Learning How to Speak Again

Japan Castle

“Ano….Sumimasen, ichi onegai shimasu”. I said confidently to the staff member behind the counter. I knew she would understand what I was saying. A little cavemanish, but definitely passable, or so I thought. Oh no, she was giving me that look, that look I had seen so many times before. The look of, “I don’t want to be rude, but you just spoke gibberish to me”. I must have messed up the pronunciation.  I had no backup plan. I mean why have a backup plan when Plan A is pure gold, right?  This was going downhill pretty quickly. I started the exhaustive search of my memory, looking for any scrap of vocabulary I could find. Meanwhile my right hand was slowly reaching into my pocket to activate the super computer waiting there. I knew google would have my back.

Now the pressure was on, a line was forming behind me and I knew I had to come up with something soon, or risk awkwardly conceding my position in line. Nonsense, that wouldn’t happen, I could do it. I just had to think of the right words. Particles were too tricky to think of right now, what I needed were nouns. With the right string of nouns I might just might make it out of this one. Oh but what were the words? “Setto”, yah that was definitely one of them. But by itself meaningless, I needed more.

Too much time had passed without any audible sounds leaving my mouth, things were getting uncomfortable, I had to hurry up. Too much pressure, my memory faded into black and took all of those precious nouns with it. Alright no problem, time to execute the backup plan. While I was stalling with the noun search, my right hand had already logged into my phone and tapped on the designated translate app. The cursor was blinking and ready to go. But I needed to say something, to reassure the other party that I was still alive. “Uhh, Chotto matte”. Simple, but it should buy me a few seconds. Let’s see what we got here. I pounded the screen vigorously with my both of my thumbs. Ah yes of course, that was the word I was looking for. I knew that, oh and I knew that one as well. Funny, so many words that I know, yet none of them ever seem to come to mind when I need them most. No time to think of that, I had the nouns I was looking for. Time to go for broke, “Ah, sumimasen, uhhhh ichi…” Oh no, I forgot it all. All that research down the drain.

The pressure was really on now; they were calling in backup. Three staff members were now on the other side of the counter and the line behind me was getting pretty long. What else could I do. Then I saw it, the holy grail, the way out of this mess. And I knew what I had to do. I would lose a few points off my ego, but that was a price I was willing to pay, no a price that needed to be paid. I had used enough of these people’s time! I pointed and said “sore wa onegai shimasu”. I saw that look, a golden look, a look of simultaneous relief, a look of connection, a look of understanding, we were making it somewhere. And with one swift move, she threw the paper in front of me. So simple, so clean, so easy to understand. I was staring at the picture menu for McDonalds, and I couldn’t be happier.

Moments like this tend to happen pretty frequently when living in a country so linguistically different as Japan. These moments are particularly important on a number of levels. They are the ones in which you learn the most. Not only does it drill into memory vocabulary and grammar patterns, it also provides many valuable personal lessons. In that moment you are putting yourself out there.

For that moment you are curbing your ego and letting yourself look like a fool. In that moment you learn what so many foreigners have felt in your home country. It is truly the essence of traveling. You immediately understand so many people, and have a deep gratitude for all those willing to work with your limited language knowledge to help you out. Everyday people who will go out of their way to make sure you get where you need to be safely. A lot of times these encounters end up in a contest of charades. Creating new and unique visual ways to describe “I missed my bus” or “I’m lost and need directions”. After so many of these experiences your confidence begins to rise as you realize that no matter the obstacle, with enough time and patience, you can overcome it.

And that is what Studying Abroad is truly about, learning and growing. Meeting and overcoming new challenges. Experiencing a different culture, and understanding a different viewpoint. With just 1 month in Japan I have already learned so much. Living on the other side of the world is an experience like no other. And I can’t wait to see what the next 3 months have in store.

Author: Kurt A

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