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Back to Basics

The day I moved into my apartment, I went to a supermarket nearby to pick up some household supplies. I found myself confused about several products and stopped an employee to ask about the difference between them. What followed was basically strings of incomprehensible Japanese. I could pick out enough words to get some gist of what he was saying and then try to ask a follow-up question, which would invite another explanation I struggled to understand. Embarrassingly, I must’ve spent at least 5 minutes trying to work out the difference between a couple different types of bags (feel free to laugh, it was definitely one of my more pathetic moments).Despite having taken four years of Japanese classes, I felt about as prepared to communicate with Japanese people as if I’d taken four weeks’ worth of bare-minimum "survival Japanese."

My group at work held a welcome party for me after my first week here and took me out to dinner after work. I’d probably met most of them on my first day of work, but I still found myself struggling to remember their names. What made it more awkward for me was that I could never tell when they tried to be accomodating by saying their names in Western order (given name first) or Japanese order (family name first). Thankfully, someone gave me a roster of everyone in our group so I eventually figured it all out. Anyway, after the introductions, everyone asked me those basic questions like "Where are you from?" or "What’s your major?", but of course after that I thought inevitably the conversation would turn back into an awkward silence between us.

Somehow, we managed to avoid that. We all tried pretty hard to keep some kind of conversation going, even with my coworkers’ varied levels of English and my mangled Japanese sentences, and somehow I spent the next three hours learning about their backgrounds, getting advice on where to travel, and just listening to all sorts of personal anecdotes. At one point I mentioned that I used to do a lot of origami in high school and it turned out that one of the guys in my group also really likes origami, so the next work day he brought in an origami book to lend me, and a dragon that’s sitting on my desk now.

It’s been a few weeks since that welcome party and I’m slowly starting to realize that although my Japanese is still nowhere nearfluent, I do have a little to show for several years of study. Many of my coworkers are more comfortable speaking in simple Japanese to me than in English, which I’m usually fine with as long as they don’t mind repeating themselves… and occasionally a third time… and maybe rephrased a little. My mentor even tries to discuss my project with me in Japanese, which sometimes works out. (Other times he just emails me in English instead, hehe.)
I will admit, sometimes it’s hard for me to force myself to take the more uncomfortable route and talk to people here in Japanese–simple English is a lot easier than simple Japanese for me. But hey, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do, right?

Joanne Li