Posts Tagged speaking Japanese

August 25, 2006 – Plane ticket home – for real this time

Today I bought my plane ticket home, for real this time. I will be leaving Japan on November 15. For as much as I have been talking and thinking about leaving, this really makes it official.

I have purchased three plane tickets to Canada during my time in Japan. The first time I brought The Penpal as a translator and the second time I used only English. This time I was able to make the entire purchase by myself in Japanese, which made me feel pretty good. I’d be feeling even better if the ticket was a bit cheaper…

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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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April 22, 2006 – Zenbu wakatta yo

The month of April has been a busy one for group kids classes. After two and a half years as an English teacher in Japan I would consider myself to be a “good” or “very good” teacher for adults. I enjoy most of my lessons and feel like the students are both enjoying themselves and learning something.

I can’t say the same things about my kids classes; they are the hardest and least enjoyable part of my job.

Today in one of my group kids classes, I had a young girl who decided it would be fun to throw a marker at my face. I wish I could say that I made a matrix-like dodge, impressing the class into respecting my teaching authority. Instead they laughed as the marker bounced off my face while making a smacking sound.

The same little girl decided to up her game later in the class (after I had hidden the markers) by calling me a bunch of nasty words in Japanese. One of the big selling features of NOVA is that the classroom environment is supposed to be English immersion. Even if teachers can understand Japanese, we are supposed to use English at all times. However, after about a full minute of her using every awful word she knew I was getting tired of the abuse. I smiled, leaned in, and told her quietly but firmly “zenbu wakatta yo” (I understand everything). She was shocked, turned red, and immediately stopped the name calling.

English immersion or not, everyone living in a foreign country should make efforts to learn the local language. It might come in handy one day!

Author’s note: I recognized most of the names she was calling me because the “bad” words in a new language seem to be the most fun to learn. This backfired on me a few years earlier which you can read here.

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November 25, 2005 – Expert bicycle repair

adachi bicycle

Since I have been living in Numazu, the bicycle that I have been borrowing from The Penpal has become an important way for me to get around town. As with any form of transportation, bicycles need occasional maintenance. In the past week I have been battling with one leaky tire, and in the past few days my other tire went flat. It was time to get some help.

I didn’t know where to begin, so I called The Penpal. She did some research for me, and found a small bike repair shop within about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. She also helped me practice the Japanese I would need to ask for bicycle repair.

I carefully walked my bike with its two flat tires to a small store named Adachi. If I didn’t know what I was looking for, I could have easily passed right by. Adachi is run by a very friendly looking older man. I greeted him in Japanese and told him that both of my tires were flat, and asked if he could please fix them. He brought over a small wooden stool so I could sit, and then he went to work on my bicycle.

Watching him work was a treat. This was someone who had obviously spent many years working on bicycles and motorcycles. Every movement was careful and deliberate, with the expertise that only years of experience can bring. I was reminded of the scene in Toy Story 2 where the expert is called in to fix Woody.

It turns out that there was a problem with a seal and / or the valve core (my language ability didn’t allow me to fully understand). After carefully replacing a few parts and inflating my tires everything looked as good as new. Not knowing what to expect for the repairs I had taken out quite a bit of cash, just to be safe. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the repair cost was only 500 yen (about $5). I thanked the man as politely as I could, and rode away smiling. It’s great to be back on my wheels again!

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May 2, 2004 – Fantaisie Impromptu

A few weeks ago, The Penpal asked me if I would like to come to her piano recital in Numazu. She asked very politely and said that she would completely understand if I didn’t want to go, or if it was too inconvenient. She also apologized in advance about her performance, which was apparently not going to be very good. Being a good boyfriend, I agreed to go. There was only one catch – since The Penpal would need to be there early in her formal kimono, her father would be picking me up at the train station and driving me to the recital.

A few days before the recital date, I started teaching myself a few new words of Japanese to make conversation in the car. The Penpal’s father didn’t speak any English, so I would need to use all of my Japanese skill to communicate. I brought my dictionary and phrase book on the train and studied right up until I arrived at Numazu station.

At the station, The Penpal’s father easily found me (the only white guy around), and we exchanged greetings and got into the car. He asked me how the train ride was. I asked him how far away the recital was. We discussed how nice the weather was. He pointed out the carp banners along the riverside. I asked if he could play any instruments. We kept the conversation going until we arrived at the culture centre. I was relieved because I had basically exhausted my vocabulary by that point.

