Posts Tagged language barrier

August 21, 2010 – Wedding day part 1 – Confusing breakfast

This morning, the day of my wedding, I suddenly woke up at 6:30 am with a panicked thought: “what are my in-laws doing about breakfast?”.

This is unusual for two reasons: I don’t usually wake up before 7, and I rarely consider the breakfast choices of my in-laws. However, somewhere in my subconscious my brain realized that The Penpal’s parents (who don’t speak any English) had moved from a hotel with a breakfast buffet to a hotel where you needed to order breakfast from an English only menu.

I woke up The Penpal and she tried unsuccessfully to call her parents’ hotel room while I got dressed. I knew that my in-laws were early risers, so I assumed they would be trying to eat soon. Since we couldn’t get a hold of them on the phone, I decided to go to the hotel.

I rushed out to the car trying to wake up the Japanese speaking part of my brain when I noticed that I was unable to open the driver’s side door with my key. Waking up early without coffee, it took me a minute to notice that the lock had been damaged by an unsuccessful break-in attempt. I added “police report” to my already brimming mental to-do list and went in through the passenger door.

I got to the hotel, parked, and went directly to the restaurant. I told the hostess at the door that I was looking for my in-laws. She said that there was nobody in the restaurant other than an older, Chinese looking couple. Since “Chinese” is the default guess in Canada for any Asian looking people, I correctly claimed them as my family and was shown to the table.

In the entire time I have known him, The Penpal’s father has never looked happier to see me. They had wandered into the restaurant expecting to see a buffet and were given menus instead. After an awkward conversation between themselves and the waitress, they had managed to place an order for bacon, eggs, and tea. The food arrived as they were explaining their side of the story.

Does everyone’s wedding day start of like this, or is it just me?

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June 2006 – What’s the Japanese word for “pink eye”

Not sure the exact date this happened, but I’m pretty sure it was mid 2006.

Due to the lifestyle of an English teacher, I’m used to having red eyes that are sensitive to light. However in late June my eyes started bothering me in a way that I couldn’t attribute to hangovers. Regular eye drops didn’t seem to help, and I eventually started to realize that I had pink eye aka conjunctivitis.

I haven’t had pink eye since I was a kid. At the time, almost all of the kids I knew had it, and I remember fighting my parents over the use of painful eye drops to fix the problem. Now, as an adult, I had to seek out the painful eye drops and buy them in a language that I was still learning.

I used my English / Japanese dictionary to look up the word for conjunctivitis, and then confirmed with the Japanese staff at work that I had the right word. When it comes to taking medicine, it’s very important to make sure you get the translation right! The staff, at a safe distance, confirmed that the word I needed was 結膜炎, which is read as ketsumakuen.

After work I rode my bike to Seiyu and started looking around the pharmacy section. I found a section with eye drops and contact lens solution, and then started slowly scanning the packages for the the characters 結膜炎. This is not an easy process, especially with irritated eyes. After a few minutes of looking I decided to suck it up and ask for assistance.

There was a clerk nearby, so I told him in Japanese something along the lines of “excuse me, I have pink eye. I would like to buy medicine.” He showed me that there were three different products not far from where I had been looking. I asked him which one was the best, and he pointed out one of them as being popular because it was the easiest to use. I thanked him, made my purchase, and headed home.

Inside the box were a whole row of small disposable plastic vials, each containing one dose of medicine. I was happy that I didn’t have to try to read the dosage instructions in Japanese, but I did question the wisdom of disposable packaging in a country where it is notoriously hard to dispose of garbage. The eye drops stung like crazy, but my pink eye was gone within a few days.

Taking care of your health in a country where you don’t speak the language can be scary. There are a few good English language help lines for gaijins, but it never hurts to have some local contacts to ask too. Stay healthy friends!

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Memorable students: The Thesaurus (origins)

This is the second in a three part series about one of the most infamous English students in the eastern Shizuoka area; The Thesaurus, who I honestly believe was trying to memorize the entire Oxford dictionary.

