How Me Being Bad at Japanese is Ruining Everything

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?”

Kawana-sensei: “もしもし、メーガン先生.”

(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.

Another pause.


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.


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.)

Does this have roe or tuna filling? HELL IF I KNOW!

Does this have roe or tuna filling? HELL IF I KNOW!

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?

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6 Responses to How Me Being Bad at Japanese is Ruining Everything

  1. ebunnybee says:

    Ok, firstly, the phone thing with your school is a very normal occurrence for ALTs. It happens to me as well. When your Japanese teachers get used to you they tend to forget what your Japanese level is, leading them to either think it’s better or worse than it actually is. This Kamada-sensei should have hung up the phone and spoke to you in detail about what he wanted, then called back. That would’ve been the more polite thing to do instead of handing the phone over and putting you on the spot like that, but of course, I’m sure she didn’t think about that at all. Don’t beat yourself up. If you weren’t on the spot and under pressure than you would’ve done considerably better, even if it was a couple of words or something.

    Secondly, about not having a chance to speak Japanese with young people in the Boso; I hear ya. I’ve been living here for two years so I know, believe me. I also know very well that you can survive without speaking Japanese most of the time.

    This is what I do: I MAKE opportunities to speak Japanese. For example, going out to eat, going shopping, being out and about in Tateyama; I try to speak as much as possible to force myself to practice. When ordering at the restaurant I will read the entire name out of the dish I want. If I can’t read it, I’ll ask the waiter/ waitress how to read it. If I’m shopping and I need something, I ask, immediately, even if I don’t know how to really say it, use whatever words I do know and gestures so the store clerk will eventually get it and tell me it in Japanese, then I remember it for next time. Whatever small opportunities I have while out and around I’ll take advantage of it.

    At school you’re expected to speak only Japanese… during classes, and to the students (maybe also your JTEs). There is an entire school full of Japanese people that most likely don’t speak English let alone give a crap about English. Maybe they seem unfriendly and unapproachable, but as you stated earlier, most likely they are just as afraid of you as you are of them. I know it’s FREAKIN SCARY and it took me MONTHS to get up the courage but TALK TO THE OTHER TEACHERS. Even if it’s one word, one sentence. (今日寒いですね。)That can sometimes be enough to start a conversation and break the ice with Japanese people. They friggin love talking about the weather. Little by little, everyday, challenge yourself to approach one teacher and start a conversation, or maybe a teacher sitting near you in the office. Usually the tea ladies at the junior high schools here are friendly and aren’t as busy as the other teachers, so they can be great for practicing Japanese. School secretaries are sometimes friendly and nice to talk to as well. Anyone at the school, really. Try to make one buddy that you have small talk with, and everyday push to extend the conversation (beyond weather, possibly), and you’ll slowly get better. (And if a teacher seems unfriendly to you, scratch him/her off your list and move on.) This is something that took me a long time to do because in foreign languages I’m shy, so don’t rush this one, but I highly recommend it.


    I know self study sucks, but get a study partner. Ask around!

    And yeah, there aren’t many people our age around here, but there ARE SOME; IN TATEYAMA. They’re around, hiding or whatever, but they are here. I know some people, I’m not best friends with them, but I can introduce you to them. There’s a big Valentines concert by some local bands in Tateyama that you should definitely come to! ALL YOUNG PEOPLE *cue Anime twinkling eyes*

    I also know someone who’d be perfect for you, I think. She’s just moved to the Boso, under 35 (maybe under 30), and is really interested in meeting foreigners. She’s super enthusiastic about English and wants to practice but I’m sure you guys should work something out, like, one day hang out and speak only Japanese, then the next time only English. It’s also a good opportunity to make a Japanese friend. I remember you asking me how I “got” Japanese parents. This is kind of like that, haha.

    Anyways, do not give up and don’t be so hard on yourself. We’re all going through similar if not the same things here in the inaka, too. Brush off today and start tomorrow fresh, matter fact, do that everyday. It’ll make your experience here a lot better.

    Oh, and email me if you’re interested in the Valentines party, meeting some Japanese friends in Tateyama, or the girl I described above!


    • Ebony, thank you so much. I felt a little better after ranting a bit, but your comment made me feel even better. I know that probably everyone goes through this at one point, it was just ultra-frustrating today when I discovered that I couldn’t even manage to ask him what he wanted. Like, a “How can I help you?” or something. Also, I feel totally useless to my students. I remember being in middle school and how much it sucked, and I would love to be able to support them.

      As for the Valentine’s Day thing, that sounds AWESOME, but I might have to deal with the stupid Wisconsin thing on Valentine’s Day. >< I have to look more closely at the schedule. I'll be so mad if I have to do something on Valentine's night…

      Well, everything you said sounds awesome. Hook a sister up.

  2. Kim says:

    SO many things to say!

