The deep end

“久しぶり!(hisashiburi: long time no see!)” I heard as soon as I walked through the door. “How have you been?”

“Good, good,” I smiled.

I caught up with my old office over the weekend for dinner. I used to see these people almost every day for the past two years. So after going a month cold turkey, I had half expected it to be a little jarring to catch up with them. As it turns out, it took about twelve seconds before we fell back into our old routine.

I asked about the office and their families. They asked about my new …everything: job, house, life.

“Well actually, this is nice. This is the most English I’ve spoken all week,” I laughed.

My former manager smirked at the computer screen where she was trying to focus half her attention. You have to understand that they were – and still are, I suppose – very likely to laugh as soon as I attempt to speak any Japanese. Without malice and with good reason, I’ll grudgingly admit.

“That’s good, though,” said お兄ちゃん, ever the teacher. “It sounds like a great learning environment.”

“I guess,” I said. “I just feel so stupid. Every day. All the time.”

I tried to speak a sentence or two in Japanese a few minutes later. Sure enough, both of them snorted almost immediately.

So I guess it’s official: after two years of living in Japan, I am now immersed. I haven’t moved to a different country, or even a different city, but it feels very much like it.

This change came partly because my workplaces no longer operate in English, but mostly because I’ve moved from my own private apartment and into a share house with lots of Japanese housemates. I say share house, but it’s really more like a dormitory with my own private shoebox bedroom and then much larger common living areas, bathrooms and kitchen.

Do I miss living alone? Well, yeah. One of the best things about moving out was having a lot of my own space.

I miss singing in the shower and dancing in the kitchen and going pantsless around the house in summer. (Quick reminder that this is a no-judge zone, everyone.) I miss being a slob. I miss not being shy at home. I miss the ability to shed my foreigner status at the front door. I miss not having four flights of stairs between my bed and the kitchen. I miss having a ton of space for all my books. No wait, now I’m thinking of Australia.

The perks certainly do balance it out, though.

Aware as I am that I’m in a travelling faze, I’ve had to change the way I buy things. I make sure my clothes, seasonal and all, fit into my narrow wardrobe. I’ve started buying iBooks recently. (I maintain that nothing beats the feel of turning paper pages, but after moving from my last apartment, I can also bear witness to the fact that nothing hurts like selling books either.)

I forgo buying a lot of things that I know I can’t take with me when I inevitably up and leave. Case in point, before caving in and buying a fold-out chair, I used to sit on my toilet when I got sick of sitting on the floor.

Another case in point: I didn’t buy a bed for the first hundred days in Japan despite having hardwood floors.

So there are plenty of amenities and appliances already included at my new place of residence that I don’t need but certainly won’t say no to. There’s a massage chair, a studio, a fridge in my bedroom (dreams do come true), a huge TV, a Wii, a PS3…

Oh, and I swear the laundry room’s going to be my favourite place come winter. Almost ten washer/dryers running at the same time makes for a very warm space that smells like fresh laundry twenty-four seven. Not to mention, dryers are magical. I loved swinging on the Hills Hoist as much as the next Aussie kid, but with a dryer, my clothes are always so fluffy and warm and almost wrinkle free.

For my non-Australian readers: in the place of dryers, the staple of most Australian backyards are Hills Hoists, where you’re just as likely to find swinging children as you are drying clothes.

Then there’s the kitchen.

“Wow,” a rare fellow foreign housemate said, walking into the kitchen one night to boil water for his two minute noodles.

I was at one of the four stations in the kitchen, reading American Gods on my phone while pushing mushrooms around a pan.

“Mushroom sauce? Steak? You’re going all out,” he said, leaning over and piquing  the curiosity of others in the kitchen. “What’s the occasion?”

I looked down. A pot of potatoes were simmering on the side, salad drip drying in a colander, raw steak already seasoned waiting to be fried.

“Having more than one stove top,” I said, my hesitancy making it sound more like a question than an answer.

It sounds crazy saying it out loud but I didn’t realise how much a kitchen contributes to the feeling of a complete home until now.

Now, with multiple stove tops and a jaffle/waffle maker and big fridges and microwaves and toasters. And best of all, an oven. An oven, you guys.

An oven.

Funnily enough, the kitchen, being next to the living area and all, is also where I discovered the very best part of living in a share house. Sounds numbingly obvious in retrospect, especially when you consider how much I blab about how much I love the communities around me, but the best part about the share house is the people. Keeping in mind that I love living alone and get tired talking to people, I was pleasantly surprised.

For one thing, it’s good for me to be forced to see people, even if it is just to bid them a ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’. Having just a small group of close friends in Japan and not being someone who naturally initiates social contact means that I thrive off Prison Cell Friendships.

Thus far, it seems like I’ve landed myself in a very sociable house. My housemates seem as comfortable initiating and carrying every conversation with me as they are hanging out in silence.

For another thing, coming to Japan to talk to Japanese people was part of the plan. I’m lucky that a few of my housemates seem to understand basic English, with more fluent speakers peppered in more sparsely. It was just easier when I was at a language school where everyone wanted to talk in English. I now realise that that was not the norm and that Japanese people idealise English.

“‘Bu-ku‘.” I looked up from reading at the kitchen counter to find one of my housemates pointing at my book. She raised her eyebrows, a silent question: Was that right?

“Uh…yeah, mmhmm,” I nodded, reminding myself to smile.

“‘Mi-ru-ku‘,” she continued, pointing to the milk carton. “えぇぇ (ehh: umm)… ‘cookie’… ‘cappu‘..”

She pointed to each object as she named them and paused in between so I could confirm that yes, her vocabulary was spot on.

After a minute of this, she asked me to say it. “Umm ‘book’, ‘milk’, ‘cookie’, ‘cup’.”

“カッコイイ!(kakkoii: cool!)” she exclaimed enthusiastically, a sentiment often repeated when people pass my laptop to find my social media sites and Internet searches full of English.

This is very kind of them considering that I sound like a toddler and look like I’m playing an endless game of charades whenever I talk to them.

Take last week, for example.

“えと (eto: umm),” I stammered before giving up slightly, “evaporated ミルク要る(miruku iru: we need evaporated milk).”

Two of my housemates and I were embarking on the quest to find the right ingredients to make egg tarts, which is actually quite a task in Japan. They cocked their heads at me: Huh?

“大丈夫 (daijoubu: it’s ok),” I said, deciding to just make, rather than buy, the evaporated milk.

I measured out some milk and set it on a low heat before passing one of them a wooden spoon. Then I took a deep breath before launching back into my stutter realising that, not for the first or last time, I was out of my depth.

I wanted to tell them that evaporated milk was just milk that had been evaporated to half its volume. The problem was that I didn’t – and still don’t – know the Japanese words for ‘steam’ or ‘evaporate’. I could describe it as “water gas”-ish but that would most likely complicate things even more.

“Ummm 普通な牛乳(futsuuna gyuunyuu: normal milk)… 温め?(atatame: heat up?) – ” here, I started to mime steam going up from the pan with sound effects and everything, “- 半分まで (hanbun made: until half). Yep. Evaporated milk.”

There was a pause. I was torn between my frustration and wanting to laugh. Before I could choose, the two of them started to guess at what I was trying to tell them. Miraculously, they nailed it.

One month in, I’ve realised that as a group, they’re more patient than many language teachers I’ve met in Tokyo. So, even if my Japanese level isn’t brilliant, at the very least, my communication skill is improving.

Now that I’m out of the shallows, I have a feeling it’s something I’ll be grateful for as I wade in even deeper.