After I had been studying Japanese (Nihongo) for over a year and still couldn’t hear it if my life depended on it, as you might imagine, I started to get a bit discouraged. I worried that maybe my brain had gotten too old to take on the challenges of learning a new language. They say a child’s brain is like a sponge. I imagined my brain was more like a used Brillo Pad, all that pink soap used up, and all that remained were some rustingtatters of metal mesh with last night’s lasagna all trapped in the shreds.
Then, some time later- much, much later- it just happened, quite unexpectedly, for I was no longer stressing about it happening. I’d already conceded. I was convinced my brain could no longer perform the feats it once did, that I’d deep-fried so many brain cells over the course of my 35+ years that fluency in a new language, especially one as utterly different from my mother tongue as Japanese is, was impossible.
I was at work. I’d come in at 8:35am, a little late, which is fairly unusual. The Japanese are nothing if not punctual and I’d learned the hard way that when in Rome you had better make like the Romans…even if the reason you are rushing to work every morning is to attend a daily meeting you’ll likely emerge from having understood little to nil of what was said. Every morning this staff meeting takes place, 8:30 sharp. Sometimes the principal of the school says a few words, sometimes he doesn’t. I hadn’t really been listening for a while anyway…I used to strain my brain to the limits to catch what he was saying but a word or two per sentence was the best I could manage…hardly enough to claim comprehension.
But, this day, I came in whispering Ohayou Gozaimasu and Gomen Nasai…no excuses, just apologize is the Japanese way. The principal hadn’t even paused from his speech. He was talking about how one of the students, a third year student (all of 15 years old), had run away from home and how her parents were very worried about her and how if she should come to the school to be some kind of way- probably careful- around her because she’s been known to get some kind of way- probably violent-with teachers; even last week she’d done something to a teacher- I think struck or verbally assaulted- a teacher. And, unlike everyone else, I took a peek over at the teacher that had had the altercation, and she was nodding her concurrence with everything the principal had said…
And that’s when I realized, with the suddenness of a crack of lightning, that I had surpassed some threshold of competency. Like a 4th grader listening to a Barack Obama speech, I had been able to follow most of what had been said…stumped only by a handful of vocabulary words. After the meeting, I was useless for the rest of the day. All I wanted to do was speak and be spoken to in Japanese, which is not such a good thing for an English teacher (-:
That feeling…that surge of competency, of having accomplished something that you’ve been told by everyone is very difficult, that you’ve even told yourself was not possible, is one of the greatest feelings that a person of a certain age, and a certain disposition, can have. Imagine Micheal Jordan dusting off his Air Jordans and coming out of retirement today, once again, for a one-on-one with Lebron James, trying to put them, now, old school moves on LeBron…the same ones Lebron was weened on, devoured and mastered by Junior High School. It would probably get pretty ugly. Well, my efforts at learning and speaking Nihongo were pretty ugly too initially (Not that I’m the Micheal Jordan of language arts. Hell, I barely know English good) (-:
I mentioned in 10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #3: Learn That Japanese that my motivation for studying Japanese had gone through several phrases. Allow me to expand upon that a little.
First I wanted to impress people back home. I know…silly, right? But, I did. Where I grew up you could count the people who could speak Japanese, that weren’t Japanese, on one hand, maybe even one finger. Sure, since the bubble burst over a decade ago Japanese ability in America had become about as useful as a Doberman with dentures, but I imagined it would give me a certain je ne sais quoi. The way I’d imagined French would which is why I had studied it for from JHS through University. But, as far as French is concerned, Je ne comprend pas was the only useful French I ended up retaining (-:
So, on my first trip home from Japan after a year of intense study, I was determined to put my newly acquired language skills to practical use and show-off a little in the process. I re-connected with my long-time friend with exceptional benefits to see what she was up to.
“Hey, you back from Japan? Let’s hang out!”
“Ii yo! I mean, sounds good!”
“Oooh, you speak Japanese now. That’s cool!” She’d said. I faux-blushed. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat!”
I saw an opening and made my play. “Have you ever had sushi?” A sushi bar was one of the two places I could think of where my Japanese ability might find the light of day without seeming like an overt effort to impress.
