Monday, February 4, 2013

What's That You Say?

I spent ten weeks in language school when I first arrived in Japan.  Each weekday morning I would join expatriates from around the world who wanted to learn the Japanese language. It was the same program my supervisors had been enrolled in many years before, run by an ancient couple and a handful of teachers they had hired. The program was six ten-week terms long, and a graduate from the school would be well equipped to communicate in Japanese.

But I only attended the first session. I was on a short-term assignment (two years that stretched to three) so my time for language study was limited. During the first term we learned the basics of Japanese pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The Japanese words were written in Romaji, spelled out in roman alphabet instead of Japanese alphabet (hiragana), and the second term was a repeat of the lessons from the first term, but using hiragana instead of Romaji.

My class was made up of a man from Switzerland whose company had sent him to work in Japan, a Japanese man from Brazil who spoke Portuguese and wanted to learn Japanese, a young woman from Hong Kong, newly married to a Japanese man, and me. I did not excel in the class, but I seemed to have an ear for the sound of the language. I nailed my pronunciation skills!

A line from one lesson stands out in my mind. It was, "Kono dencha wa Hibiya ni ikimasuka?" ("Does this train go to Hibiya?") I liked that sentence and could say it with perfect intonation, just like a native speaker.

I thought I'd try out my new sentence the next day at the train station. I inserted the name of my town and approached a station employee. "Kono denha wa Osaka ni ikimasuka?" I asked boldly. "Ie," (No) came the response. And then a long explanation followed, punctuated with hand gestures showing me which platform I needed and when to expect the train (at least that what I think he was trying to tell me). Hmmm...

Being tall, I was hard to miss on the streets. Sometimes men would approach me in an attempt to practice their English. Sometimes they just wanted to harass me. Since I traveled alone quite a bit, I thought it would be good to have a standard phrase to use with people who made me feel uncomfortable. So one day I asked my teacher for just the right words. "Okina meiwakudesu." I repeated it back to her. "Yes, that will be good," she assured me.

I practiced the words in my mind until I knew that I could ward off any obnoxious person who tried to give me trouble. I knew how I would stare down the perpetrator, ball up my fists, and snarl at him: "OKINA MEIWAKUDESU!"That would get him! (Empowerment is such a wonderful thing.)

I'd been back in the States for several years when I found myself telling a Japanese friend about my teacher giving me the words I needed to exert my authority if I were ever in a difficult situation. "By the way, how would you translate 'Okina meiwakudesu'?" I asked.

My friend smiled. "You sure are a bully!" Good thing I never had to use my sentence on anybody!

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