Google+ Sandra's Stories: Japan

Monday, 11 August 2014

Re-entry shock blues

Everyone warned me I’d have trouble settling back to life in Australia after three years in Tokyo. In those first few weeks back home, I gorged myself on cheap fruit and chocolate, drove everywhere, and spoke freely without having to translate in my head first. I thought how wrong everyone had been. Aside from my friends, I didn’t miss Japan. I was happy to be home. Life was so easy in Sydney.

Then after a few weeks, re-entry shock hit. I tried to catch the train to give me a break from driving, but it came half an hour late, full of people with their feet on the seats. I spoke easily and was perfectly understood, but I couldn’t cover up my blunders under the language barrier anymore. I tried to explore new places, but everything looked the same as before I’d left, even though I felt different. And worst of all, I couldn’t find a decent piece of raw fish or fermented soy beans anywhere. I missed Japan.

So I started trying to relive my life there. I joined the local branch of a running club I’d been a part of in Tokyo. But instead of being an exciting mix of internationals and locals, it turned out to be a seniors walking group. I organised a weekend ski trip to Thredbo but instead of a mountain of Japanese powder and relaxing in the hot-springs at night, it was a crowded ice-hill, with shower lines at the hostel. I went out for Asian food but I got Fanta and a fork with my bibimbap.

Things are different back in Australia. Where's the tinned corn on my pizza! 
After three months of wrong turns, I think I’ve now finally settled on a good balance between my life in Australia and what it was in Japan. To the relief of my friends, I now try to save all my Japan stories for Japanese class, where my classmates politely listen without dropping their heads backwards in a fake snore. I make the most of Sydney’s great weather and go on bushwalks and picnics with old friends without paying professional tour guides to organise it like I did in Japan. And I’ve started Skype Japanese lessons with my old Japanese teacher in Tokyo so I can still regularly capture the challenge of trying to express myself in another language, which was such a big part of my life over there.

After three months back home, I can now say I’m happy to be back but I will always miss my time in Japan.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Farewell Japan

After more than three years of adventures, it's time to say goodbye to Japan. I'm flying back to Australia tonight and will be settling in Sydney. I'll be stopping in Cairns on the way to talk to the students at St Mary's College about life in Japan, and The Ghostly Grammar Boy.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about finishing this chapter of my life. I'll miss my friends in Japan most of all. But I'll also miss the amazing food and culture. It's going to seem weird when everything is easy again and I don't feel like it's a huge achievement to buy the right groceries or make a phone call.

Thanks for the good times Japan!





Monday, 3 March 2014

Gullible's travels

When I was seven years old, I found a note under my pillow. It said:

Dear Sandra,

Please use this 20 cents to buy something nice for you and your beautiful sister Jennifer. Don’t tell anyone about this note.

Love,
God


I was so excited when I found the note and immediately ran to Jennifer and showed it to her. Jennifer said I’d better make sure I buy something nice for her, and don’t tell anyone about the note. But I couldn’t control myself… I told my little sister, Linda. But she didn’t believe me. Unsatisfied with her response, I told my little cousin Christian, but he also didn’t believe me. I started to feel really frustrated. No one would listen to me! So I told Mum.

As soon as Mum heard the story, she demanded to see the note. I showed it to her and she immediately recognised Jennifer’s handwriting. She asked Jennifer if she wrote the note. I looked at Jennifer expectantly, waiting for her to deny it but her face suddenly clouded over. She snatched the 20 cents out of my hand and said “San-DRA! I told you not to tell anyone!”

Ever since then I’ve vowed to never be taken for a fool again. That’s why the other day in Tokyo I was probably a bit too ready to disbelieve my friend Nana when she gave me something to eat, claiming it was fish sperm sack. I thought she was playing a trick on me and I was determined not to be gullible. So I threw it into my mouth and chomped it down. It didn’t taste fishy at all, it tasted like delicious creamy cottage cheese, so I knew I’d been right. I helped myself to seconds. But even after I finished eating, Nana still swore it was sperm sack. I asked other people and they confirmed it. I was lucky it was cooked—apparently it’s often served raw and has a much stronger flavour.

