My assistant manager exudes a glorious amount of sass. When you consider that most Japanese people do not, it makes it all the more impressive.
“プリシラ (purishira),” she said one day during lunch, “if the Kids Head Teacher is your お兄ちゃん (oniichan: big brother), then what is the Manager? お姉さん? (oneesan: big sister?)”
I considered it for a second. “I guess so.”
“Then how about me?”
“Umm life goals?”
She laughed and shook her head. “危ないだいよ (abunai daiyo: that’s dangerous).”
Truth be told though, most people here have started acting as an older sibling towards me in one way or another.
In fact, most people in my life generally tend to do the same. Family and friends, my church group back home, co-workers, people who are younger than me…
I call it the “little sister syndrome.”
What surprised me about it happening over here is that Japan’s much more reserved when it comes to showing affection.
I feel like I should put a disclaimer here: I’m not complaining. I love being everyone’s little sister.
Foreigners get away with a lot as it is but add to that the affection that I’m given? I’m pretty much a twelve year old who’s enabled by her immediate community on a daily basis.
Anyway, why am I telling you all this?
I’ve been told that the posts I’ve written thus far have given off the impression that Japan has been a wonderful journey into maturity. And if that’s the case, I’m sorry that I’ve misled you.
I mean, to an extent. Don’t get me wrong – of course I’ve matured and learnt a lot in my first year of independence. But in some ways, I am still a child and in other ways, I’ve probably even regressed a little.
So without further ado and for your amusement, here’s how I have remained a child at heart.
I’m not sure why but whinging just seems more acceptable and endearing in Japanese than it does in English.
For example, I’m always sleepy.
When it’s hot, I think it’s perfect weather to nap in the sun.
When it’s cold, I want to curl up under my blankets or こたつ (kotatsu: a low table that has a heater underneath and a blanket on top. It’s pure magic, I tell you). I personally think falling asleep while listening to the rain against your windows is one of life’s greatest joys.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any windows in our office so I can’t blame it on the weather. Still, it doesn’t stop me from mentioning my fatigue everyday.
“プリちゃん、どうしたの？(purichan, doushitano: what’s wrong, Priscilla?)” my manager asks.
“Nothing. 眠いよ (nemui yo: I’m sleepy),” I’ll yawn.
She used to try fighting this.
“No!” she’d say, swatting me on the arm. “Wake up!”
Nowadays, she just nods and says, “いつもね (itsumo ne: you’re always sleepy).”
If I yawn after a big meal, お兄ちゃん will scoff, “子供ね、プリ子 (kodomo ne, puriko: you’re such a child). You only have two moods, hungry and sleepy.”
I rub my eyes and nod. “Or both.”
遊びましょう! (asobimashou: play with me!)
If I’m not either hungry or sleepy, chances are I’m on the other end of the scale: bouncing off the walls.
Sometimes we decide to go out to an 居酒屋(izakaya: like a bar but with better food) or ramen at the end of the day. On those days, my professional facade disappears with my last class.
“Yay! 行こう! 行こう! (ikou! ikou: let’s go! Let’s go!)” I’ll chant while everyone closes the school.
Or, as お兄ちゃん’s wife walked in to meet us for dinner one night, she found me jumping up and down around the front desk yelling, “遊びましょう! (asobimashou: play with me!)”
Not that she was judging me. We’re birds of a feather. お兄ちゃん once spent the day escorting us around Tokyo Disneyland. We, on the other hand, would get embarrassingly excited on the rides and during the shows.
Having spent so much energy in ten minute bursts, we’d burn out and fall asleep standing in line for the next ride or waiting for the parade to start. The day was a cycle of pure joy followed by absolute fatigue.
I can just hear it now. You’re reading this on your laptop or phone and judging me: “Priscilla, you child.”
And that’s fair. Because most of my Japanese vocabulary consists of phrases I either learnt directly from children or material made for children.
