Language Barrier

Chaos in Print

Now that I’ve been in Japan for two and a half months, one of the most common questions I’m being asked is, “So, do you speak any Japanese yet?” When L first heard my answer, she could do nothing but emit a horrified gasp. When I ran into one of my trainers, and he heard my answer, he was stunned and said, “And you say it with such pride.” That answer, my friends, is a very simple, “No.” I’ve been here two and a half months, and I have barely mastered “hai,” which is Japanese for “yes.” I have still barely understood how to say hello. It’s not “Konichiwa.” “Konichiwa” quite literally is “Good afternoon,” and there are different greetings for different parts of the day and whether it’s the first time you’ve seen that person that day and so on and such forth. So, when I head out into public, I find that I’m doing what most of the recent immigrants who couldn’t speak English at Extra Evil would do: just smile and nod.

Of course, what really puzzles people is when they find out that, right now, I really have no strong desire to learn. One of my coworkers, the Wisconsin Horn Dog, was taken aback, and he said, “But you’ve got that math degree and all that! Surely learning Japanese is another analytical problem for your mind to solve.” Well, let me tell you something. If I were still interested in solving analytical problems for a living, I’d be hunched over a lab table somewhere hammering out a unified field theorem, OK? As much as I have the skills, the desire to tackle new problems has long been extinguished by spending one too many sunny days hunched over a lab table. Maybe, someday, I’ll go back, but c’mon on, it’s a beautiful day outside!

But, right now, they speak Japanese outside. That’s where L came in with her reason as to why I should learn Japanese. “Once you learn it, you won’t feel like such an outsider anymore,” she told me. And she’s speaking from experience here. She’s been here for nine months, now, learning the Japanese the whole time, and now she feels confident in her language skills to be striking up conversations with random strangers. Well, that might be good for her, but I’ve never been the “striking up conversations with random strangers” type. You have to understand that I’ve felt like an outsider most of my life. In high school, I was the geek, left alone to have lunch by myself. At family gatherings, as the rest of the cousins get around and start drinking and talking about who has the hotter girlfriend, I’d just sit by myself and watch. Hell, three quarters of the time, when I’m hanging out with my closest friends, I feel like an outsider. I don’t know why the simple fact that I’m now living in another country should give me the desire to do something about it.

And there eventually reaches the point where I’m proud of being an outsider. Yes, I did feel a certain bit of pride when I told that trainer, “No, I’m not learning Japanese.” I love seeing the look of shock in people’s eyes when I give, not the wrong answer, but the unexpected answer. Three quarters of the people in training said that one of their big goals in Japan is to learn Japanese, so eventually becomes the expectation that everyone wants to learn Japanese. I enjoy the look of shock. It makes me proud to buck the trends. “Yes, I don’t drink!” “Yes, I thought Spider-Man was better than Episode II!” “Yes, I’m not learning Japanese!” I’m an original, baby.

And let’s not forget the political reasons for not learning Japanese. Language education is a big business here in Japan. I might even go so far as to say it’s a racket. There are countless TV ads for English schools and other language schools. I’m just not a big fan of private education in general. These are institutions that have bigger concerns with how much money they can make rather than the quality of their education. I would much rather keep my money in my pocket rather than turn it over to another faceless corporation, thank you very much. True, I work for one of those faceless corporations right now, but this about keeping my money, not how I make it. So, yeah. Go to hell, big business!

So, let’s see. We’ve got the lack of desire, acceptance of being an outsider, flaunting my originality, and thumbing my nose at big business. I believe this is what psychologists call “overcompensation.” Some of these reasons are true, some are made up, but the fact of the matter is the lack of desire is the strongest and truest one.

As I was making my preparations, and following all of the company’s advice to avoid language barriers, L said that the language barrier isn’t much of a problem. And, for the most part, L has been right. I haven’t run into any real language barrier problems as of yet. When I go to McDonald’s to eat, I can just simply point at the picture on the menu. I haven’t really needed a haircut yet, so there has been no problem there, and my suits haven’t really become soiled enough to require a dry cleaner. I’m doing fine right now without needing to know the language.

You know, it all goes back to what an anonymous caller to my radio show told me one time. If you’ve got a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly, then you’ve really got nothing to complain about. Roof: check. Clothes: check. Food: check. Sadly, learning the language isn’t much of necessity right now, and I try to be a practical guy.

Of course, a time will come when just meeting the essentials won’t be enough. There is more to life than mere survival. There will come a point when just pointing at the picture of a Big Mac isn’t enough. I’ll want to say, “Big Mac, please,” in Japanese. I’ll need a haircut, and my suits will start to reek. It’s inevitable. If I’m here long enough, I’ll eventually want to communicate with people. I’ll need to communicate with people. But as for the here and now, it’s not required. You might think that an attitude like that is small-minded and that I’m not looking at the big picture, but right now, the big picture isn’t practical.

So, do I speak any Japanese? No.

Will I need to learn Japanese eventually? (You can’t see me right now, but I’m smiling and nodding.)

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