I wrote this entry in a fit of rage. It may be mostly incoherent.
I can’t even hold a simple conversation
I’m so pissed off right now, I can barely type. This is bad.
Today, Kawana-sensei from Tomiura Elementary School called my middle school to speak to Kamada-sensei about the Wisconsin students that are coming next week.
Apparently, he forgot that the Wisconsin students were coming and that they are going to make a visit to the elementary school! So he forgot to make an activity for them to do. Kamada-sensei was on the phone with him for a while, and then she called to me and told me what was going on. She asked if I could think of a game for him, and I was like, “…What?”
Uhhh details please. xD How many people are we talking about here? The whole elementary school? Just one class? Which class? How long are we going to be there? Why do I know nothing about this, too? Jesus…
So somehow they thought that I should just talk to Kawana-sensei directly, to give him ideas.
Kamada-sensei: “Is it okay? Can you talk to him now?”
Me: “Uhhh…. what? Sure?”
So she handed me the phone and I said, “Er… hello?”
(I’m leaving the Japanese there, because if you don’t read Japanese–you know how you feel right now? Confused? Asking yourself what the hell that says? Frantically trying to look it up in a dictionary before you have to read the next line? Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel ALL THE TIME.)
Me: “Uhhh… もしもし.”
A pause, while I wait for him to ask whatever he wants to ask. He doesn’t say anything. Finally, he says もしもし again, and I say “Yes,” meaning that I’m still there.
WTF I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO ASK WHAT HE WANTS.
Finally, we just kind of laugh uncomfortably, and Kamada-sensei comes to my rescue and takes the phone from me. I guess they sort of resolved the problem. Maybe. I don’t speak Japanese.
Let me make something clear: I’m not mad at her. It’s possible that she forgot who I was for a moment–maybe I suddenly became Kim in her mind, so my Japanese must be fine. That’s completely understandable.
No, I’m fucking pissed at myself.
Really? Really, El? You can’t even ask what he wants? Isn’t that something you should probably know?
That’s fucking pathetic.
Going out in public
You may be thinking, “Sure you can speak Japanese! You go to restaurants and the gym and Tokyo and you do it all by your lonesome!”
1) I only go to restaurants with people who speak Japanese, and mostly I just point at the menu and say お願いします. (That means “please.”)
2) Yeah, the gym, where I never talk to anyone except to say “Good evening.” Everyone and their mom knows “Good evening” in Japanese. (Well, maybe, but anyway, it’s as easy as “hello.”) As for getting a membership in the first place, I had Kim explain it to me, and then when I went to sign up, I pointed at pieces of paper and said “Yes” over and over again.
3) You know what it takes to get to Tokyo? Literally these sentences:
“I want to go to Tokyo.”
“I want a bus ticket.”
“I don’t understand.”
I learned those phrases in high school. I should be past that stage now. But nope. That’s all I can say.
Dreams of becoming fluent
Another ALT and I discussed this a while ago. She told me that she had lost any interest in becoming fluent, because she can get by with a lot of things knowing minimal Japanese. I’m finding this to be VERY true. People don’t want to risk talking to a foreigner who might not understand, so much of the time, no one is going to approach you–unless they want to practice their English.
For a long time, I wanted to become fluent in Japanese–or at least have a workable knowledge of it. That’s why I took it in high school and studied so hard, and that’s why I went back to it in college.
I lost a lot of my Japanese when I didn’t take it for four years, between high school and my last year of college. I feel like since I’ve graduated, thus finishing my college Japanese courses, I’ve lost all of it all over again.
AND I’VE BEEN LIVING IN JAPAN PRACTICALLY SINCE I GRADUATED.
Why? Well, because to be honest, I don’t use it that much. It’s true, you can really get by with knowing little or no Japanese. I’m lucky I read any Japanese at all–sometimes, I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to read hiragana (the most basic writing system). Regardless, you start getting used to what certain “symbols” mean. (Although for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what the hell it says on the onigiri wrappers, and I eat tons of those.)
So yeah–I just really don’t use Japanese much! Between being at work (where I’m only supposed to speak English anyway) and sitting at home trying to get my life in order, I’m not speaking Japanese on a regular basis at all.
The trap of a foreigners community
So why not? There are Japanese people all over the place–plenty of people to talk to! I even chose to be placed in a rural area because I heard that your Japanese gets better, just because people in rural areas tend to know less English than people in cities (like Tokyo, which seems to be mostly foreigners anyway). So you’re forced to use it to talk to them!
Unfortunately, I’ve fallen into a trap that many foreigners fall into, no matter what country they’re from. As an American, I’m very familiar with this phenomenon–and I’m sure you are, too.
Here’s the trap: Foreigners tend to build communities with people who speak their language or share their culture. Mostly, I think this happens because being in a foreign country is scary, so you grab onto anything familiar, just to feel more comfortable.
This is why in America, we get places like Little Tokyo, Little Korea Town, Chinatown, and some not-as-cutely-named Hispanic communities.
