Language barriers

There is no doubt that Japan is a wonderful, exciting and bewildering place where most of the time you have no idea what’s going on.

This is mostly due to the very challenging language barrier. While this feeling of being disoriented can be great fun, it can also be infinitely frustrating….

Good luck with this menu if you can't read Japanese... I can read it now, but it sure took me a long time to get to this point

During the year that I lived in Tokyo, I did my best to try to learn Japanese, both spoken and written, because when you arrive you are essentially illiterate. You have to start from absolute scratch, like a baby, learning the alphabets and pronunciation. It is both humbling and empowering to be vulnerable and have to figure things out for yourself. In most countries in Asia, English is prevalent and travelling and living is quite easy. Not so in Japan.

I remember once being reduced to tears — real tears! — trying to get home on a bus one night. It was late, I had never taken this bus before, and I couldn’t read the schedule properly as it was all in Japanese and I don’t know enough kanji. I kept waiting and waiting for my bus to come and it never did.  After almost half an hour I mustered up the courage to go into the nearby 7-11 and speak to the cashier to ask her about the bus. I mostly understood what she told me, but I wasn’t entirely sure. By then it was almost midnight, I was freezing my butt off in the darkness, and I didn’t know what to do.  I stood there on the sidewalk, filled with a feeling of absolute hopelessness, incompetance, and vulnerability. Finally I just jumped in a taxi and paid a small fortune to get home, feeling ashamed and embarassed. Not one of my finer moments.

However, for every small defeat, there is usually a small victory. If you learn from your mistakes, you have fewer and fewer feelings of being incompetant. I did eventually figure out the bus system, and learn how to talk to the bus driver to get directions. Eventually I could have small conversations. Once in a really rural town I had a long chat in the onsen (hot springs) with two ladies who asked me ots of questions. My Japanese is still pretty poor, but hey, everything takes time.

I suppose we in the English speaking world have it easy. Everyone speaks English all over the world. In places like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, even Thailand to an extent, you don’t need to speak the local language. As a foreigner in Japan, it’s sink or swim. This must be how new immigrants and refugees feel when they land in foreign soil and have no one to help them. At least in Japan the locals know that you are illiterate and helpless, and therefore go out of their way to help you. I get by with a little help from my Japanese friends.

Anyways, language barriers aside, it is always great to be back in Tokyo for a visit and having to brush off the cobwebs in my brain. And perhaps stepping out, way out, of your comfort zone now and then is a good thing. But, I’ll try during this trip to not get too overwhelmed by the bus system! As they say in Japanese, ganbatte! Good luck!

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