Bursting the Bubble

23 Aug

So. Heh. I may have talked pretty tough a few days back, saying I’d be learning Japanese in no time. Heh.

As anyone who studied abroad or participated in organized travel knows, there is a Bubble. The American Bubble, or the Western Bubble, or what have you. You spend all of your time with fellow Westerners, rather than people from the country you are visiting. You take no risks, because the program has organized everything for you. Your chances to speak the language and your exposure to the culture are minimized.

This is good and bad. Good because no one gets lost, important tasks are accomplished, and disaster is generally averted. Bad because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not travel. You’re not traveling unless you’re getting lost, confused, and surprised. 

Here in Chikugo, I live in a kyoshokuin jutaku (teachers’ housing) inhabited by three Japanese people and nine Westerners. I have not met either of the Japanese families. I have spent most of my evenings and weekends with my eight fellow JET participants, and other JETs placed nearby. At least one person who speaks English and better Japanese than I do has always been around to speak to store clerks, interpret train station signs, give directions, and guide me in general. Even at school, there are English teachers who help me get by and many others who can eke out a few words in English to allow us to communicate.

Now, this is all awesome, because, you know, disaster has been averted. But it’s kept me from really understanding just how little Japanese I know (i.e. none).

Yesterday, I went to an electronics store to sign up for a cell phone by myself. I had already been there once with Nakano-san and her daughter, and thanks to their interpreting I already knew what I wanted. I figured that with some pointing and gesturing, a few Japanese words on my end and a few English words on theirs, I could sign up for a cell phone plan with the salespeople.

Yeah, right. I approached a saleswoman and there could have been a brick wall between us. I spat out the pitiful Japanese I could muster, “IPhone. Buy. Me,” while they responded in short and simple but completely incomprehensible Japanese phrases. Nobody there spoke English so I tried to muddle through, tried pointing at the plan I wanted, tried listening really really carefully to what they were saying, but to no avail.

Maybe if I’d kept pushing, soldiered on and tried harder, we would have managed something. Maybe I should have brought a dictionary…. In any case, I gave up after ten minutes or so. “My friend understands Japanese. Tomorrow, we come,” I said, then scurried away bowing.

That night I went to a different store with a friend who is fluent in Japanese, and got my cell phone. I hardly opened my mouth during the two-hour process.

Guess what? I know zero Japanese. Thank god I have the Bubble to fall back on, because who knows where I’d be without all these people helping me. Cell phone? Internet? Getting to work every morning? I can’t imagine how I’d manage it. It may be the easy way out, but for now, I’ll take it.

That said, if I really want to experience Japan, to understand and enjoy the culture, I’d better get cracking on my Japanese. It’s going to take a little longer than I’d thought. 😉


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