The Reluctant Gaijin
I'm not typically a conspicuous person. I can be fairly talkative when I'm with people I know, but when I'm simply walking down the street alone, I'm not the sort of person that you would take notice of. I value this ability to blend in, especially when I'm traveling. I'm the sort of traveler that gets lost, picks a direction, and keeps on walking, no matter where I end up wandering. It beats the indignity of pulling out a map in public and--horror of horrors--people realizing that I'm a tourist.
That doesn't work quite so well in Japan.
I'm certainly not going to be mistaken for a local; I don't look anything resembling Japanese. But I still wanted to avoid being that tourist. We've all seen that tourist. The loud stereotypical American abroad, bumbling around the tourist spots, vexed that no one speaks English. I've been taking Japanese since my sophomore year of high school. I'm certainly not fluent, but I'd thought I could at least manage to carry on a conversation or understand what people in shops were saying to me. I wanted to be the gaijin who could actually interact with people.
I'd neglected to take into account three things. One was the stage fright, the brain freeze that seems to creep over me whenever I'm confronted with the prospect of actually talking with a native speaker of a language I'm learning. Once that hits, I'm lucky if I can remember English, let alone grammatical structures I memorized for a test at some point. The second was that I hadn't taken Japanese for a year, and the third was that I've always been disinclined to put effort into learning things. And Japanese takes quite a bit of effort. I've read that it takes around 1450 hours of Japanese language instruction to gain the same proficiency as taking 500 hours of French.
I keep reminding myself of that statistic as I have to ask people to repeat what they're saying, say it slower, or explain it in a different way. Understanding grammatical structures and vocabulary in a textbook is one thing. It's a whole different story when someone is firing them at you without even pausing for breath. More than once, I've processed what someone said too late for a response, well after they've given up and assumed I didn't understand.
I feel conspicuous, partly because of my appearance, but mostly because I'm not used to being in situations where I don't understand what's going on. Looking at street signs takes thought now. Ordering food takes thought. Listening to the people on the street who call out to entice you into their stores and restaurants takes thought. And I feel like that tourist, the baka gaijin, bumbling around Tokyo without any idea what's going on.
I went out to get breakfast on Sunday. I ordered a coffee and pastry with only a quick glance at the menu, answered whether I wanted my coffee hot or cold, told her I'd be eating in, exchanged words about the weather. And I understood, without having to ask her to slow down or repeat something. It was a small victory, but a gratifying one.
-Kendra Leigh Speedling