During a special topic lesson in the Voice room one evening, I think I accidentally stumbled across the reason for his love of vocabulary: I learned the origins of The Thesaurus.

I was teaching a two period interactive lesson about calling in sick. The first part of the lesson was to introduce words to describe common ailments. I taught the students about flu, headache, sprains, broken bones, and other common topics. When we got to problems with the digestive system, The Thesaurus jumped in with a personal story.

Years earlier, when he was just beginning to learn English, The Thesaurus was on his honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Like many travelers who were exposed to different food, he got the most common of all travel illnesses, diarrhea. He went to a drug store near his hotel and tried to get advice from the pharmacist on what medicine to buy. The Thesaurus didn’t know the exact name of his problem, so he did what every traveler has done: use a combination of small words and gestures to explain himself. The pharmacist misunderstood his pantomime and sold him a laxative instead.

Fortunately for The Thesaurus, he decided to pull out his English – Japanese dictionary before he left the store to confirm what he had purchased (I don’t know why he didn’t do this in the first place). He realized his mistake before making his problem much worse, and left the drug store with the correct medicine.

For the class, this was a valuable story that taught some new words and worked well with the theme of my lesson. For me, this was like getting a flashback style exposition in a superhero movie; I finally understood what started this mild mannered salaryman on his path to becoming a human Thesaurus, obsessed with learning every word that the English language had to offer. Suddenly everything made a lot more sense.

This experience didn’t stop The Thesaurus from being a challenging student, but it did make him more relatable. It also made me extra careful any time I needed to buy medicine in my second language! Remember kids: a dictionary is your friend at the drug store.

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November 2005 – Vivian gets a cell phone

This is a post that didn’t originally appear on my blog in 2005.

Vivian was an English teacher from England who moved to Numazu in October 2005. She was one of those friendly, outgoing people who made every situation more fun and was nearly impossible to dislike.

Having a cell phone (mobile phone for my non North American friends) is critical to daily life in Japan. During new teacher orientation, NOVA had Vodafone sales reps on hand to provide phones to teachers. If the teacher wanted one of the few phones available, the Vodafone team would complete all of the paperwork and have the phones activated and ready to use by the end of the training session. Most teachers (including me) took this option out of convenience. Vivian decided that she didn’t like any of the phones available and decided to test her luck at the cell phone store.

Despite Vivian’s best efforts, the language barrier was simply too much to overcome at the Numazu station phone store. Choosing a phone, a plan, and signing a contract requires a fairly high level of language proficiency, and the store staff didn’t speak English. Vivian explained her difficulty to the other teachers at work and asked for advice.

One of the very cool things about expat culture is that the more experienced people generally do their best to help out new people. When I first moved to Japan, my roommates did their best to show me around and help me with everything from buying lunch to finding a barbershop. I knew that my Japanese wasn’t going to be good enough to help Vivian, but I did have a secret weapon up my sleeve: a Japanese speaking girlfriend. I texted The Penpal and she agreed to help.

Vivian and I met The Penpal after one of Vivian’s early shifts and went to the store all together. Vivian picked out a phone and The Penpal did the rest of the work necessary to get the contract filled out and the phone set up. Vivian was thankful and The Penpal felt good about being able to help.

Being far away from home can be a challenging experience for anyone; you really need to rely on other people to help. It’s rewarding to be able to return the favour for fellow travelers.

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December 29, 2005 – View-O


New Year is the most important family holiday in Japan; it’s similar to a Christmas in Canada or Thanksgiving in the US. Many businesses shut down for the last few days of the year to give their employees time to spend with family. Conversational English schools like NOVA are usually open for every other holiday (because students are available for lessons), but thankfully they give teachers and staff a break and shut down for about a week at the end of the year.

The Penpal had to work today, but her father had the day off and wanted a chance to spend some time with me. The only other time we have spent time together alone was in a very awkward car ride from Numazu station to The Penpal’s piano recital. The Penpal’s father’s English is limited to the basics; yes, no, hello, goodbye. The thought of spending an entire day with him was pretty terrifying. Fortunately my Japanese has improved a lot in the past year or so, but even with that I spent the evening last night studying new words and preparing some emergency conversation topics. This only seems neurotic if you have never faced the thought of spending a day with your girlfriend’s father who can’t speak your language.

