Mistakes & Miscommunications

I thought my 2016 Japan travelogue would end with the last day in the country. The day I returned to Canada though, I realized there was more to say.

Three years ago, I was acting spoiled in the sense that time in Japan no longer seemed like an exotic vacation but almost a domestic experience. This time, I didn't have that sense at all, thankfully, even if this was the most comfortable and familiar Japan has ever felt to me. While I am far from claiming any sense of assimilation, there was a feeling akin to slipping on a second skin while I navigated my way through physical and cultural pathways.

The most remarkable experience for me this time was how my confidence in my Japanese ability fluctuated daily like a penny stock market. High points included my first day when I felt so locked in that I was understanding customs officials, phone rental clerks, and my in-laws. I felt like a master translator able to interpret for my mom and kids and share their thoughts when necessary. A couple days later I was decoding train announcements with deadly accuracy and kibitzing with baseball fans at the Marines game while ordering fast food in such flawless Japanese it left the cashier in shock. Seriously, her jaw hit the counter with the impact of a foul ball.

After this initial surge of confidence, something weird happened that I can't quite put my finger on. There were good days and bad days. I translated some thoughts almost in the opposite of what my in-laws intended and had to be corrected by my wife. With other friends I immediately switched to English when I knew they were proficient. Not that there weren't some other good moments along the way. I think the later highlight was when I went for coffee with a friend and we spoke almost entirely in Japanese, completing a transition over the 18 years of our friendship from when we spoke exclusively in English. Still, by the time I reached the airport on the last day, I was speaking exclusively in English the moment I was greeted by a store clerk in both languages.

At first I wondered if my Japanese knowledge was almost like a finite resource that I had built up over three years, only to watch each word and phrase slip away as I spoke it. Later it dawned on me that by the end of the trip I was experiencing a bit of culture shock and retreated into English as my safety zone. Supporting this theory was the realization that when I was feeling sleepy or fatigued I was less likely to speak Japanese and more likely to rely on my wife to communicate when she was available.

The other possibility is that my confidence was shaken by a karaoke clerk's indecipherable spiel about all the pricing options available to us and the conditions of sale. That event was a reality check, and it seemed like it took me a few days to recover from the stumble. After that experience, I had moments when I thought I had expressed myself correctly and clearly only to be misunderstood. This led to me making uncharacteristic mistakes with similar sounding vocabulary. The irony is that when I made mistakes (or was I finally saying the right word?), that is when it seemed like people understood what I really meant anyway. Who knows? Perhaps it's as simple as who you're talking to and when.

Mistakes and miscommunications aside, my overall sense is that my Japanese is better than I had given myself credit for, so it is worth studying more consistently before the next trip because the brain will recall the lessons when the time is right—even when there's little opportunity to use the language regularly in Canada. The trip also helped me identify some conversational blind spots which a book I bought conveniently addresses. It's early days, so we'll see if I follow through once the reality of work demands hit, but the sense of realism I'm feeling right now about what I can reasonably accomplish makes me cautiously optimistic that I can follow through on an often stated but seldom worked on resolution.

If you've never been to Japan, I encourage you to visit, especially if you have never travelled overseas before. It's safe, public transport makes it easy to get around, and the mix of old and new suggests there will be a travel experience to suit every taste. If you don't go, hopefully this travelogue gave you a small taste of what it's like there. Thanks for reading.

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