Sunday, August 5, 2012

Settled back in

I sat down with the intention of writing several times over the past few days, but somehow managed to get distracted each time, or else simply give up due to the mind-numbing effects of jet-lag.

I've been back in Japan for 5 days, now, and this evening, I'm not feeling remotely foggy or exhausted. In fact, I'm feeling pretty well adjusted and settled in.  That's saying something, considering that I hadn't even set foot into my new apartment before Tuesday.

It's been a week of trying to feel out and craft a new normal for myself: namely, determining how living in such a nice apartment just a stone's throw from school on one side and two stone's throws from the eki (train station) on the other side will change my routines and patterns of living.  When I first discovered I'd be living in this apartment several months ago, my prediction was that I'd be eating out more, due to an even closer proximity to all of the restaurants surrounding the eki.  However, I hadn't banked on having such a spacious kitchen, an actual oven (which was conspicuously missing from the place I'd lived in last year), and a giant freezer that was just asking to be filled with meat and vegetables.

In addition, this was a week of small-talk:

1. I chatted with one of the regular waitresses at Jonathan's (a chain notable for making western-style breakfasts) about the challenges of studying Japanese.

2. When a ¥1000 bill that I'd used was not cooperating with the cash register at Jonathan's, I explained to the cashiers that I'd accidentally put my wallet through the wash and that had probably messed up the bill.  They laughed and told me it would be okay.

3. Later that same day, I chatted with a Tully's barista about Ichiro's move to the Yankees.

4. During Friday's matsuri (festival), I asked a police officer who seemed to be monitoring traffic during the fireworks display how much longer the fireworks were going to be, and he replied that gradually the show was coming to an end.

5. I chatted with another Tully's barista about the highlights of the matsuri as it was ending.

6. I asked several of my students who I'd bumped into at various times about their summers.

7. Talking with several people at church, I asked how their summers had been and they asked how mine had been.

What's significant about each of the above conversations is that they all happened in Japanese, by and large!  I still contend (and not just because it's the appropriate cultural response to a compliment) that I'm not skilled at Japanese and I still have a long way to go.  This is true.  I tried listening to the sermon at church today without an English translation headset and understood only individual words; very few entire sentences or overall ideas.

Furthermore, there's still a lot that I have no idea how to express in the Japanese language.  Each conversation eventually ends with me asking the speaker to slow down, to repeat a word, to define a word (if they're bilingual), or to actually look up a word myself.  Several conversations have ended in blank stares of confusion, and inevitable apologies from me.

However, what's changed from even two months ago is that some back-and-forth actually happens before the blank staring and confusion stage.  As recently as June, I'd go to a restaurant or Tully's, perhaps, say the lines that I'd memorized, and if I was lucky, the waiter/waitress/barista/whoever would stick to the script that I'd anticipated.  If they threw something new in, I'd typically panic and freeze up. No real back and forth, just a "wakarimasen" from me.  Now, there's on-the-spot thinking involved; active listening; active responding. No, I'm not skilled, but I've taken a huge step forward thanks to Japanese 202!  I plan to visit the shiyakusho (city hall) this week and see what courses they offer; even a weekly conversation class would be wonderful.  In the case of the Tully's and Jonathan's workers, it has been strange and cool to actually have conversations with people I'd seen on a weekly (with Tully's, even daily) basis, but never actually spoken to beyond placing orders.  It is refreshing.

And, I've found that no matter how limited I am in my Japanese abilities, no matter how foolish I think I sound, most Japanese people seem to genuinely appreciate the effort I'm making.  It's been encouraging--I'd love to secure this level of skill as a foundation and build up from here--learning a language, even a little bit, changes the world that you live in.  This Japan feels so different from the Japan that I first set foot on more than 3 and a half years ago.  A little bit of understanding goes a long way.

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