Beware: fish sperm sac, NOT cottage cheese

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Monday, 10 February 2014

When things don't make sense, it might not be your fault

I used to be a really light sleeper and had to wear ear plugs at night to block out noise. One holidays I was sharing a room with my sister Linda. We talked for a while, then I told Linda I was going to put my ear plugs in, so I wouldn’t be able to hear her if she spoke to me. Linda said good night and rolled over. A few minutes later I heard her muffled voice.

Linda: “Smandra… skljdfkqwejrklwnerflsdlkfaldkj.”
Me: “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU. I’VE GOT MY EAR PLUGS IN. SPEAK LOUDER.”
Linda: “Smandra… skljdfkqwejrklwnerflsdlkfaldkj.”
Me: “I STILL CAN’T HEAR YOU. SPEAK LOUDER.”
Linda: “Smandra… skljdfkqwejrklwnerflsdlkfaldkj.”
Me: (pulling my ear plugs out). “Argh! What did you say?”
Linda: “I said, Smandra… skljdfkqwejrklwnerflsdlkfaldkj.”

She’d made mumbling sounds to trick me into taking my earplugs out.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was having dinner with a group of Japanese friends. The conversation started out in English but after a few minutes it turned into Japanese. Mostly I can’t understand Japanese, but I can catch a few words and sometimes guess what the conversation is about. To me, Japanese sounds like a phone call that’s cutting in and out: “Please … because… like… thank you… do me the honour… have to…?”

I was busily trying to put the fragments of conversation together when I realised for once it didn’t sound like a phone call breaking up, but like a phone call that had completely cut out. None of the words made sense to me at all! I felt really disappointed. I needed to study harder. I’d been hanging out with too many English speakers and lost all the Japanese I’d learnt. Finally, I gave up trying to understand and asked my friends what they were talking about. They told me they were making baby talk in Japanese—the English equivalent of “goo-goo gaa-gaa, a-coochy-coochy-coo”. It was no wonder I couldn’t understand them. They weren’t using real words.

I've been wasting my time studying Japanese when I could have just made up words.

I think I might try the same thing when I’m talking to people in English. If someone looks like they’re not listening to me, I’ll say “a goobly gooky snoogly snook” and see how they react.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

I can see clearly now

Regular readers of this blog may recall my disastrous experience at the optometrist a few months ago. I tried to get my eyes checked at a Japanese-speaking optometrist, but couldn’t understand a thing they said. Daily headaches and eye strain later, I can confirm… yes, thanks to my terrible Japanese, I’d been given the wrong prescription.

I was determined not to make the same mistake again. This time, when I went to get my eyes re-checked, I used an optometrist who, I knew from friends, could speak English. When I walked inside the shop, I greeted the optometrist in Japanese, assuming he’d reply in English as soon as he heard my terrible speaking. Instead, he complimented my Japanese, and said how it was so helpful for him, because he couldn’t speak a word of English. He then proceeded to conduct the eye examination completely in Japanese.

As soon as I realised what was happening, I panicked. I was in the same situation all over again! I opened my mouth to tell him I knew he could speak English and to please talk to me in English, but then it hit me…I’d actually understood everything he’d said so far. I’d been so busy concentrating, I hadn’t noticed he was speaking in extremely slow, short, simple, sentences with lots of hand gestures, and waiting for me to understand each sentence, before he said the next. He was being kind, and helping me practise my Japanese, without sacrificing my ability to understand him. So I closed my mouth and we continued. The examination took twice as long as usual because I was so slow at communicating, but this time we both understood each other. I got new stronger glasses, and I haven’t had another headache since!

My new glasses - the right prescription this time!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Sometimes small talk is big talk

The other day, I tried to ask for no bag in Japanese (kekkoudesu), but instead, proposed marriage (kekkondesu). I realised I’d made a mistake when the check-out assistant froze and slowly backed away from me. The last time I tried to go to the optometrist in Japan I almost blinded myself (see What happens when you get cocky). So when my Japanese teacher wrote the word yukaueshinsui (inundation above floor level) on my vocab list this week, I felt it was a little beyond me. Before I memorise seven-syllable words about flood-levels, I should probably master some basic life skills in Japanese. But I memorised it anyway … because my teacher always seems to know what people in Japan will be talking about.