    The phone thing: HAHAHA Kamada-sensei (and Kyoto sensei) did this ALL OF THE TIME to me!!!!! On one hand I felt too dumb to say that I had no idea what to say, but on the other hand,
    Awkward silences and random set phrases… terrible. Try to get a print out from a textbook that shows the normal set phrases to answer and hang up the phone and those alone will help. The rest of it is just a lot of “hai, hai , hai, sou desu”
    But don’t worry.. I was supposed to have a respectable level of Japanese and I still got about 90% of what I thought I heard them say totally WRONG!
    Also, Mr. Kawana from the Elementary is totally awkward on the phone… more so than most people, so don’t sweat it.

    The upside is that when you finally get to the stage that you realize your Japanese is awful, that actually means you have improved enough to realize all of the mistakes you are making :D

    Explain to the night class folks that you need help with Japanese I AM NOT KIDDING. Tons of them will offer to help you THEY LOVE IT. Especially Yuki! Force Yuki and Tomomi to hang out with you and teach you Japanese, I guarantee you they will do it (especially if it is karaoke and studying or yummy foods and studying!). Yuki became my karaoke buddy because of that class and she sat through so many nights of me rambling in nonsensical Japanese. Are you friends with her and Tomomi on Facebook? If not you can friend them through mine.

    Also, don’t be afraid to ask the teachers if they know anyone who wants an English/ Japanese convo partner. I know you don’t eat with the teachers (you don’t right?) so you may not have as much time for random chatting, but this summer will be long boring days and you will have chances to ask them things like that.

    And what about Sanae sensei? She is awesome to talk to (I am shy as hell and I LOVED talking to her) and uses such a great mix of Japanese and English that you could definitely pick up a lot from her and she would probably love to ask you more questions.

    About not being able to help the kids due to lack of Japanese I UNDERSTAND! I think that all good JET teachers eventually go through the horrible phase of wanting to help and not being able to do anything about it. I say phase because even if you can’t say it in words, you can communicate it in other ways (hell that is the whole point of teaching them to TRY to speak English even if it is garbled). Whoever wrote the sad journal entry. Maybe you can hand it back to her with a good luck charm, something simple like an eraser or fancy rubber band and say something comforting like “Daijyoubu” or even “I love you.” Although it doesn’t seem like it, simple gestures like that often go a long way further than a long drawn out talk does.

    One of the worst days I had at school I started bleeding (I stabbed by thumb on a thumbtack because I am dumb) and Shione saw it and went “Oh no!” and even though there was 30 seconds before class was going to start, she ran and got me a bandaid. More than any conversations I had, that simple gesture really meant a lot to me and sticks with me even now.

    The student counselor is “SC” on your teacher’s map. She only comes in once a month usually (twice?) I am suddenly blanking on her name, but she is really nice. The thing is that a lot of the ALT’s concerns get brushed away because face it, the teachers know the kids and their situations better than you do. It doesn’t hurt to bring it up, but don’t be surprised if nothing happens. Alas it is the curse of an ALT.

    On not studying. I also fell into that trap. It seemed dumb to study when I got home every night when I spent EVERYDAY speaking Japanese!!! Maybe you can shoot for taking JLPT level 4? Having something to study FOR makes a big difference and I am sure there are other JETs in the area who are planning to take the test?? Are you watching Japanese tv? Watching the news shows and dramas is really helpful. A lot of the news/ variety shows has the Japanese written out on the bottom so it is easy to pick out words and kanji that are used most often.

    Oh and there are lots of free online kanji flashcard things, so those will help a lot for basic stuff.

    Good luck… every thing you are feeling is normal.

    • I don’t know if it’s that my Japanese is good enough that I recognize mistakes… I can’t actually say anything. XD

      Oh man… I’ll have to watch out for their phone tricks. Man, I don’t even know… It was so awkward. XD

      I actually am friends with Tomomi and Yuki. Yuki and I will probably do kyudo together at some point… I just have to wait for a class to open up or something. I have eikaiwa tonight, so I’ll run it by them — being study buddies with me.

      Yeah, I don’t eat with the teachers, I eat with the students. I kinda miss eating with the teachers, but I think it’s better for me to eat with the students. It definitely helped back in October to get them to start speaking to me at all. xD

      Hm… Sanae-sensei doesn’t ring a bell… Who’s that?

      Okay, well, I’ll try to talk to the girl tomorrow about what she wrote. I dunno how well it’ll go, but… I’d rather show her that I’m paying attention than ignore it just because I’m afraid.

      I actually hate Japanese TV. XD I can’t stand watching it. Everything I see is super materialistic and commercialized, and it actually just makes me sick. I have been watching a lot of anime… But with English subtitles. :/ I’m working on it, though. I’m brainstorming study plans.

  3. Kim says:

    Sanae= Hanawa sanae sensei.. your elementary co teacher!

    I hate Japanese tv too (except for dramas which are awesome) but it really really does help to watch the news and the variety shows.

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