Before I moved to Japan, I did a little Japanese self-study. I bought a (rather lame) book designed to help me learn Japanese in 10 minutes a day and a (rather good) book to help me learn to write hiragana and katakana. Peaches also gave me the gift of a seriously good book on katakana so by the time I moved to Japan I was able to recognize about 15 various characters in hiragana and katakana combined and say the following phrases:
- (object) wa doko desu ka? (where is ____?)
- sumimasen! (excuse me)
- watashi wa Ribu desu (I am Liv)
- (object) o kudasai! (please give me ____)
- Oishii desu! (it is delicious!)
- Arigatou! (thank you)
- Ohayo! (good morning)
- Sugoi! (awesome/terrible)
- Yatta! (we did it!)
- inu kitte mitara kawaii (try keeping dogs; they’re cute!)
- nippon kyukuu (Japan has crises)
- demo ashita wa wonderful (but tomorrow is wonderful!; and, yes, I learned those last three phrases from the song Yatta)
Add to this, the words for who, what, when and why plus various nouns such as “densha” (train), “shouyu” (soy sauce – thanks, momo!), not to mention pretty much every word for fish thanks to my decade-long love of sushi. To put it mildly, I thought I was just Little Miss Fancy Pants and that I would get along in Nihon quite smashingly. My illusions were shattered within my first hour in Japan when I realized that though I could ask very well where something was, I had no idea what anyone was saying back to me. I immediately remembered my mother’s stories from her and my father’s early days in the United States – their Berlitz English classes (taught by Brits) had done nothing to prepare them for the sound of actual spoken Noo Yawk English. Fast forward 30 years to their daughter’s move to Japan; witness much embarrassed smiling from both parties – the hopeful, helpful Japanese and befuddled clumsy gaijin.
I have now been in Japan about 6 weeks. Each day and certainly each week, I learn a little more Japanese.
Week One I listened to my fellow teachers and learned how to say:
- nama biru (house draft beer)
- watashi mo! (me, too!)
Week Two I learned how to say:
- no (a particle that denotes possession)
- eigo no hon (English book; i.e., what one might request at a karaoke bar or a cell phone company)
- chotto matte! (please wait a second)
Week Three was rather important as I finally began to understand tiny bits of things, in particular, basic Kanji (thanks to a book I bought in Umeda) and things my students muttered, like “kore? kore?” (this one? this one?). Through my fellow teachers’ descriptions of what their students would say I learned that “wakata” means “I got it/understood” and that in general, things ending in “ta” are in past tense. It became difficult to hide my delight when I realized that I understood a little bit of what a naughty student was saying but fortunately for them and my job, I am still pretty much in the dark.
My neighbor, Sean, likes to send me texts that are often written exclusively in Japanese (when he is not writing texts in Irish). The first few weeks, it would take me nearly half an hour to reply to him; first I had to search through my hiragana and katakana books to identify the characters, then I had to figure out which character fit with what and then I had to plug the characters into my dictionary. Quite a lot of work to decipher a text like “maybe” and “how was your class?” Nonetheless, I was grateful for the impetus to try to commit characters and words to memory.
The other morning, something kind of awesome happened. I was woken by another text from said neighbor and in my sleepy haze, I stared at the characters and to my delight, was able to figure out what he was saying within about 2 minutes (where are you going today?). Even better – I was able to respond to him within about the same time (The market! How was your Japanese class?); SUGOI!!!!
Here are some mini conversations I have had with salespeople in the past couple of days (all based, of course, on the few basic verbs I know; and keep in mind that my grammar might be horrendous and that I only might think I am saying these things correctly but these are conversations that WORKED nonetheless):
Liv: (upon realizing that the dude at the internet cafe had assigned me to booth 15, which I knew wouldn’t allow me to attach files to email) Sumimasen! juichi hoshii desu. Ii desu ka? (Excuse me! I would like 11. Is that okay?)
And it was.
Liv: (to the saleslady, upon realizing that the sweater I was trying on was a size too big) Sumimasen! Kyu desu. Nana ga hoshii desu. Nana ga arimasu ka? (excuse me! This is 9. I would like 7. Is there 7?)
Saleslady: (rapid Japanese basically telling me they didn’t have it)
Liv: Okay! Arigatou …
and upon coming out of the dressing room:
Liv: (apologetically) Aimasen. Arigatou!! (It didn’t fit. Thank you!)
Saleslady: (something something something Japanese)
Of course, there are plenty of slips and minor humiliations. The other night when my neighbors and I were leaving the “British pub” in our neighborhood I realized that I had left my Erma hat behind at our table. This could not be! I ran back to the pub and, sucking in my breath, blurted to the waiter in my best blend of Japanese and katakana Engrish: “Sumimasen! Watashi no hato … taberu!!” He looked puzzled so I just pointed to the table and plucked my beloved hat from the chair. “Arigato! Arigato gozaimashita!!” I said breathlessly and ran back out, reporting to my neighbors what I had said, only to elicit their guffaws.
Apparently, pronounced properly, “taberu” is katakana english for “table” but, pronounced the way I had said it, means “to eat.” See, this is yet another reason why my Japanese book stinks – it says nothing about proper stress. This is why I ended up telling salesladies a few weeks ago that I wanted to buy a grandmother, and why I told a waiter that I eat my hat as opposed to telling him that my hat was on the table.
It gets better; talking with my Japanese friend Carnitas today, it turns out that “hat” isn’t even a word you can say in katakana; “hato” is actually the word for pigeon.
Well. Little Miss Fancy Pants indeed!!!!