For example, in March, my teacher asked me to memorise the word sakurazensen (cherry blossom front), which is like a cold front, but made of cherry blossoms. She also asked me to memorise mankaisengen (declaration of full bloom). I knew people like cherry blossoms in Japan, but I couldn’t believe they got into such technical details. But after several conversations turned into detailed discussions of cherry blossom bloom-levels and locations, I realised I was wrong. These technical details were hot topics during cherry blossom season, and if I didn’t know these words, I wouldn’t be able to understand small talk. It’s typhoon season right now, so I guess my teacher is expecting some floods and ‘inundation about floor level’. I eagerly await putting my new vocab to use while my house goes underwater.

Cherry blossoms: get your jargon right before you try to talk about them

This has made me wonder what sort of things English teachers in Australia teach foreign students, which might seem surprising everyday topics to anyone from overseas.

Spring: The firies* were backburning this morning and now my washing smells like smoke.
Summer: Don’t you hate it when weetbix dries like cement on your bowl and you can’t get it off?
Autumn: It was cloudy and cold yesterday but I still got sunburnt. Thanks ozone hole!
Winter: It’s getting cold. I hope the huntsmans (spiders) don’t come inside to have babies in my bedroom again.

*Firies = firefighters

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Monday, 30 September 2013

The obedience test

When I was in high school, my school uniform had a removable, pre-tied, tie. It buttoned under our collars, hanging down like a sign saying ‘dork’. At the start of each year, the principal would advise parents to sew the ties onto our uniforms so we couldn’t take them off. Of course, my mum was the only one who did this, so I was the only buffoon in school with a tie.


The mark of my shame

Mum tried the same trick when my sister started high school, so my sister unpicked the tie. It was such an obvious solution, but because I was such a goody-goody, it never crossed my mind. The school tie was an obedience test and I had failed to think outside the box and followed my mum’s instructions blindly. I don’t know if Mum was pleased or disappointed in me, but I do know I get my obedient goody-goody ways from her.

You see, when I have visitors to Tokyo, I always give them some instructions about the trains. I tell them it’s going to look too crowded to get onboard, but you’ve just got to get on anyway—there’s always space for more people. I tell them what they should do is face backwards so they don’t have to make eye contact, and use their bottoms to shove onto the train. Despite the pep talk, my visitors are usually still pretty hesitant about pushing backwards onto a train. They end up waiting for people on the train to make space for them. On a crowded day, if this takes too long, they might get a shove from behind.

When Mum visited me in Tokyo, I gave her the usual speech, but when the train pulled up, it wasn’t very crowded, so I stepped leisurely onto it facing forwards. Suddenly, I felt a shove from behind, from something round and soft, and I was sent sprawling into the people in front of me. I figured there must have been a crowd surge on the platform behind me. But when I turned around, I saw it was just my mum—and there was no one behind her. She was such an obedient goody-goody, she’d taken my instructions at face value and followed them exactly. Now I know where I get it from.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Hats off to the kiddies, fatties, and oldies

Everyone in Japan has climbed Mt. Fuji, except me. School groups, unfit tourists, and baby boomers in colour co-ordinated hiking outfits – they’ve all done it. During climbing season, Mt. Fuji is so crowded the path becomes one long pedestrian traffic jam. So I figured, if everyone’s doing it, surely it can’t be that hard. This year I’m going to conquer Mt. Fuji too.

As a token amount of preparation, I decided to practice on Mt. Mitake last weekend. And by token, I really mean token: Mt. Mitake’s altitude is 929m, and the hike takes five hours, compared to Mt. Fuji’s 3700m altitude, twelve hour course. My cousin Mark (who has a hilarious blog about his student life in Spain) was stopping over in Japan that weekend and joined me.

The hike started with a series of staircases that went vertically up the mountain… and it didn’t ease off from there. Hours of relentless staircases and torturous slopes later, we finished and I was exhausted. My legs were shaking, I could hardly breathe, and I didn’t think I could even step on the train to get home. Meanwhile Mark looked like he’d been for a casual stroll around the park. I started to have serious doubts about my plans.