The Penpal’s father arranged our day through the Penpal. He was going to pick me up at my apartment and take me to Numazu Port to see a structure called View-O. Like most port areas in Japan, Numazu is susceptible to serious damage in the event of a tsunami. View-O is a man made gate over the entrance to the Numazu port area that automatically closes in the event of an earthquake of a certain strength. The idea is that it will block some or all of a tsunami wave to reduce damage to the port and the boats.

The gate looks like an arch over the port entrance that has a viewing area open to the public. From the top you can get a great view of Senbonhama beach, the Numazu port, Numazu city, and the green mountains of Izu peninsula.

View from View-O

I tried my best not to think about how nervous I was spending time with The Penpal’s father, and to just do my best to be relaxed and enjoy spending some time with him. Fortunately the combination of my improved Japanese abilities, last minute study, and his patience made the time move fairly smoothly. I only had to look in my dictionary twice!

After seeing View-O and taking a lot of pictures, The Penpal’s father told me we were going to pick up his wife from her mother’s house, and then meet The Penpal for dinner. I had successfully made it through the afternoon and I was now in the home stretch and close to having my translator back!

We drove to a part of town I had never been to before and parked in front of a small, older looking house. After a few minutes, a tiny older woman came out of the house and walked up to the car. She looked at me through the window and smiled. I thought this was just another case of an older person seeing their first foreigner, until The Penpal’s father told me I was looking at The Penpal’s 91 year old grandmother. I jumped out of the car, greeted her in Japanese, and gave my best attempt at a polite bow. I really want The Penpal’s family to like me, so I did my best to make a good impression. She kept smiling, which I took as a good sign.

The Penpal’s mother got in the car, and we returned to their house where The Penpal was waiting for me. Even though the day went well, I was very VERY relieved to have my translator available. We went out for dinner and talked about our adventures during the day. I am thankful that her father took the time to get to know me better, and very thankful that things seemed to go well.

(2015 Update) It turns out that I did make a good impression on Grandma, and it ended up helping me out A LOT, which I would find out in a few months.

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September 22, 2005 – Wrong restaurant!

My favourite izakaya chain Ryoba just opened a new location closer to our apartment. My roommates Azeroth and Palmer texted me at work to let me know they were going to check it out in the evening. I invited Super Dave to come with me after work.

Super Dave and I walked for about 15 minutes from Numazu station to find the izakaya. We were in the middle of a conversation about something when we saw the Ryoba sign outside a building with several businesses. Distracted, we walked into the first door we came to. We didn’t see Azeroth or Palmer, but assumed they were running late and took a seat at the nearest table. The waiter came by and we both ordered beer.

Most Ryoba locations have a distinct style – tatami mat floors with low tables and cushions. Super Dave and I noticed that the establishment we were in featured booth seats and yakiniku grills in all of the tables. We both assumed that it was a variation on the theme, and continued talking and drinking our beer.

A few minutes later I got a text message from Azeroth asking where we were. I responded that we were in Ryoba. He said that they had been in Ryoba for about 10 minutes and hadn’t seen us yet. At about this time, the waiter came up with a yakiniku menu and asked if we were ready to order.

I asked the waiter in Japanese if we were in Ryoba. He said that no, Ryoba was next door.


I apologized and asked for the bill for the beer. The waiter laughed when I explained that we walked into the wrong restaurant because we can’t read Japanese well. (We both could read Japanese well enough, but were just not paying attention to the signs!)

As expected, we took a good amount of abuse from Palmer and Azeroth when we finally arrived at Ryoba. This is a valuable lesson in paying attention to what you are doing, especially when you are not using your first language!!

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August 19, 2005 – Planning an emergency trip home

Last night around 1:00am I got a call from my mother with an update on my sister, who had been in the hospital for a few weeks with a mysterious illness.

