Tag Archives: Life in Japan

Experiencing Illiteracy

I am naturally drawn to challenges, an attitude which helps when living in a culture different than the one in which I was raised. Sometimes it is a game to figure out what the person is saying or what the ingredients in this food are. Making the world into a fun game is one of the best attitudes an ex-pat can adapt, so I try to keep it my baseline.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t see the flip side. Sometimes I wish I just knew what was going on! That desire is what keeps me studying the language. The more I study, the more I understand. The frustration, therefore, is healthy too.

Meanwhile, I learn empathy. As I struggled through an alphabet completely unlike the ABCs that English, German, and Spanish had shared, as I hesitantly sounded out syllables and hoped both that I could actually remember the correct sound as well as that I would win this real world game of Mad Gabs, I began to empathize with adults who can’t read, or who struggle to read. I’ve gotten really good at guessing, but sometimes I make mistakes, and when those mistakes bite me, I think of people who can’t read in ANY language. 

In the grocery store I’ve begun to realize how much I rely on the colors, fonts, and pictures of packaging. This is what the sugar looks like:

Making a point 005

This is the part that tells me it is sugar:

Making a point 006

And this is the thing I actually look at:

Making a point 007

Here is the flour I buy:

Making a point 008

These words indicate that it is flour:

Making a point 009

but all I’m looking at are the yellow flowers and red and white pictures. 

Not having those familiar sights can cause minor panic. A couple of months ago I needed to buy more toilet paper. I headed to the same drug store I always purchase it at and bee lined towards the paper goods aisle. I found the section and looked around. Here was the toilet paper, but where was the packaging with the red flowers? I’d calculated it was the cheapest stuff. Where was it? WHERE WAS IT? I thought about hunting down an employee and hysterically asking them, “Where are the red flowers?” which is about as much relevant Japanese as I could muster, and it still wouldn’t be enough. I took a breath, looked around, and bought different toilet paper. I don’t know if the brand went out of business or just changed their look, but in that moment I thought of the refugees who live in my area of Chicago and how much updated looks on products probably affect them. 

None of this sounds normal. And I get that. I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to most of my friends. I entered a club when I moved over here, a club of people who know what it is like to be confused in the grocery store, who know what it is like to cling to a brand because it is all they have energy to decipher, and who know just a piece of what it is like to be illiterate. 

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Tales of Japan

Shut up!
Unfortunately some of the first English the students here pick up is the, um, less than savory kind. Sometimes it is all out swearing. Other times it is just stuff that isn’t entirely age
appropriate.

Case in point: a scene from a couple weeks ago.

I was teaching a class of first and second graders. Though I bring a lot of energy to the classroom and like to make the curriculum fun, I do need the kids to actually listen. Usually the kids are great, but on this particular day the second graders were talking to each other instead of listening. After a few times of asking them to calm down didn’t work, I paused. I stood there holding the flashcards, slightly smiling, just waiting. This strategy works pretty well in the honor society of Japan. It is considered shameful that I can’t teach the lesson, especially as a guest teacher (I only come once every two weeks, and I’m only scheduled to teach the first and second graders once a month). The other kids, seeing that I had paused, turned around and tried to get the noisy kids to pay attention. But, of course, they wanted to show off their English too. So this precious little first grade boy turns around and clearly says to the older students, “Shut up!” The
tone wasn’t menacing or harsh. He said it like you or I would say, “Please be quiet.” Slightly mortified, I explained to them that these words weren’t polite, and I had them all repeat, “Be
quiet, please” after me. Then, since they were quiet, I went on. But I haven’t been able to shake the sight of that precious little boy innocently using words that got me in trouble at that age.

Very, very cute!
My apartment is not too far away from a preschool, and occasionally when I walk by a passel of 2 year olds is hovering near the open door. If this is the case, I often stop to say hello and give
high fives to them. This activity occasionally draws more of the toddlers to the door. Three or four of them have taken to compliment me when I stop. “Eigo no sensei kawaii!” (The English
teacher is cute!). “Arigatou!” I reply, and give them another high five. At which point another child usually takes his or her turn to affirm me. Which I thank him or her for, and give another
high five to. After three or four rounds of this, someone usually changes to, “Eigo no sensei kakoi!” (The English teacher is cool!). That statement is then echoed by another round of charming little faces. A couple of times a teacher will walk by and whisper to them. The teachers know I speak English and view this as an opportunity for their pupils to practice. “Very, very cute!” the girl will start to chant. The chorus is taken up by others. “Very, very cute! Very very cute!” Now they are jumping up and down, thrilled to pieces at my cuteness quotient and charmed out of
their minds that they can tell me about it.

There are some rough days in this country, and the culture is not one that works hard on affirmation, so as strange as it may sound, being serenaded by a bunch of two year olds chanting my praises can really make me feel better. Encouragement: I’ll take it in any language!

The Ground Shaking: just an ordinary day…
As most everyone knows, Japan is prone to earthquakes. The country as a whole probably receives at least one per day, but they aren’t usually big enough to feel unless they are decently
strong and fairly close. That combination only occurs every two to four weeks. Yet that is still frequent enough for it to become part of the background noise of life here.

What I mean is this: yesterday I was shopping. Specifically, I was shopping for comic books (manga) as a gift for a friend. I’ve never shopped for manga before, and I was simultaneously
trying to guess which copies he might have already read as well as thinking about how much money I wanted to spend. In the middle of that we had an earthquake. It registered as 4.6 on the
Richter scale. I certainly felt it, but I also ignored it and kept thinking. A few minutes later I made a decision, paid for the purchase, and walked out of the store. As I strode away, for some reason the idea that we had just had an earthquake hit me. I was a little taken aback, not that we had had one, but that I had forgotten about it so quickly. When did the earth shaking become such a normal thing?

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