The next day, I limped in to my Japanese lesson, and told my teacher about my Mt. Fuji goal. She almost hit the roof. ‘Mt. Fuji isn’t easy! It’s incredibly dangerous and difficult, especially outside of climbing season!’ she said. (I’d purposefully planned my trip to be a few days after the official hiking season ended so the crowds wouldn’t slow me down.) She explained that outside of hiking season, the mountain huts shut, the rescue services stop, and the weather on Mt. Fuji becomes dangerous and unpredictable. Since it was outside of the season and I was clearly not fit enough to complete the course, she strongly advised me to cancel my plans.

After two years with my Japanese teacher, I’ve come realise she is usually right about all things Japan-related. So I cancelled my trip to Mt. Fuji. I’d like to blame the off-season timing, but the truth is, it’s a serious hike and I need more training. To the kiddies, fatties, and oldies who have conquered Mt. Fuji, you have my total respect. If I can ever walk again, one day I’d like to join your ranks. But not this year.
My new walking sticks won’t have the honour of poking Mt. Fuji this year

Friday, 9 August 2013

The phones must be crazy

Yesterday the silence of my office was shattered when a hundred smart phone alarms went wild. The early earthquake warning system had triggered. My Japanese colleagues called out “Shindo nana!” in shock, meaning an earthquake of the most catastrophic level was about to hit.

The early warning system is supposed to give us a few seconds notice to get to safety. But instead of diving under our desks like we’d been trained to do, we all just stood there giggling and waiting for our doom. Secretly, I wanted to get under my desk but I didn’t want to look like a coward. I felt like it was 2011 again, in the seconds after the earthquake alarms had gone off, and just before the big earthquake hit. Back then I hadn’t learnt about the dangers of losing face, and had immediately dived under my desk.

While we waited to die, we teased the people whose phone alarms had triggered later than everyone else’s. For once I wasn’t the one with the most outdated technology. After a while the giggling died down, and it seemed like nothing was going to happen and we’d have to get back to work. I mostly felt relieved but a small part of me felt disappointed there was nothing more to break up a dull Thursday afternoon.

Later I found out on the news that the alarm had been triggered by a loud noise near one of the earthquake sensors. Maybe some deviant popped a bag behind the head of the Japanese meteorological agency and gave him a shock!

My earthquake emergency kit was lonely when I didn't join it under the desk.

There's no escaping Tokyo

 Sometimes I really feel the need to get away from the crowds of Tokyo and escape to the peaceful Japanese countryside. Last weekend I went to the rural apple-growing prefecture of Aomori (715km north of Tokyo) to watch the Nebuta festival with some friends.

Aomori is on the coast, so the first thing we did when we arrived was to look for local sushi. We wanted to eat the best, freshest fish - straight from the sea, and into our mouths. We found a great sushi bar where the fish were as delicious and fresh as anything we’d eaten in Tokyo, and a bargain at country prices!

Surprise! A crab was hiding in the miso soup. 

When we arrived at the festival that evening, there were hundreds of performers dressed in traditional costumes getting ready for the Nebuta parade. We were excited to see them and stopped a few Aomori locals to get a picture with them before the show. But as it turned out they weren’t from Aomori at all. Like us they’d travelled from far away to spend the weekend in the country.

Aomori imposters with other Aomori imposters

Finally we went to get a seat at the parade. I thought we wouldn’t have too much trouble with crowds because it was a small town but it was packed out like Shinjuku station at peak hour. Tokyo had found me after all. The event had drawn the masses from the capital. Luckily I’ve learnt a few things about walking through crowds, so I had no problem and the crowds added to the excitement.

Tokyo relocates to Aomori

The parade was amazing - huge floats made of Japanese paper and carried by man-power, surrounded by dancers and musicians in traditional costumes. We discovered that if we cheered loud enough the floats would walk over to us and bow.

