceries. While there, one of the people sent to help me (my predecessor) ran into the gym teacher at one of the schools where I’ll be working. I introduced myself, and then she did the same…trying to use English. She was far from fluent, constantly asking for help from my predecessor, but she eventually got out a very sincere “I’m excited to work with you.” At this point, the sappy music should cue up…our protagonist, stressed out from a day of failing at Japanese, realizes the process is just as taxing for those on the other side. A rainbow forms.
Don’t get me started on bowing, though – that stuff is hella tricky.
(Random Japanese observation #1 – The news here just had a package on really chilly mines [?] and played the Harry Potter theme over the entire thing. Though it had nothing to do with witches or books or Daniel Radcliffe.)