After nearly six months of being here, my brain has refused to pick up any more Japanese. It's like it's consciously deciding that any of my earnest attempts will be futile. I have to face the fact that my brain just doesn't want to expand onto a third language in the time I have remaining in my contract. Or that's what I tell myself at least.
Being a Chinese American in Japan affords me the relative anonymity that any East Asian country grants its phenotypically similar denizens. Only upon close inspection of immediate signifiers like choice of clothing or perhaps my gestures will a Japanese person's sixth sense of "foreigner radar" get all tingly. However, once I open the damn trap I have for a mouth, the nihonjins know right away I'm a gaijin and depending on the situation, it can get plain embarrassing. It has become a running joke to put me at the front of the pack when I go out with my more gaijin-looking friends (read: white) to restaurants where the staff instinctively searches for me, the Asian face for language familiarity, 'cause those white folks CAN'T POSSIBLY know nihongo. So they'll spit a flurry of Japanese to me, I look dumbfounded at them, they return with an equally confused/disappointed look of "oh crap, how do I pantomime this?", then my bilingual gaijin friends interject with perfect Japanese, the waitstaff is thrilled, we are seated, the day is saved, and I'm well, kinda small but relieved.
Now, I've tried to adapt as far as language acquisition is concerned, wanting to really, truly try to understand what's being said to me. At the beginning, my most useful phrase was wakarimasen or I don't know. My modified "wakarimasen with a cute shrug" could get me out of paying the exact amount of bus fare. But six months later, I tell myself that I should have more confidence than to look that stupid all the time. My new favorite phrase to use upon interaction is hai or yes. Now, hai is the word that opens doors for you, and for me, it lets me get away with playing Japanese. I pretty much say hai to everything even if I have no idea what's being said to me, even when hai is probably not one of the verbal options. I'd rather be agreeable than a stupid foreigner, or at least now I'm an agreeable stupid foreigner. Most of my interactions in Japanese are with servers or transportation folks so the most damage hai can do is get you trapped into an extra bowl of rice or an upgrade to an express train. But I fear the day when I get sick or come across a nasty situation when my hai will probably not be the most wise response. I guess I can always resort back to my cute shrug.
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