Recently, a friend of mine complained about some non-English speakers in America who refused to speak to her because she didn’t speak THEIR language. That’s kind of bull shit, but you have to understand–like snakes or bears, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. You are a native English speaker; you have the upper hand You could force them to babysit your kids, and they’d be doing it before they even knew what they agreed to do.
Anyway, those people my friend complained about are a result of these foreigner communities.
I mostly interact with English-speaking people–mainly, other ALTs. Whenever I do something social, you can bet other ALTs are there.
And I don’t actively seek out the company of Japanese-speakers, because to be honest, there aren’t a lot of people to hang out with here.
Making Japanese friends and why it’s so hard
Because I live in a rural area, and you know how many people live here that between the ages of 20 and 40?
Not. That. Many.
Around here, there are only grade school students and retired people. I have no one my own age that isn’t a foreigner to talk to.
Or they’re hiding. They’ve gotta be around here somewhere. XD I thought I saw some when I went bowling with my school’s staff last weekend, but it’s really hard to tell the age of Japanese people, so they could have been high schoolers. And now I’m just a creeper.
I’ve heard that some rurals places, like Minamiboso have a high ALT turnover for this reason–there’s no one around to make friends with.
So there are no young people to meet, and in a small town, there’s really no place to meet them.
So what do we do to socialize?
Hang out with each other.
And thus, we get little foreigner communities. (Which is fine, but just silly and not productive at all for grassroots internationalization.)
What about studying Japanese?
I suck at studying. That has always been true. It’s why I chose to study Literature–you don’t need to study for a Literature test! What test? We have essays! You just read the book! It’s not hard. (Hahaha, I’ve just delegitimized my own major. It’s not actually that easy.)
I’m good at taking tests, though. For all the tests I’ve ever taken, I’ve barely studied. Or maybe I have studied, and I didn’t realize I was doing it? Regardless, test-taking is a specific skill, and it doesn’t actually require you to know any of the material (to an extent; I wouldn’t be able to take an astrophysics test without some prior preparation, such as going to class).
Over the last six months, I’ve tried to study. Unfortunately, my study methods aren’t working. I’ve been using the JET Japanese course books–which suck–and I’ve been seeing a tutor.
The JET books suck (repeated for emphasis), and the tutor is great, but I think we’re working on things that are WAY above my level. None of it is sticking at all, and I end up getting stuck because I don’t understand basic parts of the example sentences. So while I’m supposed to be learning a new grammar point, I get stuck on something else in the grammar point explanation. We could go down a level, but in the lower level book we were using before, there was no kanji (Chinese characters) so I couldn’t read it at all. It was just long strings of hiragana, and I like kanji because they break up the hiragana so that it becomes words instead of just hiraganahiraganahiraganahiraganadesu.
I’m actually going to quit with the tutor after February–for several reasons, one being I can’t really afford her anymore. I’m also going to try to study on my own instead. I need to actually build a study program for myself. I’ve been just waiting until her weekly lessons to study, and that’s a bad habit.
But I’ve already addressed the real problem–it’s not sticking, because I never use it. I really NEVER use it. I really just need someone to practice speaking with–someone who will hold me in check and not let me use English at all.
But the only Japanese people I do hang out with are in my adult English class, so they just want to practice English all the time. :/ And since that’s my job, I have to speak English with them.
What this means for you, English speakers in America,
and for the foreigners around you
Be fucking nice to people who don’t speak English. They are probably trying their goddamn hardest to speak whatever little English they know and to understand you. They are also just really scared to be in a new place, so they seek out what makes them comfortable while they’re just trying to survive in a strange place.
The most frustrating thing about sucking at Japanese
I can’t help my students.
I’ve kind of addressed this problem before, mostly about bullying, but only briefly. Some students get bullied a lot, but I don’t know enough Japanese to tell exactly when it’s happening or what I would even say to stop it–and if I did say something to stop it, what is the correct thing to say in each instance? What would be considered an overreaction? What if I misunderstand and the student isn’t actually being bullied?
I’d like to be able to protect them, but I… I just suck.
The other day, one of my students wrote this in her diary:
“I was not good today. But I don’t know why I am not fine. I want to [sic] someone’s help.”
I almost cried when I read that. What do I even do? I want to talk to her–but how? I can ask her if she’s okay, but of course she’s going to tell me yes, because I don’t speak Japanese, so even if she went into detail, I wouldn’t understand, and she probably doesn’t trust me enough to tell me anyway because I’ve developed absolutely no rapport with her class–
DD: But she clearly needs help. In her next entry, she wrote: “I worry about my future.”
Kim (CIR) says that I should tell the counselor, or at least tell the girl to talk to the counselor, but I don’t even know who the counselor is. Or even how to say “counselor.” Oh dear…
Regardless of all this frustration, I can’t give up…
I just need a new strategy for learning Japanese. I need to start using it more. The only trouble is, where can I use it and with whom?
I feel really lame. I was so mad at myself when I got home today. I was just cursing and trying not to scream. I can’t even hold a simple conversation, much less help someone who clearly asked me for it. Why else would she write that in an English diary that only the ALT reads?