My preschoolers bounce into class every week with different key chains hanging off their bags and designs on their t-shirts. The most popular designs: trains, princesses (I never appreciated how much Frozen merchandise was available for sale before doing this job) or a character from a Japanese animation.
“先生、見て! (sensei, mite: teacher, look!)” they’ll show me proudly.
“Wow! Anpanman! That’s so cool!” I’ll gush, especially if they’re new to my class or particularly shy.
When I started, I had to learn all the characters’ names from either the Japanese staff or the parents.
One week, without needing such prompt, I ran over to one of my new four year olds and squealed, “ノンタン! (Nontan)”
The mother looked at me, either surprised that I knew a cartoon cat from a series of Japanese picture books or that I was actually excited to see it.
I cleared my throat. “I teach a lot of children,” I said.
Little does she know that ノンタン was the first Japanese book I read. Come to think of it, it’s where I learnt the phrase, “遊びましょう! (asobimashou: play with me!)”
Adults, in all their consideration, will reduce their Japanese when speaking to a foreigner. They’re also shyer in some regards and more reserved. Without natural charisma, you really need to invest time getting to know them before they pull their weight in conversation.
Children, on the other hand, don’t care about things like languages. They’ll hang out with me in return for attention and affection.
As a result, most of my exposure to natural spoken Japanese comes from children or from our managers who don’t bother speaking (or texting) pure English to me anymore. All this makes learning standard/adult Japanese a little difficult.
“Phew, I’m full,” I said at the end of a curry trip one night about a month before I started really learning Japanese. “How do you say ‘I’m full’ in Japanese?”
“お腹パンパンマン (onaka panpanman: my stomach’s like Anpanman),” my sassy assistant manager replied without missing a beat.
I said that to everyone – and I mean everyone – until one day during a study session when I found the phrase お腹一杯 (onaka ippai: I’m full).
Everything is awesome
Before coming to Japan, I worked in a radio station and was a youth group leader. In both positions, I could get away with doing some slightly age-inappropriate things.
Like hiding around corners to yell “DANGER” at unsuspecting victims.
Or singing “The Circle of Life” when we saw the sun cracking through the clouds.
Or spending an afternoon getting zipped up in a Christmas tree bag.
Or snacking so much that the office locked one of its fridges.
So now, with that same mentality, I can’t help but do very un-Japanese things.
Like when I see our office wheely chairs, I jump on and accost the boys in the office to push me around as fast as they can. I have once burst into what I thought was an empty classroom to sing, “why, when he was a young warthog…” to Andy only to realise that there was a middle aged student sitting in the corner. Half the reason why my kids are so affectionate is because I chase them around the lobby and pretend to eat them.
And yes, you could pin this on the whole “small things amuse small minds” thing. That doesn’t mean that Japan hasn’t got a lot of very excitable things that are underappreciated.
Like food. You can eat raw chicken and raw horse here. They have desserts that are so incredibly soft. They have Disneyland, DisneySea and Harry Potter World here. You can walk for ten minutes in Japan and pass a busy metropolis, suburban homes and a then a shrine. And have you seen cherry blossoms before? No, wait. Have you seen falling cherry blossoms before? It looks like pink snow.
And actual snow. Having never actually witnessed snow falling from the sky before, I was slightly hypnotised by how quiet and pretty it was. Meanwhile, お兄ちゃん was trying to get me to focus on my Japanese homework that he was kindly correcting for me. Instead, he spent the morning watching me sip hot chocolate in a daze before we walked to work. I use the word “walk” very loosely because when I wasn’t trying to catch snowflakes with my tongue, I was trying not to giggle so I could hear the crunch when I jumped into fresh snow piles.
Everyone else’s responses were a little underwhelming that morning.
“It’s snowing!” I ran into the office gushing. “It’s like a snow dome…that doesn’t stop! There’s so much!”
“うん (un: yeah),” our sassy assistant manager said, turning the vacuum cleaner back on, “そうだね。(soudane: that’s nice.)”