I always felt that Japanese was one of those languages that if you didn't maintain constant use of, you're screwed. There's so much to know in terms of vocabulary, kanji, and grammar, that any lapse in practice spells utter doom -- I may as well start from the beginning again, I once told myself.
Recently I had the chance to vacation in Japan, and I knew it was all on me to handle interactions with any and every person we encountered. I panicked. I grabbed whatever I could and tried to cram some Japanese back into my life. I posted on Lang-8, devoured several volumes of manga, and even took a shot at translating a few works. All the classic signs of cramming, really.
The biggest help for me, actually, was fear. It took a hold of me, but I managed to break free and conquer it. Follow me after the jump to see how I survived two weeks in Japan and came out all the better for it.
One of the blessings in disguise of Japan is that in Tokyo and Osaka, people in the service industry will always try to help you in English, no matter what level they speak at. I don't know if it's a persistent disbelief that I might be able to speak Japanese, or they just really want to accommodate me. Either way, it made life much easier upon landing in Japan. In my first few hours of Japan time, I rented a SIM card, made some inquiries at the hotel, and purchased a few goods at the local convenience store. While I mostly used set phrases and a dash of English, it gave me hope knowing that I could survive basic business transactions and possibly the entire time in Japan.
Not just in language, but in sports, games, and just about everything in life, little successes are necessary. They help build confidence, and solidify the fact that the tightrope you're walking isn't some insurmountable task. Quarterbacks in American Football talk about using short, easy-to-complete passes as a confidence builder. They realize that the 60 minutes of gametime they're in is just like every other 60 minutes of play. The opponent might be different, but now you have the reassurance to play at your best. For me, handling those little interactions gave me the reassurance that I was at worst, a little rusty, and not completely hopeless.
Then I went out to dinner.
My friend and I decided to go to a Japanese place the hotel recommended. It was early and a weekday, so barely anyone was there. I noticed that this basement restaurant had none of the plastic food I so fondly remembered from my time living in Osaka. That served as a great visual aid to identify what food was offered. When we cracked open the menu, I panicked. I couldn't read any of the kanji. Nothing looked familiar. There weren't any printed pictures. It was all on me to get us food, and I had no idea what to do.
I called over the waiter, figuring talking with him might get me through this. The man, clearly uncomfortable when I started asking questions, could only recommend the sushi set. "What's good here?" Sushi set. "What are the people in that room having?" Sushi set. "What's your favorite dish here?" A long pause, followed by sushi set.
The sushi was good, but I felt defeated. Crushed. Embarrassed. It sucked having all these years of study, and be stymied attempting to talk with a waiter. It wasn't that he had to push the sushi set, but he figured that's what foreigners came to Japan to eat. Sushi. Which is all fine and good, but my inability to get the conversation past that point really shamed me. At that point, this crippling fear took hold, telling me that this would be the sum of my experience in Japan: awkward, half-hearted conversations that amounted to nothing more than a transactional nature.
I couldn't let that happen. I would hate myself for spending $3,000 to travel half way around the world just to speak Japanese at a service industry question and answer level. I resolved to talk with more people. To push myself into that uncomfortable zone and do something about my Japanese. I needed to get past the fear and self-loathing.
The next night, I went out for a walk, looking for someone to talk to. Starbucks was packed with couples and everyone at Ueno Station was too busy staring into their phones-- truthfully, I was too afraid to approach those people. Even though this was the only time I would ever see or interact with these people, I felt like it'd leave a permanent mark on me. Even when I resolved to do better, the actual execution proved to be too difficult. On the way back, there was a security guard standing alone in front of a bunch of potted plants. At 11pm. Curiosity won out and I stopped and asked him what he was doing.
Guarding the plants, he said, so that no thief comes by and steals them. He was committed to taking his job seriously, but he didn't suspect me as a thief and was friendly enough. I stuck around and asked a million questions -- about his job, what his family life is like, and what hobbies he has. It was awkward at first, but when I explained that I wanted to improve my Japanese, he was more than willing to talk. The guy told me about having to pick up this work after moving down from Fukushima, and how his Korean wife is doing a lot better here than where they lived. I told him of my travel plans, and he gave a few recommendations in the area. By the end of the chat, which lasted 15 or 20 minutes, I felt much better. I could have a conversation after all!
After that conversation, I felt in control of my time in Japan. I worried less about what people thought of how I spoke, and as a result my confidence skyrocketed. I would seek out conversation more often, asking store employees questions whenever I could, just to keep the ball rolling. My best encounter was in one of Tokyo's department stores, where on a slow afternoon I struck up a conversation with a young employee selling some British line of heavy fall clothes. We got into a 20-minute discussion about men's suiting, what's available in New York City, and what we like to dress ourselves in. It was great. Not only did we share similar styles, but I barely had to search for words and had no real issue expressing my opinions.
There were stumbling blocks later in the trip. I would get tongue-tied, or they didn't have the time to deal with a foreigner, but it didn't faze me.
Fear is extremely powerful. It can ruin your plans and stop you from growing in whatever you pursue. But if you can push past the fear of failing, the fear of looking stupid in front of someone, you can make great gains. Love him or hate him, Tim Ferriss had some great words when he spoke at TED. Take a few minutes and watch, see if it resonates with you.
Language learning is never easy, but you can't hide behind books and flash cards forever. If you want to get back to where you were, or push yourself in a new direction, talking with someone who is willing to spend the time with you is the most rewarding thing you can possibly do. In this age, it doesn't matter if you live in Grand Forks or San Francisco. The Internet, with Skype and italki, allow you to communicate with people all over the world who can and want to speak their language with you.
What's holding you back today?
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