You never answer the door during business hours. You never, ever answer your phone when it’s a Japanese number you don’t recognize … at least not while your Japanese is still chugging along at what feels like a snail’s pace.
You’re doing the best you can. Really. You’ve passed the 4-kyuu, after all. You study daily. You read every sign you see, usually while walking to improve your speed-reading skills. On the way to the post office, the ward office, or the shoe department, you recite the phrases you’ve memorized for the occasion. Health insurance is kenko houken. You wear size nijuni. You want the package to arrive in three days. The phrase for “three days,” incidentally, does not involve the standard words for “three” and “day,” which is why your last experience at the post office was so confusing. You must also remember to use the ultra-modest, polite Japanese that is used in business and with people above your station. You’ve only just learned these ultra-modest verb tenses, which means you’ve also just learned that, for a year and a half, you’ve been talking to your doctor, teacher, and coworkers like a street urchin. Each footstep beats a diligent tattoo on the sidewalk: ken. ko. hou.ken. ken. ko. hou. ken. ken. ko. hou. ken. In person, after much mental practice, you can pull it off. On a good Japanese day, the women at the post office will toast you. “You are skillful!” they will say. You will (humbly) respond, “No, I’m not.”
But when the doorbell rings, there are only a few precious steps in which to practice what you will say.
This is a quote from an exercise in your Japanese book: “You have been involved in a car accident and have lost all your memory but for some reason you can speak Japanese.” Being woken by a surprise visitor who probably won’t speak English does indeed feel something like being in a freak car accident but being put on the spot often means that, for some reason, any Japanese ability you might have is gone. Genkihako. Size junijujibi. I humbly request that the package arrive in mikan*.
*the word for orange, which kind of sounds like the phrase for “three days.”
Sometimes you’re lucky, and it’s the FedEx guy, delivering your couscous from Amazon.com. That Japanese is so easy it’s ingrained by now. Yes, that’s me. Heavy, isn’t it? Thank you so much! Likewise, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come, they speak brilliant English, so they have no problem understanding you when you say, “Stop. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
And other times it’s the NHK, Japan’s big television station. They come early and, from what you can barely make out, they seem to be asking for money because, apparently, it’s the law in Japan that every television owner must pay a monthly fee for the privilege of watching NHK. Which you never do. Because you’re on the spot and absolutely appalled at the idea of paying for TV that doesn’t involve blood, music videos and glistening pool boys, you stand there, stuttering, simply unable to say, “How dare you accuse me of speaking Japanese well enough to watch the NHK? No money for you – I refuse!!!!”
Stammer “I don’t understand,” weakly until they grow annoyed with your stupidity and go away on their own.
Phones can be even more deadly. In face-to-face interaction there can be hand gestures to help you fill in the blanks, but on the phone, confronted with a disembodied voice that uses only the most polite business Japanese (which, remember, you only recently learned). So you flounder and pick out words: ADSL Company. Excuse me. Because. Excuse me. Therefore. Friday. Excuse me. Do you?
I’m sorry, do I what now?
So you don’t answer the door. And you ignore the phone unless, groggy, startled out of a deep sleep, you forget where you are and flip open your clam shell, stricken with panic the second you really come to and realize you are not in New York; you are in Japan and you’ve just answered an unidentified phone call
“Moshi moshi?” you ask, wincing.
“Hello, E!” And it’s your supervisor, from company headquarters, using a different extension. “I’m sorry to wake you up so early on your day off!”
“Oh, god, no, it’s really, really okay,” you say in a gush of wild relief. “I’m just so glad you’re someone who speaks English.”