You Can't Always Fake Japanese, or The Time I Broke the "Konbini"

There's no such thing as free coffee.
Publish date:
December 1, 2014

I've been feeling pretty cocky lately.

I don't know if all expats do this, but I've developed this sort of "survivalist" way of dealing with situations in Japan I'm not quite sure about (so most of them). Basically I say yes to everything. If someone is speaking to me in a positive way, head nodding, most of the words I understand being in line with what I'm after, I just mimic their enthusiasm and answer "yes," "thank you," "that's okay," or if I'm feeling brave, "not necessary, thank you."

Most of the time this works for me. Sometimes I end up with a point card at the Japanese Mexican restaurant, but all in all, no harm done.

This method is not the smartest or even the most productive, but when I'm just trying to get in and out of a situation without too much perspiration, it does the trick. Plus, truth be told, it bolsters my confidence. It might all be fake, but in the SyFy Network Paranormal Procedural Drama I star in in my head ("Cornered" -- get it?), I look really cool.

Don't get me wrong, I am trying to get better at speaking and understanding Japanese. Really, more my speaking. I find, like most languages I've attempted to learn, I learn to HEAR language quickly, but picking the words and phrases out of my head and actually SAYING them out loud is much harder.

I think a lot of this comes from fear of sounding foolish or making mistakes. I'm shy, I'm a perfectionist, I live with anxiety -- these and a thousand other reasons (would Agent Spektir of "Cornered" do this?) make for a timid Japanese speaker.

I'd like to think that by "playing the part" of the confident Japanese speaker, I'll be able to fake the guts I need to start taking stabs at real speech. Everybody needs to find their "in" to the language right? The problem is when someone mistakes my fake confidence for REAL confidence or, EGADS, ability, and actually expects me to speak WITH them.

Enter the "konbini."

A "konbini" is a convenience store in Japan. Think, 7-11, which is actually where the incident took place. The konbini is a central part of life here. Not just shriveled hot dogs and burnt coffee, the konbini in Japan is an open 24-hours store where you can buy some fairly decent food (okay but safe sushi, bentos, some dim sum-type treats), find basic home necessities, get a holiday meal catered (Christmas Chicken anyone?, and pay your bills.

Part of my typical day involves toddling to the konbini down the street for coffee and maybe a snack. I think I have a pretty good relationship with the konbini workers. I smile, they smile, I say "yes" a lot, they smile some more, I smile, I thank them, I leave. I think I once told the woman at the register I really liked this seasonal candy they were carrying. Either that or I might have hit on her. Either way, they seem to regard me with...amusement?

I'm sure they recognize me as that oddball Asian woman who can't/won't speak Japanese -- WHY DOESN'T SHE SPEAK JAPANESE?

Anyway, a few days ago I made my way down to the 7-11 for a midday snack. I grabbed a pickled plum onigiri (rice ball stuffed with pickled plum, sometimes with seaweed wrapping), a bag of chips, and stepped up to the counter to pay.

Went went through the typical niceties -- yes...yes...nod, smile...thank you...yes -- and as I was taking my change, the cashier lady pulled out a brightly colored cardboard box with a slot cut in the top.

She said something I vaguely understood as "prize" and "take one," then gestured for me to reach into the box. Okay, it was a drawing for something. I played my part, said "yes," and reached into the box.

I pulled a card that appeared to offer a free small coffee. Okay, cool. I drink free coffee! So that worked out well.

I handed the card to the woman, and she grimaced as she looked at it. She asked me to wait one second, and she stepped into the back room. I felt my "Cornered" character start to sweat.

She came back out a moment later and came around to my sound of the counter. Pointing to the coffee machine sitting on the counter, she started to rapidly explain something involving " that okay?"


I smiled with my mouth and said a little too loudly, "YES!" I figured she was asking me to pick a new card because the coffee machine was broken.

The woman looked at me hard for a moment, then repeated a phrase I didn't know, and asked again, "Is that okay?"

Again, I mouth-smiled and said, "YES!"

At this point I could see her thoughts. They roughly translated to, "Ooooookay. I owe Yasu 1000 yen, he was right. She's weird. Shit."

Laughing uncomfortably, she repeated the mystery phrase again and rattled off some other things that, had I been in my right mind, I might have understood. But as the other shoppers started to notice me, I was starting to panic.

I laughed too, and apologized, explaining that I didn't quite understand because my Japanese was (duh) not good.

She laughed. I laughed. We both looked around for help, ANY HELP.

Asking me to wait again, and she disappeared into the back room. Returning quickly with a young, spiky-haired man with studded arm gauntlets, I gathered she was explaining to him that the village idiot had struck.

Sweetly smiling at me, the man repeated the phrase in question to me. I apologized and told him I didn't understand. They turned to each other and said something like, "She doesn't understand '_______'." They looked at me desperately, I blinked back. I apologized, they mouth-smiled.

"It's okay," I said, "I'm sorry. Don't's's not necessary...thank you, goodbye."

But they wouldn't have it. The man plugged in his iPhone and started furiously looking up translations. The woman came around the counter again and tried to explain something even MORE complicated to me.

At one point, we were both so flabbergasted over a STUPID CUP OF COFFEE, that we just stood there laughing and apologizing to each other. Trying to make her feel better, I reached out and touched her shoulder in a show of, "It's okay, I know we're in this together."


She recoiled like I'd whipped out a ferret and had pointed it at her.

I forgot, the Japanese are not a "touchy feely" bunch. This was an inappropriate move on my part. Horrified, I apologized profusely, I think I told her that I was American and I don't know anything-ha-ha-ha.

I felt like such an ogre.

The woman kindly, but nervously laughed, and told me it was okay. She then apologized and retreated to the safety of behind the counter. At least I gave her a good story to tell her friends?

After about 15 minutes of fumbling with websites and translations, the young, gauntlet wearing man handed me his phone where, typed in broken English, it said, "We are sorry. Your card is redeemed at other 7-11 locations. Please choose location of redeeming your item or check website" or something like that.

The spiky-haired, gauntlet-wearing man, and the poor woman I accidentally violated stood eagerly staring at me, the thought bubbles over their heads saying, "Please understand, please be able to read, please be on your way!"

I nodded, thanked them, and told them I understood. Taking my card, I blabbered off a location far, far away and thanked them for their help. Finally breathing again, for the first time in almost 20 minutes, the duo smiled and waved goodbye to me as I left.

All that for a free small cup of 7-11 coffee.

To their credit, in awesomely Japanese fashion, they were devoted to the service of their customer. It was actually quite endearing. I would have happily said "forget it" and saved them the annoyance, but they wouldn't have it. That's is just the way things are here -- you don't just leave someone hanging. There's most certainly a lesson to be learned there.

But the lesson I walked away with is that there's no faking your way through language. Just getting by, though an empowering step in finding your independence in a foreign culture, is not enough. I left the konbini that day with a renewed excitement to ACTUALLY learn the language, instead of just a handful of words and phrases that help me order food or find the bathroom.

I feel like I've hit "Phase 2" of my life in Japan. No more "pretending" this is my life, time to start actually living it.