I've Reached the "Scary Phase" of Learning Japanese, and Now I'm Going to Have to Play Tour Guide

The "Scary Phase": When your confidence in a language creates the illusion of competence.
Publish date:
February 11, 2015
travel, friendship, anxiety, tourism, japan, language barrier

"I'm a Japanese GENIUS!"

"I should just never speak again."

"Learning a new language is so FUN and EASY!"

"I'm just going to carry a chalk board so I can draw pictures of what I want."

These are thoughts that go through my head every week. Sometimes I feel like the supreme ruler of language learning skills, other times I feel like a river otter trying to pick up human speech.

The Japanese language struggle is real, friends, and I think I'm in what I've started calling the "Scary Phase." I'm self taught, so instead of levels 1-10 or whatever, I had levels like the "I'm Scared to Leave My Home Phase," followed by the "Okay, I'll Leave My Home But I'll Only Go to These Three Places Phase."

The "Scary Phase" comes after the "Holy F***ing S**t I Can Read Phase" but before the "I Feel Comfortable Improvising Conversation Phase."

In the "Scary Phase," you have memorized a significant amount of questions, responses, and phrases that allow you to give the illusion of being more fluent than you are. You can also read and understand enough (these are actually my strengths) to create the illusion of knowing what's going on in social situations. Somehow, creating all these illusions creates confidence (both misplaced and earned), which is arguably the driving force of the "Scary Phase."

The "Scary Phase:" When your confidence in a language creates the illusion of competence.

That confidence brings the high of being able to hold your own in places of business. Shop workers, check out cashiers, servers, cat cafe workers -- they think you mostly understand. But then they go off the script. And then you don't.

You see, what's scary about the "Scary Phase" is that you've turned a corner in your language skills, and you're getting a little cocky. The language has opened up, and suddenly you're thrilled that instead of guessing that you might be buying fish essence instead of salad dressing, you KNOW that you're buying fish essence instead of salad dressing. Reading the word "Pet Hotel" was one of the greatest moments of my life.

But then what happens is that your cockiness pushes you into situations that you think you can handle, but you can't always. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, when you are forced to muddle through and expand your vocabulary and experiences. Bad, when you freeze up and you end up staring at the post office worker blankly while your scalp starts to perspire and both of you look around for HELP, anybody HELP HELP HELP.

You experience a very distinct kind of anxiety when you find yourself with a line of people behind you waiting for you to complete a simple transaction, but you don't understand the associate helping you, they don't understand you, and nobody can help you. In your head it all seemed so simple, even empowering, but then they had to "improvise" and ask you something about extra charges. Why can't people stick to the script?

That is the "Scary Phase." It's necessary -- it kicks your ass into learning so that you'll never, ever, ever have to pantomime "lettuce wrap" ever again -- but sweet criminy, it can be, well, scary.

The scariness of my "Scary Phase" is compounded by the fact that in less than 10 days, my friend Joy is going to be coming to Japan for the first time, and staying with me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm cannot WAIT to have Joy here. Nothing makes the bossy eight year-old in me happier (the one that used to play "Tour Guide" with her dog), than exploring and explaining a city to someone I love.

But amidst all the excitement, I'm worried about being the one in charge of getting us around Japan in one piece.

It's all well and good for me to flit around my regular life, doing the things I'm used to doing, intermittently pushing further and further out from the boundaries I'm accustomed to. But when you have a visitor staying with you in a foreign country, they want to do more than wander around the giant bargain stores I'm obsessed with, or attempt to eat ALL the fermented foods.

Visitors want to do big, memorable, things. As they should. Things you can post pictures of on Facebook and get you 150 "Likes." Things you can put trinkets from in a Memory Box.

And I want to do the big, memorable things too, really. A trap in living here is that you're always thinking you're going to have time to do all the cool stuff, but then you never do. So this is a great excuse.

But in doing the "cool stuff," I know my Japanese is going to be pushed to the limit. I can prepare with vocabulary and phrases, but there's only so much the human brain can absorb, and frankly, there's only so much I can predict.

I know that at some point, in a place I'm unfamiliar with, I'm going to get stuck. Normally getting stuck, while often embarrassing, doesn't bother me too much. I'll either tough it out and pantomime-point my way through, if there's nobody to ask for help, or I'll give up and figure it out for next time.

But when I have a visitor counting on me, there won't always be an option to "figure it out for next time." And while my local friends and my husband will be able to help out to some extent, they have work and school, and for most of the two weeks she's here, it's going to be up to me to navigate Japan.

I'm terrified that my "Scary Phase" will just become Joy's "Scary Vacation."

I have visions of us being lost somewhere cool and unique and FAR AWAY, 10 minutes before the trains are about to stop running, the equivalent of 5 USD in my wallet, with my cell phone warning me of its impending death. AND THEY WERE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

Alright fine, everything will probably be okay. I live in Yokohama/Tokyo, not Kronos. But as an anxious perfectionist, my mind is sorting through all the worst case scenarios ahead of time so that in my role as "tour guide" I won't throw up and cry if we end up accidentally taking a train to Hokkaido.

I mean, what am I supposed to do? Tell Joy that we can only go to 7-11, the cat cafes, the five restaurants I frequent, and the cheapish clothing store I like called "Gu"?

I guess I have to see this as an opportunity to make the biggest, sloppiest, swallow-your-teeth mistakes I've ever made in Japan. As much as I panic about getting us lost or stuck or having to run from a pitchfork wielding mob, the odds of something really bad happening are very slim. And besides, if I get us into a real pickle, Joy will have a great story to tell. (IHTM: The Time Louise Accidentally Sold My Eyebrows For a Cab Ride.)

This may be the ultimate test of my "Scary Phase." I'm going to have to get really scared to make it to the next level, the "If I Stop To Think Too Hard I'll Stop Talking, But I'm Communicating So Woo-Hoo Phase."

I guess I could look at it this way: six months in, and it feels pretty damn good to be in the "Scary Phase." I honestly feared I might leave Japan only knowing how to say, "I'm sorry."

So while visitors beware, I suppose I should relish the sweet taste of terror.