日本FLASHBACK: "Yes, I Speak Japanese"

18.4.11 ShaSha LaPerf 2 Comments

Picture It. Japan. 2003-2007.

When I was in college, I took two years of Japanese language classes. Not only was if because I was a big anime fan and wanted to know what the fuck people were saying, but it was 5 credits per class. Plus it filled my language requirements. Despite my interest in Japanese culture, it never really occurred to me that I was actually go to Japan. So even though I made it through two years of classes my grades were pretty average and my conversational level was as conversational as it should have been.

So when I touched down at Kyoto airport, I had a sudden moment of, "Oh shit! I don't remember anything!" The idea of being in Japan had overwhelmed me and I could barely remember stuff like "arigato!" I started freaking out a bit. The moment passed pretty quickly because I had to start training, so I didn't think too much about it.

Until a few nights later.

My coworkers and I went out one night to a curry restaurant. It was the first time we'd ventured outside the training facilities since because dealing with work and jet lag had worn us out. Anyway, of the group I was the only one that spoke Japanese and I knew I'd have to channel my Genki book skills to order food. We sat down and a waiter came to us. Although the waiter asked what we wanted, he was speaking directly to my coworkers, both of which are Asian-American. Imagine his look of WTF when I opened my mouth and ordered for all of us. You see in Japan it's not the uncommon to find foreigners that have lived there for years but don't speak a word of the language. Although my coworkers were Korean-American and Taiwanese American, my tall black ass was the "obvious" foreigner. So I wasn't upset at the waiter for assumed they could speak Japanese and not me. But it made me wonder how other people would also perceive me when they found out I could hold my own in a conversation.

When I got settled into teaching, I did a lot of casual learning through music and television. The good thing about Japanese TV is a lot of shows had the tendency to put random, colorful subtitling on their shows. In general I'm bad at listening and much better at reading. So it helped me associated words or look up things with my electronic dictionary. I even took level 3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and did decent. I was always eager to take what I'd learned and apply it to everyday life. I would smirk at the Japanese people that gave me the "WTF, she's speaking Japanese!" look. Once I scared the hell out of a girl who made a comment about the "ooki kokujin" standing in front of her at a Chemistry concert. Actually I just turned around and looked in her direction and gave her a clear, "yes I did understand you," look. My landlady loved the fact that I spoke Japanese because she want me to gossip to her about what her other foreign tenants were doing (I just played dumb...it didn't think it was her business unless I clearly saw them doing something shady). When I did karaoke for songs I didn't know all that well, I could get through by reading the kanji and furigana on the screen to wow my friends and dates. I'm sure there were eyes on me when I pulled out a Japanese language copy of Nana or Hana Yori Dango while I was riding on the trains.

Sometimes knowing Japanese really came in handy and for stuff  I'd never thought about. For instance, I lost my phone of a train ride home. So I needed to cancel my number and get a new phone. So I had to use my Japanese skills to go to a local Vodafone store (now called Soft Bank) to explain the situation and get a new phone. I was nervous about having to deal with this and I'm sure the guy I had to talk to was also nervous when he saw me walking his way. But we made it through the ordeal with little trouble and I had a new phone in an hour. Another time during the summer, I had gotten really dizzy while walking to walk and almost collapsed on a street. I don't think I had heat stroke but it was in the middle of a humid July in Saitama. A woman saw me and came to my aid. Through my dizziness I was able to explain how I was feeling and she took me to the police station since it was closer than trying to find a clinic. The police officers were helpful and gave me water and let me rest in the station, which helped a lot.

Other times Japanese people are so focused on my foreignness that they blanked out of my ability to speak Japanese. One night on the way home from work I stopped at a McDonald's. I actually liked McDs in Japan. Good customer services, the food was always hot, and I would get a free drink if my meal wasn't ready in 2-3 minutes. But I digress. Anyway, ordering food in Japan was no longer a big deal to me and I always made sure to speak slow and clearly. But the young lady behind the counter was blinded by my blackness. She nervously replied to everything I said in English. At first I was annoyed since I'd clearly spoken to in Japanese and ordering food at this on had never been an issue before. I figured she just wanted to practice her English so I didn't think too much of it. Until I got home and found out my order was wrong.

And of course knowing Japanese was a good way to meet men. I think a lot of Japanese men are intrigued by Western women regardless of race, but know full well that a language barrier can be a serious issue. So when guys found out I spoke Japanese I could see the signs of relief on their face. I'd learned some of Japanese from my male students and it sometimes seeped into my conversations. Some guys thought it was cute when I spoke that way and others would laugh and tell me "Don't speak like a man!" This was all good and well when I had short conversations with men, but it really hampered me when it came to discussing other things. Because my Japanese was still limited I couldn't always express how I felt about things. so I ended up being frustrated with myself as a result, even when the guys were patient and tried to use what limited English they knew.

So I made it through three years with what I knew and it had its advantages and disadvantages. Nowadays I occasionally pick up my Genki book and I still listen to J-music to remember things. I still have friends in Japan that I talk to from time to time (they're all okay thankfully). I do want to get back to Japan someday and hopefully my skills will still be intact.


  1. I have been a lurker on ur site, and I have liked all ur posts especially how personal you make them. You have reinspired me to look back at my Japanese notes, two years off and I barely remember anything, but imagine my happiness at knowing what "ooki kokujin" meant. I always walked around my house screaming out "Kokujin Power!" lol. Glad ur friends are okay and I do hope you get to go back to Japan. :)

  2. Thanks for reading my blog! Yeah it's hard to sit down and study when you're not in class or in an environment where you get to use the language. Although it's been 3 years since I was in Japan a lot of it is still fresh in my mind and from what I see from a lot, some things are still the same. I may have a potential trip to Korea next year so Japan may be on hold a little longer than planned, but we'll see. :)