Photo: Wuttisit Somtui/Shutterstock

On Navigating a More Foreign Language

by Morgan deBoer May 9, 2013

I study Japanese every day. For at least 30 minutes. I’m not great at it yet, but I don’t suck. I can make hair appointments and ask for parking validation. I can say, “It is sunny now, but later it will rain,” and I can ask the grocer, “Can I please have paper bags?”

But when my parents visited me this spring, and we rode in a taxi from Tokyo Station to their hotel near the Palace, I couldn’t translate for my dad when he said, “This is the first cab I have ever been in where I can’t speak to the driver. I’m sad about that.” I couldn’t remember the word for “sad.”

Reading is tough. I can pick out the kanji for water on the storm drains in my neighborhood, but I recently bought something I thought said co-co-a (chocolate) and it actually said ko-hi (coffee). And maybe worse than that, I never would have known it was coffee if my husband hadn’t told me, after I had already drunk it. It tasted like chocolate.

I have a lot to learn. I would put my proficiency level at: I know enough to correctly order at restaurants, have small talk with my neighbors (very small), and get myself out of an emergency. But my reading level is 1st grade.

Last month, we went on a short trip to Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. It was the first time I’d left Japan since we moved here last year. And it was weird. Japan was the first place I visited where the written and spoken language were totally new to me. I guess I forgot what it felt like to be functionally illiterate in a new place. Now I remembered.

Then I understood her confusion. Then I couldn’t believe that I understood the misunderstanding.

In Taiwan, I recognized some characters from the Japanese kanji alphabet, but they didn’t mean what I thought they would. I think the signs for “enter” and “exit” were the same, but the menus were missing the Japanese phonetic hiragana and katakana and I couldn’t figure them out.

When we arrived and checked into our little rented apartment, our host wrote directions for us in English and then in Chinese characters, and I was bummed I couldn’t recognize a single one. In Japanese, I can work out hiragana and katakana, and I know a handful of very basic kanji. Before our trip, I thought my reading level was almost at zero, but being in Taiwan where my reading level was actually zero, I grew a little more confident in my Japanese reading abilities.

Then, just as I learned how to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you,” we flew to Thailand where I had to learn those phrases, again. And the written language was completely overwhelming, again.

On our one full day in Bangkok, my husband and a friend and I took a break from the hot April sun to drink milkshakes in a cafe across the street from the Palace (which, by the way, was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. The colorful mosaic-covered temples made my husband say to me, “Did you know your art projects are all inspired by Thai temples?”). In the cafe, at the table next to us, I noticed a woman having a hard time paying her bill. The waitress repeated the price a few times and then wrote out the numbers in the condensation on the table. When it finally clicked, and the woman understood, she said, “Xie, xie,” thank you in Mandarin, which I understood. Then I understood her confusion. Then I couldn’t believe that I understood the misunderstanding. Being relieved to hear a Mandarin phrase while in Thailand.

There was enough English in airports and train stations that we had no trouble figuring out which terminal to enter, or which train to take. We stayed with a friend in Bangkok who speaks Thai, which made things much easier for us while we were there. I never felt unsafe anywhere we went, but I always felt uncomfortable not being able to say more than “hello” or “thank you.”

On our second-to-last day in Thailand, my husband and I took the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and stayed up late drinking Chang beers and talking. We’re good at debriefing with each other about what we like and don’t like about a place. What we admired in the people we met. What changes we can make in our real life based on experiences from a trip.

I liked the train. On the way to Chang Mai I was hot, and confused about our seats, and in general I had let all of the moving pieces of our itinerary build into anxiety for a few hours so I didn’t enjoy it. On the way back to Bangkok I was relaxed. I noticed the farms and towns and jungle beyond the window, and I ate every bite of my spicy green curry dinner. I wondered where the solo backpackers were from, I smiled at a little boy who walked the length of the car every 30 minutes, and said “Yes, please” every time the man selling beers walked by.

Since beginning to study the language, I’ve noticed that the more I learn, the more I’m able to learn.

When the man in the bunk across from ours left to use the bathroom, my husband leaned over our table and said, “He is Japanese.” My husband is a detective. He noticed that when we were studying Japanese from our textbook earlier, our neighbor had looked up at us a lot, and later he was reading a book with a Japanese title.

I was excited.

When our neighbor came back to his seat, before he climbed up into his top bunk, I said tentatively, “Konbanwa.” Good evening.

“Konbanwa,” he said back and smiled. And a 10-hour friendship was born.

Maza-san sat with us and drank a few beers and told us, in Japanese, about his home in Osaka and his trips to Thailand and India. It was the best Japanese lesson of my life. Since beginning to study the language, I’ve noticed that the more I learn, the more I’m able to learn. Not only that, but the more Japanese I learn, the better I am at understanding Spanish. This is obviously not scientific in the least, and possibly not true, but I think studying Japanese is a great workout for my brain and I can learn better now. Or I made all that up and I just wasn’t applying myself enough before.

Either way, at first speaking with Maza-san on the train made me realize how much I missed Japan and how frustrating it was to not speak Thai. But I realized later that I was feeling upset at myself for not studying Thai before the trip. I knew I could learn it if I tried.

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