Even the floats bow in Japan

I highly recommend the festival in Aomori as a great thing to see. But book early because the rest of Tokyo will be there with you!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

What happens when you get cocky

You would think after my disastrous Japanese interview in April I should have no doubts about my terrible Japanese skills. But recently I still made the mistake of thinking I could communicate like a normal person.

I wanted a new contact lens prescription but instead of trying to find an English speaking optometrist, I decided to go to a local and wing it. On the surface, that doesn’t sound difficult. But don’t forget I have the reading skills of a five year old, and the speaking skills of a baby. I had to decipher websites and maps, make an appointment, and then once I’d finally arrived, fill out the pre-appointment health sheet – all in Japanese.

Somehow I managed it. (I won’t mention how long it took and how many mistakes I made.) As I sat in the waiting room for my appointment I felt so pleased with myself. I fantasised about how I was going to email everyone I knew and boast about my cleverness.

Then the eye exam began... The optometrist made me put my head in a contraption and stare at a computer screen. She said, “Blah blah blah blah?”

At least that’s what it sounded like. I could see a white C shape but it wasn’t perfectly clear around the edges so I replied, “Can’t see.” The optometrist nodded and made the C shape bigger, then said, “Blah blah blah blah?”

I repeated “Can’t see.”

The C got bigger and bigger and bigger. She repeated her question again and again and again. I answered “Can’t see,” “Can’t see,” “Can’t see.”

Finally the C was so big that it didn’t fit on the computer screen anymore. There was no way anyone could miss it. The optometrist seemed frustrated by now. She opened a cupboard and pulled out a giant poster of a C. She held the poster close to my face and said “Blah blah blah blah?” I replied, “Can’t see.” The optometrist’s nostrils flared. I started to suspect that I’d misunderstood the question.

We moved on to other tests. I tried on glasses, put my head in different machines, and looked at charts on the wall. This time she changed her question. She kept saying “Blah blah blah… Is that okay?” I didn’t want to cause any more trouble so I answered “Is okay, is okay, is okay,” and she kept looking more and more angry.

By the end of the appointment, my spirits had plummeted. I’d wasted everyone’s time and my money. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten so cocky as to think I could take an eye exam in Japanese. Then I got my prescription… it was exactly the same as my old one!

My new contact lenses - not even the optometrist knows if they're right for me.

I don’t know if my eyesight really hasn’t changed, or if the optometrist just gave up on me and copied out my old prescription. But I have new contact lenses now and they seem to be okay. So I’m choosing to believe that I got what I wanted. I’m back to being cocky.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Politeness manuals

When I was in high school, I worked as a checkout assistant at the local supermarket. During the induction program, the trainers spent most of the time trying to convince us we shouldn’t steal. When I finally started working at the checkout, I didn’t have a clue what to say to customers. My greetings would vary wildly between a sullen glare and a bright “Thank you, have a nice day”, depending on how I was feeling. All I knew was I shouldn’t steal anything.

Supermarkets in Japan take a more thorough approach to customer service. The checkout assistants receive a politeness manual telling them exactly what they should say to customers. And it’s not just the checkout chicks who follow them. The professional pushers at train stations follow politeness manuals too. I didn’t know there could be a polite way to push someone’s body parts into a crowded train, but it seems that there is.

Last week I think I discovered a sort of politeness manual for the general public. I was at the movies and before the movie started they played an ad telling us a list of rules. It was the usual things like “Turn off your mobile phone” and “Don’t talk during the movie”, but then they added “No kicking.” I started laughing but stopped when I realised no one else thought it was funny. It seems that the people in the movie theatre that day took obvious etiquette advice better than Aussies generally do. An example of this was last year when Queensland Rail tried to run an etiquette campaign - their posters became internet memes and were mocked all over the world.

The original Queensland Rail ettiquette poster

One of the many subsequent memes.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that my supermarket didn’t have a politeness manual.

My short story The Busybody of Lindfield was inspired by my time working at the supermarket.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Top three places you don't expect to see Japanese

Even though I’m in Japan, there are some places I never expected to hear or see Japanese. These are my top three most surprising places.

