Week One (3/12-3/19) |「怖い」ということ

So I decided that since a lot of people who don’t speak Japanese are going to end up reading this, I would include a little Japanese lesson in my post. Especially since this post is an adaptation of a post I originally wrote in Japanese about 「怖い」. こわい. Ko-wa-i. Scary things.

Magazines copy
This picture will make a lot more sense if you read the rest of the post. Promise.

Weirdly enough, I wasn’t nervous at all about flying. I had just made one international trip about a month prior. I have four decent friends and a handful of acquaintances in Tokyo. I was flying with a friend. I had what a language guide would call “survival Japanese” – if an earthquake or a fire broke out I could understand the directions. Or, less drastically, I could order food and ask where the bathroom was.

However that didn’t necessarily prepare me for the two types of  怖い that I experienced within 24 hours of landing in Japan.

「Where am I?」という怖い

The first was the normal type of 怖い. It was dark. It was rainy. It was cold. And yet since I didn’t pack toiletries I needed to venture to the store. I chose Seiyu, an allegedly Wal-Mart esque operation. I looked up the buses, grabbed a friend, and got there no problem. Paid way too much money for some towels, paid more money than I wanted to for toiletries, and was generally exhausted by the time I was done shopping.

Then came the trip back.

There are apparently 3 different #51 buses, and we happened to get on the one that dropped us off furthest from campus. We had been on our feet all day, we were jetlagged, and mentally exhausting from speaking and reading everything but English. The police officer we talked to told us campus was nearby. But it was still nervewracking making the decision to walk vs taking a cab.

If you’ve ever played Civilization 5, it was a little bit like we were under the “fog of war.” For the non-gamers out there, when you start the Civilization game, you only have your two units, and can only see maybe 6 tiles to begin with. The rest is covered in dense, white, fog. As you walk and explore a little more, your map starts to come together. What once looked like impassable oceans turn into small lakes, places where you thought you were alone have a multitude of city states and other rulers near by – in short, your map begins to both shrink and grow at the same time.

At this point, having lived in this town for a month, I know exactly where we were dropped off (in part, because of this experience.) However at the time it felt like we were miles away from campus. Yet, I decided to walk. And I made it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was 怖い.

「Who am I?」という怖い

The second type of 怖い was one I had never gotten to properly experience.

Like many college students, I pride myself on my relative intelligence. I made it here. I know things. I can talk about foreign politics, or physics, and maybe I don’t get everything people are saying but I can at least pretend to have an opinion. I can’t really do that in Japanese.

Language is how we communicate. And its amazing how often people assume that because you don’t speak a language perfectly, you are unintelligent. Or because your pronunciation is a little off, you can’t understand a thing they are saying. There is nothing worse than turning into an infant at age 20, pointing to the thing on the menu that says what you want, or having a waitress explain to you that your cake has red wine and cinnamon in it and having to turn to a friend because “cinnamon” and “red wine” never came up in your textbook. Or being ignored when you are with a friend whose Japanese is better because the waitress prefers to speak to them, assuming you can’t understand what she says.

So that pride begins to crumble. You get tongue tied and are missing important chunks of vocabulary. Your voice is your only means of communication, and it makes you sound like a CD or a record that is skipping, rendering you unintelligible to the surrounding people. It’s terrifying. Moreover, in case you don’t realize the implications of this, your entire personality disappears. I can’t be sarcastic in Japanese. My comprehension isn’t quick enough for jokes. I can’t give heartfelt advice. I can’t tell people off. It’s all just gone.

To emulate that for you lovely readers, I introduce you to the Convenience Store Magazine Rack.

Mags copy
Told you it would come back.

I am sure you can all recognize the fact that these are magazines, but I am betting many of you can’t read what is on the pages, but can read the English text. That is what speaking in Japanese is like. I mean, I can definitely read more of what those magazines say than just the English, but I have been reading English for over 15 years. At this point, it’s just background noise. With Japanese, because I cannot instantly read something and figure out what is going on, my brain doesn’t know how to filter. It is constantly working overtime to read the basic things like “Frozen Foods” or “Tea” that would normally just stream by in English. It’s mentally tiring in a way I didn’t really expect. Why did no one ever tell me that ビニール袋 was plastic bag? And that sometimes the really nice store clerk will ask you if you want one for 5 yen? What does it mean for you that the six year old in the grocery store has a better grasp of the conversations going on around her, while the middle schooler buying a snack can read all the manga on the shelf and you can’t?

The worst part about this type of 怖い is that it doesn’t go away. Maybe ever. After all, when you are learning a second language, the line between “I don’t know what this is in this language” and “I don’t know what this is at all” is separated by a variety of obstacles – grammar, vocabulary, (for Japanese) Kanji – that are all hindering your understanding of things you already understand… just not in this particular language.

And yet here I am, still trying. Maybe I am just a masochist.

So really, the TL;DR of this is as such:

  • Remember to Google directions for your trips to AND from a location
    • Note: If you have the same Sprint plan I do you actually have international data and can use it for free in Japan. That would have literally removed that entire situation from the equation.




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