She looked at me cross-eyed. “Ain’t you had enough that shit yet? Stop playing and take me to Dallas BBQs! Fucking sushi…you funny!”
Okay, so that didn’t work out so well…
So the next night I wound up going to my favorite sushi shop alone, over in Park Slope. I rarely eat-in there. I usually go through and pick-up my order to go. The owner had gotten to know my face and even what I liked to order. But, it had been over a year since he’d seen me, and only at the window, not at a table, so the warmth I’d been accustomed to wasn’t forthcoming. One of his staff, a cute Asian, approached me, pen & pad in hand.
“May I take your order please?”
“Yeah…I mean, hai.” I said and smiled. She didn’t. I started pointing at my favorites on the menu…”Kore to kore to eeeeto, kore wo kudasai.” This and this and this please. She looked at me like I was a patient that had escaped from the local asylum.
“Can you speak English?” she asked. Not like she hadn’t understood me but like she wasn’t about to respond to me like I was Japanese.
“Nihon-go dekinai no?” Can’t you speak Japanese? I asked in response.
“I don’t know Japanese well.”
I thought it was a bit of Japanese humbleness but I let it go and placed my order in English. A little later, while I was eating, I overheard the owner talking to a member of the staff…it was NOT Japanese…nor Cantonese or Mandarin. I was quite familiar with both. He walked past my table and I said hello! He turned, looked at me, squinted a bit like he recognized my face, or ought to, and said,” Yes, sir. Long time no see…”
“Hisashiburi desu yo ne.” It has been a long time hasn’t it.
He stared at me blankly…I was used to this. Even the Japanese in Japan tend to stare at me blankly when I speak Japanese. I think it’s because in their minds foreigner equals English so even if you speak Japanese they are anticipating not being able to understand anything that comes out of your mouth and thus, more often than not, they don’t. So I pressed this issue.
“Genki datta?” Have you been well?
He looked mildly surprised. “You speak Japanese?”
“Chotto ne,” A little, I said modestly, feeling pretty proud of myself.
“I’m Korean, but I can speak a little Japanese,” he said, like it would mean nothing to me that he was not Japanese. But it did. It meant…well, it meant he was a kinda fraud. I mean, his restaurant has a Japanese name, there are Kanji (Chinese)characters all over the menu (Koreans don’t even use Kanji) and he even had a Sake menu.
It also meant that I’d made an ass of myself.
The next stage of my nihongo development was fueled by Nanpa (picking up girls). Not being able to speak Japanese in Japan pretty much relegates you to a rather limited range of girls…not that learning Japanese expands your opportunities significantly, but every little bit counts here.
The English speaking Japanese girls are usually not so desirable, from my experience. They are usually pretty westernized which is a turn off to me. If I wanted a western girl I would have stayed in the west. Which is ironic because many of them learned English so they could meet guys like me. So, when you go to a bar or a club, the girls that gravitate your way or are open to your advances can usually speak at least adequate English. Adequate to the task of making their intentions known and understanding yours, at least.
But, if you set your goals higher, like i did, and go for the girls who don’t know a lick of English, well you had better know your Nihongo. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that, as a foreigner, when it comes to speaking Japanese you fall into two and only two categories: You either can or you can’t. In other words, your Japanese is fluent and you can pera pera (Japanese onomatopoeia for fluency) your ass off. Or, you’re an English speaker. There’s no middle ground to hold…not in a conversation with a Japanese person, anyway.
I’m told they’re this way to avoid causing you any embarrassment. They’ll test your level, a trial by fire where they’ll speak naturally. If you don’t get it they might give you a second chance and repeat it in formal text book nihongo, but still at a level that you would have to have been well versed in the language to understand. If you don’t get it then, well, it’s official: you’re an English speaker! And every conversation you have with that person from then until you prove yourself otherwise will be stilted and awkward, filled with their efforts to convert every friggin’ word they say into something they believe your mind can digest. Basically the English rubbish they all learned in school, or a whole lot of Katakana English and/or Japlish where words you know well are pronounced with such atrocious disregard for their proper pronunciation that you don’t stand a chance of recognizing it.