The content of each post is solely written by that contributor and only expresses the contributor's personal views. Each post does not represent the views of all the contributors or Women of Color Living Abroad as an organization. Each contributor is speaking from their own person experiences and/or perspective.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Joys and Challenges of Learning Japanese

by Stephanie McCreary

Soon after I arrived in Fujisawa, Japan, I took a walk to familiarize myself with my new surroundings and happened upon Tully’s Coffee. I popped in and as I stood in line, I mentally scrolled through my newly acquired list of words and phrases that I could say to the cashier to communicate what I wanted. Hello? No, I didn’t want to be the dumb American who expects everyone to speak English. Arigato?  No, that means thank you in Japanese and would finish the interaction. Konnichi-wa? Yes, that's a good start, the Japanese greeting for hello. But when the person in front of me walked away and my turn to order came up, all I could muster was a polite smile. I had only recently arrived and I didn’t want to sound foolish, so I handed my chocolate chunk cookie to the girl behind the register, gave her 170 yen, spotted a table and quickly sat down.

 I had called Oman home for a year and a half before reaching the Land of the Rising Sun. There, highway signage is written in both English and Arabic, and I could easily navigate my way through the supermarket because every aisle was labeled in the two languages. The locals could speak solid basic English, and many English speaking Indian expatriates lived there. Although Japan is a modern country offering the best in information technology and highly efficient public transit systems, English education in the country has been designed so that students finish secondary school not with proficiency in conversational English, but only as perfect English grammarians.

While munching on my cookie, I remembered that my program coordinator had mentioned that a free Japanese class for foreigners was being offered on Sundays from 10am to noon starting in early May. I was a little reluctant to do it because of the weekend time slot, but then thought about how verbally handicapped I felt once I stepped out of the ESL bubble of work and friends. I decided it would be a good opportunity to begin to break down the language barrier and to use my brain in a different way.

On the second Sunday in May, I went with my two colleagues to the first Japanese language class for Foreigners at the Fujisawa Youth Center. When we arrived, the woman at the front desk handed us cards and told us to write our names, addresses, and phone numbers on them. She spoke to us in Japanese and even though I could figure out what she wanted, I felt a bit bewildered and intimidated by the fact that I was going to be forced to listen to nothing but Japanese for the next two hours. I knew then what my Japanese student counterparts must feel like everyday in my class. After filling out our cards we were taken to a table inside a big room cushioned with white mats where we were asked questions in Japanese to test our level.

"Where are you from?" The assistant teacher asked the question slowly, and my friend helped me with the translation, as he had studied a bit of the language before he arrived. I could feel my brain trying to slowly absorb and retain the words. At the end of our evaluation, we were put in the beginner group.

Our class consisted of myself, my two colleagues William and Don, a nine-year old girl from China, a young man in his 20s from Vietnam, and an El Salvadoran-Canadian from Toronto.  Our teachers helped us write our names in the Katakana script, which, along with Hiragana and Kanji, make up the three systems of writing in Japanese. They made me write, write, and write it again until I arrived at some semblance of correctness. It took a great deal of focus and concentration to write the characters, which were like little pictures.  When we finished, we went around the circle and said our names.
“Watashi wa Stephanie desu,” I said haltingly.

We drew pictures of our country flags, and then Mizuki, our pert teacher with a shiny pixie hair cut wrote the words Watashi no kuni wa on the whiteboard. She sat down on the mat, held up her paper, pointed to the flag of Japan she had drawn and said,  "Watashi no kuni wa Nihon desu." She looked at William, my colleague, and asked "Okuni wa?" He replied, “Watashi no kuni wa Ingurando desu."
When my turn came around I said, "Watashi no kuni wa Amrika desu,” gradually getting a feel for the rhythm of the language.


In the following weeks I learned more practical Japanese, including words for different hobbies and activities: televi for television, ryori for cooking, ryoko for traveling, and jova for horseback riding. We reviewed the basics, and added new phrases. I learned to say Watashi no, shigoto wa, eigo no sensei desu or, I am an English teacher. My birthday is December 2nd, or Watashi no tanjyoubi wa junni gatsu futsuka.  During the last class our teachers set up various shop scenarios in which one class member played the cashier and another the customer. When that class concluded I popped into Doutor’s Coffee in downtown Fujisawa and when my turn came up to order I boldly stood in front of the cashier and said “Café au lait arimasu ka?” Do you have café au lait? I waited for my order, and after receiving it, turned gracefully around and sat down, feeling very pleased with myself.