I'm learning that living abroad is all about the little victories.
Figuring out how to order the veggie plate at the 24-hour bento place down the street, feeling mostly comfortable going to the grocery store on my own, being able to read a handful of words without the aid of my flashcards. Each of these things is small, maybe insignificant to some, but together they add up to something approaching confidence.
This weekend something changed for me.
I was out with some people, a gaggle of expats my husband had met through his language intensive. We went to a Mexican restaurant and then attempted to find a Halloween-themed bar that it turned out had closed down. We ended up grabbing a couple of drinks from a convenience store and hunkering down on the banks of a river that runs through the city.
On these outings, I'm used to being sort of on the outside of things. Yes, everyone is friendly and welcoming, but they share an experience that I just don't. They are all students of Japan.
As I sipped my drink and let the chatter wash over me, a mix of English punctuated with explanations or exclamations in Japanese, I realized that it wasn't just the "noises" I'd grown accustomed to. Amidst the words and pleasantries I've trained myself to pick up, I realized I was recognizing rhythms, sentence structure, and, to some degree, intent.
At one point, the woman sitting across from me asked the guy I was sitting next to (in English) if there was anybody in particular he was interested in, romantically. He hedged, then answered in Japanese, "Nobody. There is nobody."
The group laughed, and some asked him to repeat himself for clarification. But I sat up.
"I understood that!"
Most of the group barely took notice of my little moment, a couple of people nodded encouragingly then carried on with their conversation, but I couldn't shut up.
"I know what you're saying! I know most of those words! And nobody had to tell me!"
Remember when Bart Simpson spontaneously just KNEW French? It was my version of that.
Looking back across the evening, I realized that from the restaurant to the river, I could hear meaning. I basically knew what the server was asking me, even if I could only respond with "please," "thank you," "one," or "not necessary." When we asked the 7-11 worker for directions, I caught that he was telling us he had no idea where we were trying to go.
Maybe it's the remnants of Typhoon Vongfong rattling my windows right now, and all the "Wizard of Oz" imagery swirling around in my head (I saw a slipper flying through the air last night), but it feels like Japan is in color for me now, not just black and white. Japan just got a little less intimidating.
Speaking of color, we just got a TV.
My husband wants to listen to Japanese people talk to increase his comprehension, and I want to watch the game shows, many of which could be titled, "How You Might Die Today!"
But what comes with TVs? The TV setup person.
I knew our TV had to be set up, and our landlord was kind enough to arrange it for us, but I wasn't quite sure when the technician was coming. My husband said he got an email saying the TV company would send someone to our apartment after 5 p.m.
That would be perfect, as my Japanese-speaking husband would be home by then to communicate stuff about billing and package options.
But 4 p.m. rolled around, and there was a knock at the door. Uh-oh.
I opened the door, and there stood a smiling, middle-aged man in blue jumpsuit with the TV provider's name embroidered on it. Shit.
He spoke to me in Japanese, and feeling the nerve-sweat rising on the back of my neck, I stammered, "Uhh...I'm sorry...TV?"
Immediately realizing who he was dealing with, he said nodded vigorously and said, "TV! Hai!"
Bungling though some broken phrases, I invited him in and showed him the TV and all the cables I had for it. He started talking to me again, and after a few more rough attempts to communicate, I told him in Japanese, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Japanese."
He laughed, and responded with what I'm sure was, "No duh," and started to get to work. I relaxed a bit and tried to offer him a glass of water. I think. He laughed again, and said, "No...thank you" in English. I laughed, he laughed, there was a lot of laughing.
I will say, that this whole time, my anxiousness was not about understanding him, but with my inability to speak. Of course, I didn't know exactly what he was saying, but I was shocked to realize I wasn't entirely lost.
Until OF COURSE, he hit a snag.
"Have you got...(Japanese, Japanese)...problem...(Japanese, Japanese)...TV...(Japanese, Japanese) cable?"
Uhhh. I think I said, "I don't understand, I'm sorry. Cable? Adaptor?" Either that or I ordered food.
"Hai! Cable!" He pulled a short black cord out of his kit, and gestured to me, then around the apartment.
Uhhh. I took a stab in Japanese. "Need?" and I pointed to the cable in his hand.
My word usage was wrong, but he got it. "Hai!" and he gestured around the apartment again. "Where is it?"
I searched everywhere for the missing cable, but there was no cable to be found. I made a big shrugging motion, and said, "I'm sorry. No cable. I don't know."
He then rattled off more words in Japanese which, from what I could decipher, meant that he could not set up the TV without the missing cable.
At this point we both just stared at each other, each of us with the best intentions but completely at odds with the other's language. He smiled, and shrugged. I laughed. He laughed. There was a lot of laughing.
I tried to call my husband, my neighbor, ANYONE to communicate with the poor TV technician, but nobody picked up.
Alright Lou, buck up little camper.
I grabbed my trusty phrasebook and was able to piece together some version of, "I'm sorry, I don't know what to do. Can you help me? Cable? Set up...TV? How can I help? Please?"
An idea lit up the technician's face, and he said something, I assume explaining what I could do.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand"
He held up the cable, said, "1010 yen" and pointed to me. Then I got it!
"Oh! Hai! Buy! Yes, I'd like that!"
He looked relieved, and quickly hooked in the cable to the TV saying, "good price!" as he worked.
After hooking up the TV, showing me how to turn it on, and giving me a piece of paper I couldn't read, the technician gathered up his tools and rushed to the front door. As he put on his shoes, I thanked him profusely and apologized.
Turning as he headed out, he smiled, said, "Good!" and scurried down the stairs.
I don't know if that "good" was a word of encouragement, but I decided to take it as such. I DID do good.
I spent the rest of the night telling anybody who would listen -- my husband, friends on the interweb, my cat -- how I handled the TV setup ALL BY MYSELF!
And though I know what I did was "handling" the TV setup in the most basic sense of the word, it was the type of accomplishment I never DREAMED of doing only a few short weeks ago.
I've been secretly fretting that I'm not learning Japanese fast enough, that my lack of even basic proficiency is embarrassing, that I'm THE WORST EXPAT EVER. But without their knowing it, the guy who doesn't have any dating prospects and the TV setup guy gave me hope that I can do this, that I'm not unteachable.
I still regularly baffle store clerks when they talk to me about payment and I just smile and say "No, thank you," and I have no idea what I ACTUALLY said to the lady down the street when I THOUGHT I was asking to pet her dog (she looked concerned).
But with the little victories of this past week under my belt, Japan is sounding better and better everyday.