strangers in a strange land

So, it’s day one in Tokyo (last night didn’t count), and my gosh it’s strange to experience a language barrier, to be a foreigner. It’s amazing how much living in America makes you think you can talk to anyone – because there are so many different kinds of people in America, and you figure, hey, it works here, why not everywhere else?

Oh, culture-centrism, how you screw with world perception.

Repeat after me: Sumimasen. Gomen nasai. Nihongo ga hanasemasen.

Excuse me. I’m sorry. I can’t speak Japanese.

And I’m working on memorizing Dareka eigo ga hanasemasu ka? – Is there someone here who speaks English?

I think the most awkward thing is just being embarrassed about trying to talk to people, even though we’re CLEARLY out of place in this city with our western features and hair and coloring. The above phrases go an amazingly long way, however, toward quelling the awkwardness a bit. Especially when you have to go back to a store after you’ve learned one of them. Which we know from experience.

True story. Matt rented SIM cards for our phones so we can use data while we’re here in Japan. But he got nano sim cards when they should have been micro sim cards. Ever try to ask for a micro-sim adapter in a foreign language? L. O. L.

So there’s a docomo around the corner. We walk in like idiots and ask if they speak English. In English. (Facepalm.) They looked a little uncomfortable, smiled, said no, and we said arigato and left. But we had to go back, because we still didn’t have sim cards that would work with our phones. So we headed back to the hotel, I took out the phrasebook and we brushed up on some useful phrases, and we walked back to the docomo store.

I felt so much embarrassment having to go back in there as a stupid foreigner, you don’t even know unless you’ve been the only speaker of your language in a place. But we took a deep breath, walked back in, and said “Gomen nasai, Nihongo ga hanasemasen.” And the magic of language took over. We looked up some phrases, make sure we had the pronunciation basically right, and when we said those words, people understood us. As Matt said to me: pshoo – mind blown.

Isn’t language amazing?

And it’s pretty obvious to me that even someone who speaks a little English might not recognize the phrase “Do you speak English?,” because when we asked “Do you speak English?,” they had that awkward reaction, but when we said (in Japanese) that we don’t speak Japanese, the young man at the door gestured to a woman at one of the open desks and said “She speaks English, she can help you” and then he walked us over and got us set up to talk to her. Her English was better than our Japanese, and we had the conversation we needed to have. (Which, alas, didn’t have the result we wanted. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the sim cards we got are of docomo manufacture, the docomo store didn’t have adapters. But we persevered. We stopped at one of the many local 7-Eleven stores and bought an exacto knife, and as we speak Matt is cutting sim card adapters out of the snap-out cards that held the sim cards when we got them. He’s already got my phone working on data, and he’s cutting his own adapter now.)

I think once we get over ourselves and accept the facts: no, we don’t speak Japanese; no, just because we love Japanese cartoons doesn’t mean we’ll magically understand everything happening around us in Japan; yes, we are obviously foreign; and yes, it’s likely that as long as we speak enough of the language to say “we don’t speak the language,” people will think whatever, they’re foreigners, and direct us to where we need to go, just like what happened today. Just like we would do if the situation were reversed.

I’m so grateful for people’s kindness in not laughing us out of the place. It’s very, very strange and intimidating to be a minority, especially when you get the double-whammy. There are two whammys when you’re a foreigner: one, you obviously don’t belong just by virtue of the way you look; and two, you don’t belong because you can’t speak the language.

I’ve been to places like the Caribbean, where I was a minority because I’m white, but everyone spoke English. I’ve been to Quebec, where I was a minority because I don’t speak French, but I look European so I attracted no notice, and I know a scraping of French, enough to get by on for the basics. This is the first time I’m obviously a foreigner AND I don’t have the language, and the combination of those things exponentially more nerve-wracking than just one of them alone, especially when you don’t want to look like an asshole. LOL.

But then again, the kindness of people is amazing, and when you make the effort to speak a little of the language, I think it helps a lot.

At 14:30 Tokyo time (which’ll be, I don’t know, 01:30 back home?) we’re participating in a festival where we carry a portable shrine through the streets, apparently? It’s offered as an event through the hotel/hostel we’re at, so we’ll have some other folks to speak English to, probably, which might be nice. Either way, it’s certainly a way to get thrown into the culture a little more.

And one thing’s for sure: if nothing else, at the end of three weeks we’re going to be really good at asking if there’s anyone here who speaks English!

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