Today at school as I filled out an expense report, the secretary guided me through the Japanese on the form. I recognized the kanji for Year, Date and Month but was pretty lost on the rest of it. She pointed to the kanji for “signature” and I said, “Ah! Hanko!” in proud recognition and went about to signing my name. The secretary looked at me sideways and, under her breath, said to me with a conspiratorial smile: “It’s okay. I know you speak Japanese.”
At our school, speaking Japanese is discouraged for the Native English-speaking teachers. I am sure that the secretaries are savvy enough to know that many of the English teachers here have a working knowledge of Nihongo, but dear god, I am not one of them.
“Iie, iie (no, no!)” I told her. “chotto, chotto! (a little, a little)”
I am actually at a tender point in my understanding of Japanese – when I first arrived in Japan a month ago I could hardly understand anything anyone said to me. Now I am able to pick up little words and phrases here and there – tiny snatches to be sure, but still, I understand. Also, my understanding of hiragana and katakana has progressed to the point where I am able to read menus more easily and even search out the characters on my cell phone when I type emails to Peaches and my Japanese-speaking friends here. It has become precarious, actually – at this stage, it is hard to keep my eyes from lighting up when I realize that I know what someone is saying to me. In the classroom, this is crucial – and because I am proud of myself and naturally a show off, it is very difficult for me to hide my happiness when I understand that a student is saying “this one? this one?” or trying to communicate that her inu knocked over a neighbor’s vase on his walk the night before but can’t remember the English word for inu.
I have begun to resort to handing students a pencil and paper and asking them to draw the noun they mean. This has resulted in some laughs