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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?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chapter three of the Deadly School Camp is out now

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Chapter Three of the Deadly School Camp is out now on The Deadly School Camp page. Get a sneak peak of the first three chapters of the book before its publication next year!

Monday, 11 March 2013

A guaranteed way to choke on your sushi

My ideal lunch break is to get out of the office and enjoy some fresh air and exercise. It sounds simple enough, until you consider the social rules involved…

The first problem I encountered in chasing my dream was when to eat. I wanted to stroll outside during my lunch break, then eat at my desk afterwards whilst working. Unfortunately eating at the desks is not allowed during working hours. Even though these days I’m a rule breaking deviant, I didn't want to advertise this fact to my colleagues. So I decided that I’d better eat during my lunch break, or starve.

This meant that if I wanted to fit in both walking and eating then I would have to do them at the same time. I've never actually been very good at this – it takes me hours to chew my food and I tend to choke unless I’m sitting down. However I was determined that with practice I could learn. Walking whilst eating is considered to be very bad manners in Japan, however I decided it was a lesser crime than eating at my desk, so I would do it anyway.

My lunch hour is strictly from 12pm to 1pm, and unfortunately this is also the lunch hour assigned to every other office worker in Tokyo. Some companies even ring a bell. Between those times the footpaths explode with salarymen and there is no privacy for someone trying to take a sneaky bite of sushi. The first time I tried to eat and walk during my lunch hour, I felt too embarrassed to do it in front of such a big crowd so I tried to get away into a quieter street before I started eating.

In tall office towers it can take up to 15 minutes to get outside because the lifts are so crowded at 12pm.

After walking for a while, finally I stopped at a pedestrian crossing on a quiet street. While I waited for the lights to change, I began to eat. There were no pedestrians around but I could see the people in the cars closest to me were staring and looking shocked at my terrible manners. I turned away so that I wouldn't have to look at the cars and tried not to feel embarrassed.

Then suddenly I heard a lot of beeping. I turned back to see what was happening. The traffic lights had changed but the cars at the front of the queue weren't moving. My eating whilst standing had enthralled the nearby cars so much that they hadn't noticed the change of lights and were blocking up the traffic. As the cars in the line finally moved forward into the intersection, the driver of each car turned their head to see what the hold up was – and saw me choking on my sushi. That was the last time I ate whilst walking in Japan.

What do you think about eating whilst walking? Have you ever stopped traffic? Do you do something special during lunch time? Feel free to leave your comments!

Monday, 4 March 2013

When the signs point your way

No matter where you are in Japan, there are signs everywhere. They are plastered all over train stations, behind toilet doors, on the streets, and in the shops. Coming from Australia, I found the volume of signs a bit overwhelming at first, especially when I went into electronics stores.

An electronics store in Australia compared to...

An electronics store in Japan. Signs everywhere!

Since I couldn’t actually read the volumes of signs, I felt like I was missing out on important information, and quite often I was. I would often find out the meaning of the sign after it was already too late. For example, the sign below which was in the bicycle garage of my apartment block. It turns out it says ‘Please register your bicycle with building management or it will be removed.’ I found this out after my bicycle disappeared.

'Please register your bicycle with building management or it will be removed.' It would have been good to have known this information before my bicycle went missing.

However, I’ve recently realised that it’s actually a good thing if I can’t read the signs. It’s when the signs are in English that I should be worried. One of my friends works in a building where he is the only foreigner. He works in a normal workplace, which means that there are signs in Japanese everywhere, which naturally, he ignores. One day, after he had been working there for two years without seeing any signs in English, a sign appeared outside the ladies toilet. It said (in English) 'I warn a suspicious person' - suggesting, I think, that men shouldn't go into the ladies toilets and do suspicious things.

My friend could only assume that since this sign was in English, and he was the only foreigner in the building, that it was written especially for him. My friend tried to squash his suspicion that someone thought he was a peeping Tom, however, a few weeks later the following sign appeared in the men’s toilets:



My friend realised that he was wrong. Someone didn’t think he was a peeper, they thought he was a peeper who liked to block up toilets. To make matters worse, all of his colleagues who saw the sign in English would also realise that it was directed at him, and start to suspect that he was a degenerate who liked to block up toilets.

After hearing this story I realised that I shouldn’t be upset when I can’t read the signs. Now whenever I see signs in Japanese I feel grateful. It’s a compliment because it means I’m flying under the radar and no one suspects me of being a rule-breaking deviant.