(1) Graffiti
Trying to memorise the 2000 kanji characters required to read basic Japanese is a major headache for me. So when I see kanji casually scrawled as graffiti I am always surprised. I'm also a little jealous.


Beautiful kanji strokes - get this graffiti artist to a calligraphy competition!

(2) Dogs

So apparently, unlike me, dogs in Japan can understand Japanese. I even met a dog last week who was trilingual. He could understand Japanese, English, and Afrikaans… although the word for “sit” in Afrikaans is “sit”.

Tank the dog should sit my Japanese exams for me.

(3) Winnie the Pooh (aka Poo-san)

I expected at least the names of cartoon characters would remain the same. But in Japan even cartoon characters need to be shown an appropriate amount of respect when using their names. For example, Winnie the Pooh is known by his honourable title “Poo-san” i.e. Mr. Poo.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Camping in the tsunami zone

Last week I went camping on Niijima Island for Golden Week. I felt a bit nervous when I saw signs like this all around the island. These are the first emergency signs I've ever seen which actually tell you to RUN, rather than proceed calmly to safely.

Sign on Niijima Island.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The laziest machine in Japan

Japan is famous for its futuristic technology. The bath tubs sing as they fill up, meals at restaurants can be ordered by digital menus, and robotic vacuum cleaners whizz around apartments during the day.

But with all the hard work being done by robots in Japan, there is one type of machine that isn’t pulling its weight: the ATMs. While most of the people in Japan bust their guts working overtime, many of the ATMs* close down at 6pm. They refuse to work on public holidays and weekends, and if they do choose to operate at these times, they often charge extra fees for the privilege.


Lazy ATM: Closed Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays

At first, I couldn’t understand this. There should be no reason why an ATM can’t work weekends or at night. It’s a machine. It doesn’t need the time to go home and make shabu-shabu for its family or to trim its miniature bonsai garden. Why do they only work during business hours?

Well I think one of my friends has discovered the reason. She was visiting Japan from overseas and tried to use an ATM to withdraw money but unfortunately it ate her card. She started to panic, assuming that she’d been caught in some sort of scam. Then suddenly a phone which was hidden next to the ATM began to ring.

Friend: Hello? Is someone there? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Rapid Japanese.
Friend: I can’t understand you. Do you speak English? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Long silence. Your card… no good. Cannot use. Card return now. Please wait.

Sure enough, next thing, her card popped out of the machine and the phone line went dead. Someone behind the scenes had been supervising the ATM, seen that her card had been eaten, investigated the situation, and decided to return her card. 

So I guess that’s how you keep everyone employed in a high tech society where robots can do any job - employ someone to secretly watch the robots. Behind every robot in Japan, there could be a human watching. I just hope there’s no one supervising my singing bath tub.

*ATMs at 7-Eleven are usually open 24 hours a day and charge no fees for most Japanese bank cards.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Time to harden up

After two years of receiving unfailing politeness in Japan, I’ve dropped my guard. I no longer steel myself against attitude before approaching shop assistants, or apologetically catch the eye of waiters when I want to make an order. I’ve come to expect the highest level of respect from the service industry, and this has made me weak. 

For example, the other day I went to a restaurant in Tokyo. When I arrived the waiter pointed to our table without saying a word. No ‘Welcome honourable customer’, ‘my sincerest humble apologies for keeping you waiting’, or ‘wow honourable customer, you are so tall and your Japanese is so skillful’. Just silence. I was floored. I convinced myself that the waiter must have assumed that I couldn’t understand Japanese and that’s why he didn’t speak to me. The alternative - that he was giving me attitude - was too shocking to consider. 

When I got to the table I ordered a glass of hot water from another waitress. However it didn’t arrive within three minutes, so I asked about it. Instead of apologising profusely, bowing and rushing off to get it, the waitress dismissively told me to wait longer. I felt glad that it was an open kitchen so that she couldn’t spit in my food. She obviously wanted to.


I'm used to being the whale at restaurants.
Note: Image by gwaar. Some license restrictions apply for reuse. Please see Creative Commons License for details.