We pulled into the parking lot, and were told by the attendant that the parking lot was completely full, and we would need to wait for some cars to leave before we could enter. The wait was estimated to be about 15 minutes, but the time would depend on when people decided to leave. At this moment I looked over at The Penpal’s father and he looked at me. We both had exactly the same expression on our faces – the universal “Oh Shit” look.

To say that the next 15 minutes were awkward would be a gross understatement. We attempted to discuss a few topics with little success. I attempted to use my dictionaries to assist, but there is nothing that kills a conversation like trying to frantically flip through a dictionary to find a noun, then equally frantically searching for a verb to attach it to. I am sure that he would have rather been almost anywhere other than stuck in a car with some gaijin who was dating his daughter.

After 15 minutes that seemed like about 2 hours, a car left and we were able to park and enter the culture centre. I was greeted by The Penpal, looking fantastic in her formal kimono, The Penpal’s mother, and Williams. The Penpal needed to go backstage to get ready for her performance, leaving me to sit with her parents and Williams. Right before she left, she again apologized and asserted that she would not be very good.

One major cultural distinction of Japanese people is that they NEVER admit to being good at something, even if they are great. The Penpal had actually been playing piano for 20 years, and dazzled the audience with a jaw dropping performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. If you have never heard this before, PLEASE click the link above. It is truly a beautiful song and a challenging piece for a pianist.

On my way back to Numazu I reflected on a productive day: I survived the car ride, met The Penpal’s mother, and got to witness The Penpal’s skill on the piano. I also learned to never trust a Japanese person who says they are not good at something.

(2014 Update) This was a complete rewrite of my original 4 sentence post. I can’t believe I didn’t write more at the time!

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April 18, 2004 – Izu vacation day 2


Today was the second day of my two day Izu vacation with The Penpal. The main activity of the day was a pottery school. It was well hidden in a residential area built on the side of a hill. The school taught the traditional Japanese way to make pottery. It was really out of the way, and everything was in Japanese which didn’t make it a very common tourist spot for foreigners. Based on the reaction of the staff, I was likely the first non Japanese person they had ever taught.

The Penpal and I decided we would make simple cups. We paid for 1kg of clay and sat down in a room full of other students to await instructions. The pottery instructor came out and started the explanation. He started slowly and then stopped to wait for The Penpal to translate for me. I told her in English that she should just translate everything at the end to avoid holding up the lesson. She passed along the message and then the instructor went full speed ahead for the next 15 minutes. I could only understand about every 5th or 6th word, so I tried my best to remember what he was doing with the clay.

By the end I had a general idea of what I needed to do, so I decided to have a little fun with the instructor. Until this point I had not said a single word of Japanese to anyone. I put up my hand and said:

Me: Sumimasen (Excuse me)

Instructor: Hai (Yes)

Me: Moo ichido itte kudasai. (Please repeat it one more time)

Instructor: (which part)

Me: Zenbu kudasai. (Everything please)

Thinking I was serious, he looked shocked that he would have to give the entire presentation again. At this point I started laughing and told him that I was just joking. This got a good reaction from the rest of the students, and they all took turns coming over to say hi and to lie about how good my pottery wasn’t. I was especially popular with the middle aged ladies. A little of a foreign language and a smile goes a long way to make friends.

When we left I got a lot of bows and sayonaras from the students and staff. The Penpal was largely ignored by everyone else, which was a little sad. We drove back to Mishima station and said goodbye and I was on my way home.

One the train ride home, a little old man started talking to me in excellent English. He asked me for my business card (I didn’t have one) and said that next time I came to Izu, would I please stay at his hotel and help him practice English. In exchange he would serve me traditional Japanese food. The other people around us on the train all seemed to be interested and or amused by this conversation. I love Izu!

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February 16, 2004 – Interesting train people

Wow was I tired today. I slept through several alarms, and managed to wake up around 2:00pm. On the train to get to the internet cafe, a random Japanese man started talking to me in Japanese. I managed to hold up my part of the conversation reasonably well. He was also talking to himself quite a bit, and started singing a song about NOVA.

You really do get to meet some interesting people on the train!

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