My sister had been in the hospital for a few weeks now because of difficulty breathing. Despite a battery of tests, doctors were unable to determine what exactly was wrong. Just hours before the phone call, doctors had tried to remove a lump from my sister’s lung to perform a biopsy. During the procedure, one of her lungs partially collapsed. This was a scary experience for everyone involved, and my mom was obviously upset on the phone.

Its a terrible feeling being away from family when they are sick. I felt useless over the past few weeks getting all the updates on her condition. I told my mom that I wanted to come home to see my sister. She called me back a few minutes later and said that she would help me with the cost of a plane ticket home. Fortunately I had been saving up money in hopes of moving out of my NOVA apartment, so I had enough money to pay for a plane ticket without having to wait for money transfers.

I got a few hours of sleep, and then called the NOVA head office to explain the situation. I occasionally complain about the actual job of teaching English, but the support that the head office provides to teachers is fantastic! The staff told me that they would take care of my schedule for the next few weeks, and that if I needed more time to simply call them from Canada. They cancelled my request to move out of my NOVA apartment, told me where I could get a re-entry stamp for my work visa, and offered to help with the plane ticket if I needed it. Thank you NOVA for being so cool.

After I got off the phone with NOVA, I headed out for the nearest immigration office, which is located in Shizuoka City. It took me nearly an hour on Tokaido line to get to Shizuoka from Numazu. I easily found the immigration office, bought my stamp, and was headed back to Numazu within 30 minutes of arriving.

The next order of business was to buy a plane ticket. I wasn’t terribly confident about buying an open return ticket online, so I planned to go to the HIS travel agent office near my school in Numazu. For the whole train ride back to Numazu I had my dictionary and phrasebook out, practicing how to buy a plane ticket in Japanese. The last time I went home, The Penpal bought my ticket for me in Japanese. I have lots of experience buying train tickets in Japanese, but have never attempted to buy a plane ticket on my own before.

I nervously walked into the HIS office and was greeted in Japanese as I approached the counter. I asked in Japanese if the clerk could speak English, and she responded “yes, a little”. This was code for “of course I can speak English nearly fluently, but I am Japanese and would never brag about my abilities”. This made me feel a lot better.

I asked for an open return ticket leaving for Winnipeg as soon as possible. The clerk had never head of Winnipeg before (no surprise), but fortunately I knew that the airport code was YWG. This saved a lot of time and spelling. Know your airport codes people!

When you need to buy a plane ticket the next day, you are going to pay for it. My ticket cost me almost $1000 more than it would have if I booked in advance. The total cost was nearly 240,000 yen (about $2400). For some reason, credit cards are still not very popular in Japan. Most Japanese people would pay for the ticket using a bank transfer to the travel agent. I had never done a bank transfer before, and wasn’t terribly excited about testing my Japanese at the bank. I asked the HIS clerk if I could pay cash. She looked surprised, but answered yes. I told her that I would be back in 5 minutes. I walked down the street to a nearby bank machine, withdrew 24 x 10,000 yen notes, and returned to the travel agent while nervously looking over my shoulder. I counted out the money on the desk. This got some fun reactions from the staff.

I left HIS with the ticket in hand feeling relieved. No matter what else happened, I would be able to fly home tomorrow. Having the most important thing done, I returned home and started laundry and packing. After getting mostly packed, I called home to give an update, and then went to Seiyu to buy souvenirs. The Penpal came over for a quick visit after I returned home, and wished me luck on my travel. It was really great to see a friendly face before I left.

It was a busy and stressful day, but thanks to the help and great service from NOVA, HIS, and the Immigration Office, things went very smoothly and I was able to get everything done.

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February 3, 2005 – Friends and bad haircuts


Today was Setsubun, which I explained in detail here. Since I didn’t participate in any of the usual traditions, it was just a regular day for me.