My sister was visiting me at the time and she was surprised that I was frustrated by the incidents. No one had actually said anything rude to me. These events would never have enraged me in Australia. In fact, if I’d had to order hot water in Australia, I'd have been the one grovelling because hot water wasn’t even on the menu.  

I’m planning to visit home at Christmas time so I need to harden up. What if I need to call my telecoms company or get my driver’s license renewed? I’ll never survive if I can’t put my shields back up.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The art of conversation

I used to always assume that people were in control of what they said. Even if someone was obviously telling a lie or saying something weird, I assumed it was because they wanted to. However, since I started learning Japanese, I’ve discovered that what comes out of my mouth often has no relation to what I actually want to say. I only know a limited number of words and sentences, so my conversation is a random selection of the nearest match to what I actually want to say. Whatever I’ve written in my homework that week is the most likely answer to any given question.

For example, last week, I was interviewed to assess my Japanese speaking ability. This is how our conversation went:

Interviewer: Where do you come from?
Me: Sydney, Australia.
Interviewer: Have you lived in Sydney your whole life?
Me: Different. When I was two to four, because of Dad’s job, I lived in Yokohama.
Interviewer: Really? Where in Yokohama?
Me: In the ocean.
Interviewer: Really? And where did you live after that?
Me: In the desert.
Interviewer: Really? What sort of place was that?
Me: Hot, quiet.
Interviewer: Where was it near?
Me: Near Perth.
Interviewer: Where’s that? Is that near Brisbane?
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what do you think of Japan?
Me: I am excited.
Interviewer: Excited? Isn’t Sydney exciting too?
Me: Sydney is countryside. No restaurants or shops.
Interviewer: And what are some other differences between Sydney and Tokyo?
Me: In Tokyo, many funny things.
Interviewer: Really? Such as?
Me: Last week I catch ladies-only carriage but I discover man enter. That man told no good by station people.
Interviewer: Is that so? That’s funny, isn’t it.
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what are your hobbies?
Me: I study Japanese.
Interviewer: Really??? And what other hobbies do you have?
Me: I climb mountain.
Interviewer: Is that so? Which mountains have you climbed?
Me: Last year I walk from Tateyama (a mountain in the Japanese Alps) to Kamiyacho (a train station in Tokyo, 425 km from Tateyama).
Interviewer: Really? And how many kilometres was that? How long did it take you?
Me: By walk, it take four days, 12 km.
Interviewer: OK, thank you, I think I have enough to assess your level now.


In Japanese, I would say this is a dog. (I don't know the word for panda yet.)


Faced with the choice of silence, or making something up, I’ve found myself always choosing to make something up. I get to practice more words that way. But as a result I’ve become extremely suspicious of what people say, especially if they seem to be struggling to find the right words. After learning Japanese, I don’t think I’ll ever look at conversation the same way again.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Intruders on the ladies carriage


My train line (Tokyu-Toyoko) is a medium-risk groper line. It’s so crowded that commuters are pressed hard into each other, allowing easy access for wandering hands. However, it’s not one of the notorious groper lines (*cough cough* *Saikyo line*). To help women have a grope-free journey, there is a special ladies-only carriage during peak hour. While the rest of the train is so crowded that station staff in white gloves have to push commuters inside, the ladies-only carriage is a haven of tranquility. It smells like flowers and sometimes there’s even enough room that you don’t have to body slam anyone when you enter.

Apart from the smell and space, the best thing about the ladies-only carriage is the entertainment of watching when men come on board. It happens at least once every trip. The man will be on auto-pilot and as soon as he steps on, he will shut his eyes, and try to get some sleep. After a minute or so, however, he will frown…

(thinking) That’s strange, no one is pushing me. How am I supposed to sleep without other bodies to prop me up? Come to think of it, the people I’m leaning against feel strangely short and soft. And they smell so good… Oh no, I’m on the ladies carriage! I have shamed myself and my family.

The man’s eyes will shoot open. He will then immediately start shuffling towards the train doors with his head bowed, muttering apologies, and swiftly alight at the next stop. The women will smother their smirks.

