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Japanese For Dummies

posted 7/24/2010 7:06:24 PM |
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tagged: travel

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to become fluent in Japanese so that I could be an interpreter. So I went on to the Japanese program at Ohio State (Go Buckeyes!) and graduated back in 1988 (oh yeah, I know I'm dating myself!). By that time, I already had a job lined up in Japan. So in August of that year I boarded a plane for Tokyo and set off on the biggest adventure of my life. I had told my workplace not to send anyone down to meet me. That I could make my way from the airport to the train station. That I knew enough Japanese to figure out which bullet train leaving from which platform was the one I had to be on to get to the town of Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture.
I was proud of myself, for the most part, in that I DID make it Sendai, all on my own. I had a few weeks to get used to my new life in this new city (about 700,000 people) in this new country.
Sure, I'd studied Japan during my time at OSU. In fact, culture classes, history classes, conversation classes, reading classes (Japanese people use four types of writing: Kanji are Chinese-style characters that were adapted from China. Hiragana is their basic alphabet, like our ABCs. Katakana is another basic alphabet, but used for things "foreign" like American's names. Lastly they use our ABCs as well! Whew! I get exhausted just thinking about it!), literature classes, history classes were all required in order to graduate. So I liked to think that I had a good handle on understanding the country in which I'd be living for the next two years.
A month after I arrived I began my job. Teaching English. To Japanese college students from the many universities located in Sendai city. Teaching these kids was a blast! And they didn't know it, but THEY were teaching me as well. After class we'd go out to dinner. Some of the kids had a good grasp of English and had no problem communicating. Others, not so much. But we had no difficulty understanding one another!
I found that after a couple of months my ears became more used to listening to and understanding Japanese being spoken at its normal speed. My college classes had not prepared me for this; most of my professors were Japanese, but in a language class everything is S-L-O-W-E-D down so everyone can understand.
I had been around Japanese people before, so I knew a little bit about how fast they could talk. But being completely surrounded and submerged in the language took some getting used to! When you're visiting the country that speaks a language you've studied, you find yourself intent on listening to the conversation. It's going at light speed, so then you think, "Hey, I just heard the word 'Ginkou'! And that means bank!" What you don't realize is that while you were congratulating yourself on picking up the word Ginkou, you've missed the entire rest of the conversation. Someone says to you, "Sou desu nee (isn't that right?) Amy-san?" and I realized I'd totally missed the crux of the conversation. So I did what all people in that situation do. I just nodded my head like I was totally getting it! And the conversation would move on toward its next topic- still zooming at 5,000 miles per hour.
I'd find myself, at the end of the day, flipping on the TV. I believe the word "foreign" was invented just to describe Japanese TV. Mainly the commercials. When seeing a Japanese commercial, you have NO idea what's being advertised, until the end of the commercial! And even then, you're left still trying to put two and two together to figure out how that commercial advertised what the execs meant it to. One of my favorite Japanese commercials involved this husband-wife comedy team. They are in an elevator in some Tokyo Skyscraper, not speaking to anyone and keeping their eyes demurely downcast. Then the elevator doors open. When they step out, they are dressed in traditional Japanese Kimono, the woman holding a fan and the guy holding a sword. The bolt out of the elevator, come running at the camera, her swinging her fan and he his sword, and then they scream, "Hikkoshi wa, hikkoshi wa, Sakai desu!" (Translated, "Moving is, moving is Sakai!) The commercial cracked me up. But I, for the life of me, could never figure out how that turned into selling a moving company. But hey, whatever works, right?
I guess I'd been in Sendai about a year when I got the great news that my best friend from high school was coming over to visit me, along with my parents. At the same time, I got a call from an American friend of mine who was teaching English over in Korea. She and her sister were going to come over on the ferry and could I meet them and show them around?
So we hop the bullet train and head down to Shimonoseki city, to meet my friends at the ferry. We all hook up and all the "foreingers" decide they want to see Nara and Kyoto, two of Japan's oldest "capital" cities.
We hop the Shinkansen (Bullet train) and head to Kyoto. We spend a day and a half looking at all the sights and trying the food (food is different in every area you visit in Japan, by the way- each area famous for its own brand of "taste").
While getting to Kyoto had been a piece of cake, getting to Nara was going to be a bit trickier because it didn't involve the Shinkansen. It involved the Donko (regular train), which is a bit more complicated. Complicated in that you have to be able to read a Japanese train schedule and be able to read where you need to alight...
We get to the Kyoto train station and I figure out which platform the trains leaving to Nara use, and we head over that way. Once there I wasn't sure exactly which platform we should go to, and luckily for me there was a train sitting right there with people on it, so I told my friends to stay put on the platform and I hopped on the train to ask where it was going. The people on the train were very friendly and helpful. They gave me several suggestions of what to see while in Nara, as well. Unfortunately, it was during our sightseeing discussion that I heard a woosh and saw the train's automatic doors closing. And then the train took off! OMG- My friends who speak zero Japanese are left standing there, dumbfounded, as I mouth at them thru the window, "Stay there!"
The people on the train figured out immediately what had happened, and called the conductor. After lots of frantic Japanese consulation, he went up to the front of the train and radioed the boss at the platform about what happened. The boss would put my friends on the correct train to Nara.
The conductor came back and told me, "Ma'am, this train will make a stop three stations from now, and you are to get off the train and get on the one stopped at the next platform over." Sure enough, my train pulled into the station and stopped. Funny, I was the only one getting off. But I was so excited to see that my friends had made it from Kyoto, I didn't think about it until later that evening. Basically, little old me had

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Jul 24 @ 7:08PM  
singlehandedly STOPPED two trains on the Japanese national railway. The reason no one got off my train or off my friend's train is because the trains weren't supposed to stop there!
But that's how the Japanese people are. Anxious to make a good impression. Want to help tourists visiting their country. Even ones who studied Japanese but were too dumb to ask, "What time does this train leave the platform?"!!!!!

Jul 24 @ 7:39PM  
Powerful girl! The Japanese are so incredibly polite.. the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from them.

Jul 25 @ 7:52AM  
damn girl I bet you can type under water

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Japanese For Dummies