Communication. One of the key elements that make us unique among the other creatures of the earth. The ability to express the nature of our souls to others, to describe our hazy histories, to collaborate together and ease those wisps of ideas from our heads out into reality. And to ask the nearest person to pass you the remote because you’re too lazy to get off the sofa. All wondrous. Human interaction in all its complexity is founded upon communication. We gradually build our own lexis since childhood, discovering new vocabulary each holding onto their own connotations and colloquialisms from the humorous to the crude. We evolve from adjectives and nouns into metaphors and personification. Language is a world in itself, one that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never feel as though you saw everything. An ocean of dizzying depths and possibilities. But learning a foreign language for the first time is like drowning.
Most of us forget how limited our speech once was as children. Barred from expressing what we please, and restricted to the few simple words we knew. We struggled for the freedom of speech long before we were ever old enough to read 1984. Picking up a foreign language helps you to remember that struggle. Being painfully aware of what you want to say, and unable to achieve it. Those of us who love language (it’s an elite club. Not everyone is as cool as us, you see), push at those bars until we can begin to break free. Learn and practice until confidence drives us to the passion of expression. Finding someone to practice with however, can occasionally be difficult. That’s why in Japan, I got all my language practice at the post office.
I went to the post office a lot. A minimum of twice a week. There were plenty of reasons to go of course; I had a mountain of books that needed to be drip-fed back home and it was the only place I could withdraw money and pay my rent. The Japanese post office is involved in banking, insurance, plots to take over the country, stamp collecting and obviously postage (all of these things are in fact true. Read this out-loud in a non-sarcastic voice please), all run on a network of an experienced bureaucratic workforce. If the government falls and Japanese society begins to crumble in the chaos, mark my words; the post office shall rise up and take power, declaring itself the supreme ruler of future Japan (they will also promise to transport your letters swiftly and safely. Reliability is the name of the game). The post office will rule with exceptional efficiency using its iron, paper-cut, fist, suppressing all opposition (parcel force, UPS, Fed-Ex) and usher in a new era of international communication, liberal reform and lower shipping charges. The Japanese post office is a sophisticated business, and convenient for customers in many ways. I simply imposed upon them, one more convenience for myself.
Among the difficulties of being a Japanese language student is finding Japanese people willing to chat (in Japanese. Unfortunately I’m forced to specify that). Even in modern history, Japan has not had much of a foreign population and as a result, Japanese people are generally unsure how to communicate. The fear foreigners can’t speak Japanese, fear that they won’t be able to speak English, or fear some cultural unknown element will burst out the person’s chest and attack them, like Ridley Scott’s Alien. More times than I care to remember, Japanese people have turned tail and fled the moment I sparked conversation. Others freeze on the spot and adopt the advice given in Jurassic Park (if you don’t move, they can’t see you. Dinosaur facts). Some panic and desperately try to string broken English together in order to escape politely. And there are many who abandon all hope entirely, crying out for help to a braver soul to speak to me. The thing you should know about me is, I am terrifying.
If I’m lucky enough to get a conversation, the outcome falls into three categories.
One.Three way talks. As an example, if I ask a question or order my food in a restaurant (in Japanese of course) to a waiter, it’s not uncommon for him to answer a different person (a Japanese person) round the table. Or in the reverse, never ask me directly and rather question someone else. Two. Japanese to English talks. Occasionally you can meet Japanese people who consider this to be a great opportunity to practice their English. Whether they’re fluent or not. Or sometimes, they are people who don’t believe you speak Japanese (even if you’re speaking Japanese) and will stick to their English no matter what. Three. The normal people who talk to you just like anyone else. This can unfortunately sometimes be the rarer category.
Another barrier to good communication after cultural and linguistic fear is gender. The gender gap in japan is ever widening according to studies and socially speaking, platonic male to female relationships are uncommon. Without romance on the agenda in Japan, social relationships can at times become an uphill struggle to start, let alone maintain.
There’s always a cure however; the saintly influence of alcohol. The elixir that breaks down social barriers, raises confidence and allows to see each other as nonthreatening conversation rather than mystic sea creatures beached across the shore. But how great a conversation can one have in drunken stupor?
What other options remain at this point? Shop staff? They rehearse their keigo and move you along to serve the next customer before you can edge a ‘how’s the weather’ into the chat. University parties? The alcohol runs too freely there. Japanese teachers? Wonderful but limited time outside of lessons. Japanese girlfriend? Great, if you’re lucky enough to have one (and she doesn’t mind that you only appreciate her for her language ability rather than her body or mind). Elderly Japanese people with time on their hands? Ok but, gosh I find them hard to understand (mostly elderly men. They grunt words). But it was at the post office that I struck gold.
I’m a customer so they’re not allowed to run away or ignore me. I go alone so they can’t redirect the conversation to a Japanese person. The staff were middle-aged and lacked any English ability. Alcohol couldn’t be used as a crutch. Gender doesn’t matter. It’s not busy enough to move you along and no automated service to push you onto. No. They have to sit there and weigh my packages, stamp my letters, check for fees online, explain health insurance to me; all long empty moments for wonderful casual conversation. I’d slip in questions or conversation starters as soon as I finished handing over whatever business I had brought. ‘So…strange weather lately right?’ If I felt a little more advanced I might move onto, ‘So…where did your passion for postage come from?’. After a few months the staff began to recognise me and expect some kind of conversation. Whenever I entered they always gave each other the ‘oh God he’s back’ look. Eventually I ran out of standard conversation starters and needed to be a little more creative. I would prepare flash cards with conversation topics written on the front, research any specific vocabulary I needed beforehand, and marched into the post office, ready for test (I only brought the flash cards with me if I was lacking confidence that day).
So the next time you want want to practice your Japanese fluency, turn off the anime, forget language partners, ignore the tapes and go pop down to the post office. They’re there to serve your every whim.