Looking up at the bustling Tokyo cityscape, I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Visiting Japan two summers ago was quite the culture shock. Throughout my studies, I had never found the Japanese language in any way, difficult or confusing, but there I stood, alienated by the foreign landscape. I walked around the city of blinding lights, helpless, and in search of a bathroom.
I walked in a nearby convenient store.
“Irrashaimasse!” rang the owner’s words in my ear.
I froze. Out went two years of grammar patterns, phrases, and expressions. Instead I nervously muttered a feeble “Konichiwa” and began to browse his wares. I don’t know what it is about the male ego that makes one hesitant to ask for directions, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Luckily, the shop owner spoke to me in English; so I asked him where the nearest restroom was. However, “How can I help you?” was apparently the extent of his English capabilities. Feeling a little confidence kick in, I asked him again, this time in his native tongue, “Otera wa doko desu ka?” And from there all hell broke loose.
He tried to give me directions, but he spoke too quickly; this wasn’t like class where I could replay the tapes if I missed something. I listened closely, and I listened hard. Hidari meant left, migi meant right, naka meant inside. I had to decipher his words, translate his sentences into English, and by then I was already two or three statements behind. We resorted to a more primitive channel of communication, a hand-drawn map. And after a humorous exchange of mutual confusion, I thought I knew my way.
I walked along the street, on the left side this time, not the right. As I followed my directions, I took note of the interesting fashion and hairstyles in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. But my bladder told me that this was no time to appreciate some of the finer points of Japanese culture: miniskirts, big hair, and delicious-smelling noodle shops. Instead I had to interpret a very foreign map, lest my fate end like Tycho Brahe’s.
Eventually, I found myself standing in front of a small temple. Retracing my steps I wondered where I had made my mistake. But soon enough, I saw the restroom sign and asked no further questions. Little did I know, that I had accidentally asked the clerk for the nearest “Otera” instead of “Otearai,” the former actually meaning “temple” or “shrine.” Regardless, I was rather lucky to have found a restroom there.
My summer experiences in Japan were humorous, to say the least; and I learned much about the Japanese language and culture. My Japanese phrase book became my best friend, and I discovered that Sumimasen (excuse me) and Kudasai (please) were the only phrases I needed to get by. Japan and its culture were totally different than how I thought it would be, and I got a real taste of its customs and traditions. As Bruce Lee once said, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”