Love/Hate

Last Friday night. Being the social creature that I am, I did the usual thing of holing up in my room with a book and a quickly emptied mug of tea.

“プリス今どこ?(purisu ima doko: where are you now?)” my phone lit up. One of my housemates.

Texting in Japanese makes me squirm. Instant messaging is meant to be instant, after all, and I am incapable of doing so in this language. Not to mention that all my mistakes are on display as soon as I hit send.

“私の部屋 (watashi no heya: in my room),” I sent back. “どうしたの?(doushitano: why? What’s up?)”

My guess was that I’d need to get the door. There’s no intercom system to get into our house so if you forget your key, you can either get someone to open it for you from the inside or wait until the next person comes home. We all opt for the former.

A gentle whoop alerted me to the reply. “今忙しい?(ima isogashii: are you busy at the moment?)”

“Nope,” I replied, switching languages for speed now that my interest was piqued. Opening doors doesn’t require that much time.

“新しい外国の人がいるんだけど、日本語わからないんだ(atarashii gaikokunojin ga irundakedo, nihongo wakaranainda: there’s a new foreigner here but they don’t understand Japanese),” came an equally quick reply, “キッチンに来れる? (kicchin ni koreru: can you come to the kitchen?)”

I laughed. Uh sure, I thought, wondering what I was supposed to do. Welcome them, maybe? After all their help in getting me settled in, it was time to pass it on. And, if we’re going to be completely honest, I really should be more social. On a Friday night, no less.

Grabbing milk and my empty mug on my way out the room, I figured I could microwave my now cold pot of tea while I was there.

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Tea: my social safety blanket.

Our new housemate had just arrived in Japan the day before and moved in earlier that afternoon. So, for the first time in a while, I was able to unleash a storm of English in our common room. It wasn’t long, however, for the other housemates to join in the conversation – in English – to my surprise.

To my great surprise.

“私とみんなは英語でしゃべらない (watashito minnawa eigode shaberanai: no one chats with me in English),” I gasped as everyone’s vocabulary and comprehension seemed to materialise from thin air to accommodate our new housemate. “What! ずるい! (zurui: so unfair!) ひどい!(hidoi: so mean!) 信じられない! (shinjirarenai: unbelievable!)”

They laughed at my genuine shock and jealousy and, quite possibly, my Japanese. “でもプリスは日本語ちょっとわかるから (demo purisuha nihongo chotto wakaru kara: but it’s because you understand a little Japanese),” they explained.

I shook my head in protest. “全然わかんないよ (zenzen wakannai yo: I don’t understand any).”

They laughed again and dismissed it. I was left torn between feeling flattered and wanting to explain that, while I wish it was as funny as they thought, it really was just the sad truth.

But it did get me thinking: do I want them to speak to me in English?

The answer is both yes and no.

It says: “Please speak Japanese to me as much as you can. I’m in the middle of practicing Japanese.” The sticker itself has thus far been a blessing and a curse.

My initial reaction is a hard yes.

Because first of all, have you tried speaking in a foreign language? It’s mostly fun. It’s like a fast paced, ever-evolving puzzle.

I say mostly fun because speaking with natives is as much a game changer as much as it is the goal. With it, you throw in an element of insecurity and exhilaration, like a verbal haunted house.

I’ve come to realise that there is no win-win situation in this respect. Either I speak Japanese to natives or they speak English to me, a native. Either way, there’s bound to be some level of insecurity involved.

Don’t get me wrong. This is great. With the right mindset, it really is fun, it’s a huge learning opportunity and in most cases, the mistakes generate laughter and the vulnerability garners affection.

At the same time, there are times when I don’t want to learn. Say, after teaching two jobs. In these times, I want to relax and chat. To the same people, mind you, just without restrictions.

This isn’t something I can’t do yet in Japanese, both because of my lack of knowledge and the pressure I feel when I speak.

As a language teacher, however, it’s easier for me to listen to imperfect English and make – usually good – guesses of what the intended meaning could be.

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The second reason is pure, childish jealousy.

