By Emily Ellis
Edited by Samantha Martin
The language barrier in Aomori-ken is intimidating. First of all, you can’t get more inaka than Aomori, which means virtually nobody speaks English. Even when I told my Japanese friends that I would be close to Mutsu City, they just laughed and said, “City? That’s still countryside.” Second, the dialects. Tsugaru-ben, Nambu-ben, and the localized versions make me feel like studying Korean might be more useful in understanding the dialects than studying standard Japanese.
But I like to think of the language barrier as a jungle gym, an adventure of sorts. Sometimes I climb up it laughing, having a great time learning the language. And then all of a sudden my hand slips, and I fall face-first into the dirt. Other times I struggle, but when I make it to the top, I feel like I’m on top of the world. This feeling makes learning Japanese worthwhile. I am lucky to have coworkers who try to learn my language, too. Our office is an amalgam of English, Japanese, “Yokohama-ben,” and laughter. I appreciate when they teach me unique words in their localized dialect, and I also love when they try English. It’s embarrassing to speak a language one is not good at (as I have learned many times since getting here), so it means a lot when a coworker tries to speak my language.
The funny stories made on my quest to conquer the language are worth the struggle, as well. For instance, my co-worker bought me a nanohana (canola seed) donut and nanohana soft serve. Usually nanohana is translated as “rape blossom,” which is technically correct but rarely heard back home in the States. He told me the ice cream was rape flavored. “Grape?!” I replied enthusiastically. Grape flavor ice cream sounded intriguing. “No, not grape…rape?” Realizing what he said I started giggling nervously like an immature schoolgirl, although really it was just out of discomfort. Rape ice cream sounded…unappetizing (It is actually delicious). My coworker blushed and said, “Is my English bad?” I felt so awful. “Not at all! I’m sorry. In English that also means a very bad word.” There was an awkward pause before we both started laughing nervously. While it gives me no pleasure that my coworker was embarrassed, the experience made for an excellent story.
His embarrassment was a good reminder, too. It reminded me that misspeaking when trying out my Japanese really isn’t so embarrassing. It also reminded me of the importance of patience and empathy when teaching English to Japanese students. It is inevitable for them to fail at some point in speaking English and for me in speaking Japanese. Sometimes it will be such an epic fail that I will say something like, “masturbating speech” instead of “spontaneous speech” (which I almost did, no thanks to Google translate.) But in those cases, I try to think of the experience as another one of the great stories I will make on my way to the top of that jungle gym. I’ll keep trying, keep climbing, and even when I fall it’ll be so worth it.
Do you have any crazy, interesting, or just plain funny stories from your time in Japan? Send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org!