During the day I went for a haircut at QB house near Seiyu. QB House is famous for their traffic light sign outside the store that indicates how long you have to wait, and for their 10 minute, 1000 yen haircuts. The barber who cut my hair was extremely friendly, and turned a simple haircut into an energetic show. Unfortunately friendly does not cancel out a communication barrier. I now look like a cross between an English soccer hooligan and a reject from a punk band.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to finally start watching the final season of Friends. I have liked the show for a long time, and it’s going to be good to see how it ended. Friends is one of those shows that probably stayed on the air a year or two longer than it should have, but there were piles and piles of money to be made.

Speaking of money, don’t EVER download TV shows from the internet for free. It’s just plain wrong. It is your duty to sit through at least 6 minutes of commercials during every 30 minutes of entertainment. If you do accidentally find copies of downloaded TV shows on your computer, you are pretty much obligated to look up a list of the show’s sponsors and go buy their products.

Regardless of how you choose to legally view Friends, it is a show that I always recommend to students who are looking for more exposure to conversational English. The characters on the show mostly talk about jobs and relationships, and there are usually a lot of visual clues to help fill in the context of the conversation. Other than the really wacky episodes with monkeys or dance routines, Friends is a fun way to practice listening to natural English conversation.

(2015 Update) I was excited to find that friends is now available on Netflix. However, they took the original 4:3 picture and trimmed off the top and bottom to completely fill today’s 16:9 standard. Yes, in the interest of filling up the whole screen, they cut off part of the picture. Everyone please stop doing this!!!

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January 16, 2005 – MGS3 in Japanese


After work I went to Seiyu to buy Metal Gear Solid 3 for my PS2. I had been thinking about buying it for a few days, but all of the games are locked up in a display case. To buy anything, you need to get one of the staff to unlock the case and get the game for you.

I asked The Penpal how to ask for the game correctly in Japanese, and practiced diligently before going to the store. The purchase went off without a problem, and I happily returned home with my new game.

When I bought MGS2 I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game was playable in English or Japanese. I assumed that would also be the case for MGS3. I was wrong. The version that I bought was playable in Japanese with Japanese subtitles only. The story is set during the cold war, and includes lots of talk about politics, nuclear arms treaties, and patriotism. All of those topics are far, far beyond my Japanese skill level. I can play the game, but I can’t understand 90% of the story. Even so, the game is still pretty freaking great.

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November 1, 2004 – Moving Day

Today was moving day! I am writing this from my new home in Numazu, Japan.

The mover arrived around 9:00am. He was a huge, muscular guy with terrible skin that couldn’t speak any English. We managed to decide where to park the truck, and then started loading all of my stuff. He was easily carrying my heavy boxes of books while I struggled and tried not to fall down the stairs. I got my room inspected, said my final goodbyes, and we set off for Numazu.

This was my first time to travel to Shizuoka by road. It was a very different experience than Japan Rail. The mover and I were able to have a very basic conversation on the road, thanks to my limited Japanese ability and my Japanese / English dictionary. The highlight for me was the GPS Navigation system. I am a fan of all fun technology, so I was thoroughly entertained by the map updates and the recommendations of places to stop, gas up, or eat along the way. I also had a good laugh when the GPS started up and said “Let’s Practice Safety Driving”. The term “safety driving” is one of every English teacher’s biggest pet peeves, right up there with “go to shopping”.

Japanese addresses are not terribly useful because of the lack of street names. We entered my new address in the GPS, but it got lost and directed us to a loading dock next to a factory of some sort. Thankfully, The Penpal and I had scouted my new apartment a few weeks ago, so I was able to give some basic directions and we eventually found it. The mover was impressed that I had a Japanese girlfriend. Go me!

We eventually found the apartment and unloaded all of my junk. My new home is a three bedroom apartment in a building called Ooka City Plaza. I have two roommates – Azeroth and Palmer. Azeroth is an American who works at Fuji branch, and Palmer is a tall, bald Australian who works at Numazu branch. So far they seem pretty cool.

In the evening The Penpal came over to check out my new place, and we went out for food together. So far I really like my new place! More details to follow.

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