I went to a bilingual church in Australia that had two services: one in Chinese and one in English. Needless to say, I attended the latter.
To give you an idea of my Chinese level, I’m quite happy to watch Hong Kong movies (Stephen Chow’s are my favourite!) but if we’re going to have an actual conversation, it’s best to stick to simple topics. Food, for instance.
So when I decided to join our church’s Chinese young adults’ fellowship on their weekend road trip, I thought that our Hot Pot dinner would be the easiest time for me to try speaking more Cantonese. I failed before the dinner even began.
If you haven’t had a Hot Pot before, then all you need to know about the preparation,
my deprived friend, is that it’s simply cutting raw food and boiling water. As I was setting off to carry knives to another table, I heard someone behind me say, “滾水, 滾水 (gwan2 seoi2, gwan2 seoi2: boiling water)” repeatedly. I took this to be a cultural cue. Calling out whatever dangerous objects you’re carrying must be the standard way to warn people in Hong Kong.
I was right and wrong. It is the warning that people use. What I didn’t know was it’s a set phrase that’s used no matter what one may be holding – similar to how we would just say “careful, careful” or “behind you.” It was simply unfortunate that the first time I observed this was seeing a person who was coincidentally carrying a literal pot of hot water.
So, trying to follow suit, I started calling out “刀, 刀 (dou1, dou1: knife)” on repeat as I carried them through the holiday house.
First they stopped what they were doing and stared at me.
Then one of them gently asked me what I was doing.
Then they laughed. Good naturedly, of course, but hard enough that it took them a few minutes to explain the situation to me.
In my last post, I briefly mentioned that I struggle a little with the Japanese language and culture. Whenever anyone asks me for specifics or how much of an issue it is, this memory is the first thing that comes to mind.
If you ask me, the best thing I’m learning by being in a foreign culture is learning how to be wrong. Constantly. This level of almost-understanding is just about a day-to-day occurrence now.
In Australia, my fear of failure and miscommunication was definitely higher. It could have just been because I aspire to work for the media, which by nature isn’t famous for its patience to newcomers like teaching is, or that I enjoy having a certain level of control in my life, or simply that I am young enough to feel like I can achieve anything if I work hard enough for it.
Here in Japan, I’m still self-demanding but my inability to communicate with such proficiency has taken the edge off my insecurities. Sometimes I struggle to ask how the weather is. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find people who understand the nuances of the English language. My favourite example is trying to explain why “what’s wrong?” is a polite question but “what’s wrong with you?” is not.
Even with other native speakers, I’ve started to learn just how different the Australian vernacular and humour can be.
In my first month here, I walked to an American friend’s apartment in sandals. It can rain without warning in the summer here and of course, when that happened, I didn’t have my umbrella with me. So when my friend opened the door, I stepped in, shook off what I could and said what I think sounds like a perfectly normal sentence: “My thongs are soaking.” As the room full of Americans taught me that night, people in the United States generally call them “flip flops.”
On the flip side, with my current level of Japanese, it’s like I’m that kid who never gets what’s happening, even on the few occasions when I understand all the words being said. And you know how funny jokes are once they’re explained, right? Still, in my eagerness to join in conversations, I usually end up looking like a bit of an ass as a result of my assumptions. Go figure.
Luckily, Japan is the perfect country to be in as a first time foreigner. They’re forgiving, patient and most people I’ve met find my efforts more funny and かわいい (kawaii: cute) than annoying. In all honesty, it outstrips Australia by far in terms of its hospitality to foreigners, especially when you consider how much we pride ourselves on being a laid back country that values “a fair go.”
The lengths that Japanese people will go to help me is still a surprise. If you ask, “Which way is it to this place?”, it’s not uncommon for a stranger on the street to escort you right up to the entrance of said building.
Of course, it also helps that I spend most days with language teachers. Not only has everyone in my workplace lived in a Western country before but they’re also naturally generous and patient.
The good news is that I am starting to get a hang of things around here, even if I still feel like I have the language and social skills of a child. Since I did almost no research and learnt no Japanese before coming here (clever, I know), every other expat I’ve met here instantly becomes my 先輩 (sempai: upperclassman/senior) in all things Japan. But when my friends and family visit me, my moment to shine arrives with them.
When my mum visited over the new year, she wasn’t that fazed by the language barrier. She is much more proficient in Chinese than I am likely to ever be and with Chinese being closer to Japanese, she had an easier time adjusting. Visually, anyway. Conversationally, well…
There are a whole variety of counters in both Chinese and Japanese. We have a few in English as well; “one bar of soap,” “one glass of water,” “one sheet of paper.” The go-to counter that we use in most cases, however, is none at all: “one apple,” “one bed,” “one guitar.” In Japanese, the go-to counter seems to be “つ (tsu)”. In Chinese, it’s “個 (go)”.
So my mum, the resourceful woman that she is, used the Japanese that she knew – number 1 is usually pronounced “いち (ichi)” – and integrated it into the most similar language she had on hand, Chinese – “個 (go)”. The thing is, “いちご (ichigo)” happens to be the Japanese word for “strawberry.” So I spent a month watching my mother travel around Japan, pointing at displays and menu items and asking for strawberry.
One of the reasons why I decided to go to a country so dissimilar to Australia without studying up on it at length beforehand was that I wanted to experience being an outsider first hand. So far, it’s working. At times, it can be frustrating and/or lonely. But mostly, it’s rewarding.
Joining that Chinese young adults’ fellowship actually turned out to be the thing that helped me most during the first few months of cultural adjustment. Being exposed to more written Chinese was a huge bonus (thank God for kanji). Having a taste of immersion in a different culture was incredibly useful. But most of all, hearing personal experiences of moving countries before doing it myself was invaluable, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.
So Timothy Fellowship, if you’re reading this, thanks for the heads up.
Photo credit: Aaron Pho