Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Perils of Not Speaking Japanese.

Six months in japan and I have my regrets about moving here from Texas. I suppose it’s to be expected, after all my wife and I picked Asia because it would be different-whatever we thought that meant, and different it proved to be.  

My friend Cole once said, “Japan is different down to the smallest detail, but the big picture is the same.” Wise words. Truly descriptive of being in a land where people pay handsomely for bar-b-q’d chicken skin yet balk at the idea of eating eggs and god forbid- not rice- for breakfast.

However my friend Tam noticed something else about Japan, “The language is different.”

Truer words were never spoken.

The Japanese language is not easy. There are two alphabets, one for local words and one for imports, plus thousands of Chinese pictographs called Kanji that are said to possess some sort of logic that eludes me. And then there’s the pronunciation. Syllables almost always have two parts, a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound, and if that pattern is not respected, my words are not understood. It’s Ka-zu-ki not Kaz-u-ki, ya foreigner!

And thus my knowledge of the language has been laid before you in its entirety. I understand less than little. I have kindergarten students who speak better English than my Japanese. I can read the numbers on cash registers and nod during appropriate points in conversation (hint-nod when the speaker frowns, laugh when they smile) so people think I can survive here, but this is a farce that has worn through. Already the cashiers see me for the liar than I am. Even if I pay and nod at the proper times and smile my most competent smile, they always give the receipt to Raquel.

Not speaking the language of the locals is awkward at best, and terrifying at worst. If I’m lucky, and with some of my friends who do speak English, they’re cursed to translate everything I say until the group eventually splits in two, those who want to talk English with Joe the bearded fool and those who don’t. If I’m without such lifelines, not speaking Japanese can be truly terrifying, like when the bus driver doesn’t turn of the PA system on the bus and mutters under his breath for miles without anyone getting up to stop him. I realized then, that he could be threatening his passengers, telling us all to remain quiet or he’d drive us off a cliff, or he could be worshipping the benevolent supreme god of kittens and I wouldn’t have a clue.

After being here for six months, I dread meeting new people, Japanese or not, for they always ask the same question: “How’s your japanese?”

It’s not. It doesn’t. Its existence is negative. As in no, I can’t speak a lick. I can’t read it, write it, or anything else. The only thing worse than my Japanese is some of my students English.

I must have invoked the wrath of the Japanese god of language, for my last six weeks of teaching English been saddled with 3 extra classes each week, each with a group of students with more abysmal English than the last.

Please don’t misunderstand, not all Japanese speak bad English (I wouldn’t survive here if not for them) but, much like myself, some just don’t have the touch of tongues (my japanese is so bad when I try to speak a word of it to my six year old students they laugh and heckle me).

This week I asked a new student, “How are you?” to be answered with panicked breathes, wide eyes and “mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi!” Or “impossible-impossible-impossible-etc-until-your-breath-runs-out.” I mean, my japanese is bad, but I can at least say “Genki-des” at the appropriate point in conversation (though I’m probably saying that wrong too).

Another group of adults panicked when, I asked them to repeat pairs of difficult sounds. I separated “L” and “R” into distinct sounds, made in entirely different parts of my mouth. They looked as if I was asking them to make paper cranes out of starburst wrappers using only their tongue. They attempted to repeat the throaty and guttural, “R” and the tongue-titilating “L” and were met with only by my unenthusiastic support (its hard to fake being impressed when you see a group of grown men bite their bottom lip and attempt to make a ‘v’ sound only to spray saliva all over eachother). No one enjoyed those moments, except maybe the same god who likes watching me suffer any time I introduce my wife “Raquel” (there’s an L and R for those counting) to blank confused stares.

So, yeah, I have my regrets. Language is a big deal, and hard to get around. Not speaking the local language is a serious handicap, and has made me appreciate those who do speak my language. And yet, the very ability that I treasure in them, dooms me to not learning Japanese and not being able to speak with anyone else.
Aw well, as they say in Japan, mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi.

No comments:

Post a Comment