Knowing first hand the amount of energy needed to hold conversations in a foreign language, I’m usually reluctant to put people through this. I opt instead to do the opposite. I am in Japan, after all. If anyone should learn a foreign language, it’s me. Besides, I like having a way to convey to others the lengths at which I’m willing to go to in the name of friendship. But more on that later.

What I’m getting at, slowly, is that this is an easier thing to do when you think there’s no other choice. On the other hand, knowing that they are willing to put in this effort to communicate with others sparks a green feeling of unfairness.

I can’t be the only one who’s tempted to take the easy way out every now and then, surely.

Logically, however, when I think about it, the answer is no.

The first reason’s obvious: I want to learn Japanese. And that’s not to say that I want comfort and fluency in Japanese, although I do. I want the process and experience of learning it too.

But this is, as always, easier said than done, especially when it comes to speaking.

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Summertime Kyoto is crazy humid. So yeah, this was pretty good motivation to start learning Japanese.

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The beginning of my Japanese education was …rocky, to say the least.

“In my class,” a favourite teacher of mine used to say, “you speak English. You can speak that at home.”

And the international students, even the newly immigrated ones, would look slightly bewildered for the rest of class. Having heard some of their whispers, I couldn’t help but despair a little for them. After all, many of them only wanted to double check to see if they’d understood the teacher’s explanation correctly.

Far from judging him (he will forever be one of my favourite teachers), I don’t think that this instruction was unreasonable. As a teacher, this makes sense. Classroom management can be tricky enough in one language. And it stands to reason that they’d need to learn the local language eventually anyway. You’d also hope that the kids would integrate into Australian culture faster with this level of immersion.

As an expat and a language student, however, I understand that this would have been likely to have the opposite effect on my teenage mind. For me, the resentment would begin at my declining test scores and be sealed by the difficulties I’d have making friends.

“When white people go to China and speak fluent Chinese, we all go, “Wow, that’s awesome!” Why doesn’t it work the other way ‘round? If I went up to someone here [in Australia] and said, “Hey, check out how good my English is,” they’d probably go, “Good, it should be!”

Aaron Pho, 2011

If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, it’s not easy to learn another language, regardless of what that language may be. It’s far easier to slide back to your comfort zone. It’s a different story, however, when you choose to do this on your own.

These days, I force myself to go on language exchanges and earlier this year, it was a factor in choosing my new job and housing. To some extent, it’s working out.

For one thing, my communication has improved somewhat. At least, I sure hope it has. Having spontaneous bouts of charades, celebrity heads and air pictionary to make up for my lack of vocabulary is just part of our everyday lives now.

“わかった?(wakatta: did you get it?)” we’ll check hesitantly after every attempt.

Although this happens several times within the same conversation, we still celebrate and laugh after every round.

I’m biased, but I think it’s worth celebrating every time. I had to become a language teacher and student to discover this. I’m pretty lucky that I live with people who understand this without having to do so.

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The other reason was mentioned earlier: I’m willing to put in a lot of effort to make friends. Not that you’d ever guess by the way I socialise.

I’m not the most social being. I could drink an ocean of tea but one glass of alcohol will put me to sleep. In my mind, clubs and bars are associated with stickiness and fatigue. Friday nights, on the other hand, evoke the feeling of blankets, tea and books. Normal is me walking into a crowded room and sitting in the corner for the rest of the night with my book, laptop or phone. Not exactly ideal housemate material.

While this isn’t something that I’m likely to ever stop doing completely, I also want to make it clear that I’m not trying to be antisocial. Quite the opposite actually.

I like the people I live with. In fact, in retrospect, I’m really quite relieved that I didn’t get my own apartment again. Communicating this is a little trickier though.

The clearest way I’ve been able to do this so far is by showing how much effort it takes for me to speak Japanese and then doing just that whenever I do engage in conversation.

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So, overall, the answer is no. I don’t want people to go out of their way to speak English to me. And I do truly appreciate the patience they have in conversing with me in Japanese.

It just doesn’t guarantee that I won’t whine about it on occasion.

Thoughts?