Occasionally when a man enters the carriage, it’s obvious that he’s done it on purpose. He will have a really stubborn look on his face and refuse to make eye contact. All the women in the carriage will glare self-righteously at him. His trip doesn’t last for long though. If the man doesn’t get off at the next stop, then at the following stop, a train guard will enter the carriage and march the man out, shaming him in front of all the women.

It’s so much fun that I wish I could catch the ladies-only carriage every day. Unfortunately the platform is usually so crowded that I can’t get to it. But when the crowd parts in a fortuitous way, I know I have a great journey of people watching ahead.


The Tokyu-Toyoko platform at Shibuya Station.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Avoiding the obvious

A few months ago at a party, I met a lady who was a vegetarian. Even though I knew it was probably an annoying question, I couldn’t help but ask her why she didn’t eat meat. I then followed up by giving her a detailed list of all the vegetarians that I know, their reasons for being vegetarian, and what they can and can’t eat. The lady’s eyes glazed over with boredom. As soon as I’d finished my long-winded story, she made an excuse to leave and talk to someone else.

I didn’t mean to be such a boring conversationalist. The problem was that as soon as I heard the lady was vegetarian, I became fixated on avoiding a conversation that she’d had thousands of times before. It became all that I could think about, so in the end, I couldn’t talk about anything else.

It’s the same when I meet a vet for the first time. I can’t help but ask them if they like animals; when I meet a plastic surgeon, I can’t help but ask them who they think needs work; and when I meet other foreigners in Japan I can’t help but ask them where they are from.

If George Vanilla-Gorilla could talk, I'd ask him why he sleeps so much

Until I came to Japan, I’d never had the problem of being on the receiving end of these sorts of obvious questions. I work as a statistician, so this information is usually greeted by a swift change of topic. No one wants to encourage me to talk any further about statistics.

These days I get asked on a daily basis where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Japan. However, I’ve discovered that I actually like these questions. Having something so obvious to discuss means that it’s really easy to talk to new people. These questions also give me an excuse to shamelessly talk about myself.

The problem with these questions is that my poor friends and colleagues have heard me answer them thousands of times. While I get the chance to blab on about myself, my friends and colleagues have to wait in bored silence.

Since I’ve discovered I enjoy receiving obvious questions, I no longer feel ashamed to ask them. However, in order to be fair to everyone, I try to distribute my obvious questions equally. That way everyone gets a fair chance to repeat themselves. So watch out vegetarians, vets, plastic surgeons, and foreigners… Captain Obvious is coming!

Monday, 18 March 2013

My lost calling

If I were a secret spy, Japan would be my location of choice. Unfortunately, foreigners in Japan tend to stick out like a hamburger on a platter of sushi. In a crowd of faceless pedestrians, they can be spotted from a mile away. However it is this very distinctness which would allow me to blend in unnoticed.

A few weeks ago I was waiting for a friend outside Shibuya station at a well-known meeting spot. It’s extremely crowded there, almost like being on the train. Another foreigner also happened to be waiting nearby. As time passed, the foreigner was joined by more and more foreign friends. The group began to grow, and noticing that I was a foreigner in a sea of Japanese people, they assumed that I was one of them.

I tried to edge away but it was difficult as the area was so crowded. To demonstrate that I wasn’t part of their group, I began to read my kindle. However, indifferent to my coldness, the group members kept shuffling aside so that I could join the conversation. Eventually the group engulfed me.

Finally the foreigners left. As they walked away, a few of them glanced back at me in concern, thinking that I had been left behind. I look so different in Japan that it seemed like I belonged.

Shibuya crossing - a haven for blending by looking different

Having experienced this, I should have been on my guard for other foreigners trying to falsely blend in. However last weekend I was fooled. I was at a private party with some other foreigners and started talking to an American guy. After a while, I began to realise that a lot of things he said didn’t make sense. I kept quizzing him for details until finally he confessed: he was a tourist on holidays in Japan and had seen a private party full of foreigners and walked right in. Even though we’d had someone at the door, he’d managed to slip in unnoticed. He looked as different as the rest of us, so no one had suspected that he was a gatecrasher.

Now I’m wondering if the same trick will work when movie stars come to Japan. Maybe I could drop into one of their parties unobserved?