Becoming Oriented

Today, I met the people who I will end up knowing very well by the end of the summer: classmates, professors, Japanese “buddies” and host family. More than that, today was the first day when “eigo de hanasu no wa dame da yo,” that is to say, speaking English is BAD. 

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When I usually speak, especially during the last two weeks while I was home, I find myself using idioms that can be traced directly to my father or mother, or even a YouTuber whom I’ve binge-watched. I honestly kick myself when I realize it. Speaking only in Japanese, however, I know that everything I am saying and the way in which I say it, however limited, comes from an original place. It’s refreshing.

I decided to stop using English at 9 A.M. when one of Sun Academy’s instructors met us at the lobby of the hotel. I had already gotten some field testing of my Japanese that morning when I was hunting breakfast in Shinjyuku. When looking for a place to eat in Tokyo, just follow your nose; the shops are all clustered together, so an eatery is easy to find. They will usually also have a case in front where they display replicas of their dishes, along with the price. You really know exactly what you’re getting.

Using this technique, I quickly found a soba (noodle) shop. I was not greeted by a host, and there was no service counter so I just sat. When I finally asked what to do, I was pointed to a fully-equipped order-taking machine, no waiter or cashier required. Although I could barely read any of the menu, I found what I had decided on and discovered, through trial and error, how to order at a normal eatery.

Upon returning to the Hotel, I packed up and checked out. I then met up with the rest of the class and waited for our professors to meet us in the lobby. At this point, we still spoke Japanese half-jokingly. Finally, sign in hand, a professor came to escort us to the classroom, accompanied by a young man. He and I (Yamamura was his name, I think) struck up a conversation about anything for which I could think up the words, as we traveled on the subway.

When we got to the classroom, a 90-minute placement test awaited us. “Tsukareta” was the word of the hour, which means “(I have) become tired.” My long conversation beforehand truly helped me remember my Japanese, so I think I did well. We then had Orientation, where we officially swore off  English for the summer. Afterwards we went out for lunch; a professor gave us a mini-tour of surrounding Yoyogi, and most of us decided on a ramen shop. My experience with the machine this morning came in handy as I taught my classmates how to order.

Upon return to the classroom, we met our Japanese “buddies,” talking to each buddy for five minutes on rotation. They were all Japanese college students, and I was very interested in how different their daily life must by from mine, despite our same station in life. The young man from this morning returned and we talked a bit more.

When the buddies left, I met the woman whom I now call “Mama-san,” my host mother. She happily greeted me immediately with a hug, foregoing all the exercises of a formal introduction which I had become so used to at this point. She brought to here home by train, five stops on the Yamanote line. Her home is a beautiful Western-style three-floor house and she really has made me feel so welcome. She gave me the grand tour and introduced me to her mother’s cat, Mu-chan. Soon thereafter, the 93-year-old O-baa-chan, grandma, returned and I made a short introduction before she returned to her own business.

Mama-san patiently talked with me for at least two hours before her daughter, Mona, returned home with three friends from her college. It being Saturday night, the group was out drinking together. Mama-san was so excited to see Mona’s friends, and she told me, “you’re about to make your first real Japanese friends!!!” We had a great conversation where they taught me all the words the kids are using these days, and they soon left to drink more, being only 2 rounds in for the night.

After they left, Mama-san and I had dinner together. Much like the house itself, the meal was a mix of Japanese and Western; miso, rice, pickled okra and cucumbers, along with thick bacon, a cheeseburger patty and iceberg lettuce. “Oishii” means delicious… I really struggled for ten to fifteen minutes to hold the chopsticks the correct way (instead of my half-baked American way) but after I got the hang of it, I could even eat the cheeseburger!

After dinner (“go-chisou-sama deshita” means “it was a feast!”), I set to writing and Mama-san turned on the TV. Soon, a bell rang in the kitchen and she said “the bath is ready!” Nifty, ne? Right now she is bathing and I am writing and reflecting.

Today, I felt the true happiness of discovery, challenge and good people. Everyone has been so earnest, kind and helpful and I feel incredibly blessed. I have also felt myself become more comfortable with the Japanese I do know, as well as accepting that which I don’t. In terms of correct grammar and full comprehension, of course I have had many many MANY failures so far. But I have realized the power of language itself: to be understood. Nobody has set out to correct folks on their speech; everyone has listened with open ears to my unskilled Japanese, taken what they could from it and asked for what they need.

That being said, I am seeing the importance of a wide vocabulary in any language. The language we use truly lays the foundations of the world as we see it, and the words to which one is limited indeed limits the horizons of their perception. If an idea cannot be communicated, does it even exist, at least for the one who cannot form the words? The limits of my Japanese build the membrane of a safe bubble of simple understanding in which I ignorantly, blissfully reside. I am lucky to be around people who want to take care of me and want to understand me, and will enter this bubble with me. I hope by the end of the summer to have extended this bubble and to reside on the very edge of it, always.

Bubble or not, everything excites me here. Every meaningful interaction, every small cultural discovery, every little thing truly is an adventure that has, at least in today’s honeymoon stage, left me with an ear to ear grin. I am so excited to learn Japanese at an immersion pace, and to get to know my class, my buddies, my host family, and anybody else who I might meet during these two months of novelty. Truly, today was a happy day.

Yonde kurete arigatou. Yoroshiku.

Thank you for reading. Sincerely,

Clay

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