Stories from the road: Uncomfortable

The entrance to Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan

Of all the places in the world that I’ve been to so far, none have made me feel as uncomfortable as Japan.

This can be mostly attributed to the language barrier. Japan, despite being a huge tourist destination, has a unique combination amongst Asian countries of having a generally introverted populace1 with scarce English skills, and looking back on it now, it was both of these factors that made me feel so uncomfortable while I was there.

Of the half-dozen Asian countries I’ve been to, I’ve been fine being an Asian tourist that blends into the locals, with passable Chinese language skills. Even if I couldn’t understand every thing that was being said, I could at least understand some things. Not having that ability with Japanese, in Japan, made me extremely uncomfortable.

It made me realise how I’ve taken my meagre language skills for granted. I’m barely conversational in Mandarin, but even that has always felt like enough, for the places that I’ve been to.

But in Japan, having people speak Japanese to me and not understanding a word of it, is uncomfortable as hell.

It made me uncomfortable speaking English back to people who spoke Japanese, like I was operating under the assumption that they understood and spoke English. When they didn’t, it made me uncomfortable pointing at things on menus to communicate what I wanted, like I was some kind of mute toddler. It made me uncomfortable not knowing if the handful of Japanese phrases I learned were being pronounced correctly, or whether they understood what I was saying when I said them. It made me uncomfortable speaking Japanese in the first place, because then they might assume I knew Japanese, and keep speaking Japanese to me. It made me uncomfortable playing the part of the ignorant foreigner, all while some Japanese assumed I was also from Japan and could speak Japanese.

For one of the few times in my life, I was truly outside of my comfort zone. And it was great!

Being outside my comfort zone meant that I was finally able to experience a culture and language other than my own Chinese background. I’ve travelled enough with my parents and relatives to enough countries to know that I wasn’t getting the full experience when overseas, but doing things on your own is a different thing entirely. Despite how uncomfortable I was conversing with locals, I was able to navigate around Japan perfectly fine on my own, with a little help from Google Maps and the English signage at train stations. I did and saw about 85% of the things I had put on my list to do and see, with a few things left over in case I ever decide to go back.

If I thought I was going to be saved by the plethora of vending machines and ordering kiosks that appeared on every second city street and in or outside maybe half of the restaurants, I was wrong. My first day in Japan, I stopped to grab lunch at a tiny Japanese curry place in Shinjuku. You know the kind, with only a bar for patrons on one side, the kitchen on the other, and no actual tables. I thought it was going to be easy, because there was an ordering kiosk outside that you would feed money to, press a button for what you wanted, and then grab a ticket to give to the folks inside. There wasn’t heaps of English on the ordering kiosk, but there was enough for me to understand what needed to be done. I fed the machine some cash, pressed the button for what I wanted, grabbed my ticket, and headed inside.

I handed my ticket over the counter to one of the staff, and was promptly bewildered by a question he was asking me. I said sorry in English and had him repeat his question three times before he sighed, walked all the way around the counter, and pointed to a sign. The only English on the sign was weights: 200g, 300g, and 400g. It was then that I realised he was asking me how much rice I wanted with my meal. I pointed to the middle amount, he nodded, motioned for me to sit down, and went back around the counter.

It’s funny, thinking that we had a breakdown in communication over something as trivial as how much rice I wanted with my meal, but it set a less-than-ideal precedent for eating out in an unfamiliar country. From that point on, the only Japanese curry places I went to were big chains, with electronic ordering kiosks that let you select English, or tablets at your table that had everything available in English. If the curry was any different between some random tiny store and a big Japanese curry chain, I couldn’t tell.

I ended up spending the first four days in Tokyo by myself, before meeting up with some fellow Brisbane folks in Kyoto. In my first couple of hours with them, I said more (in English, obviously) than the previous four days in Tokyo combined, as we swapped stories about our Japan experiences thus far. For four days, as we explored Kyoto and Osaka, I was camouflaged by three other caucasians. That wasn’t enough to stop a lady at a Chinese restaurant from assuming I spoke Japanese, but maybe she thought I was their tour guide or something.

You know what transcends languages? Roller coasters. Despite not understanding a single word of the safety instructions they were giving in Japanese, nor the weird sing-along song-and-dance complete with audience actions and participation they had for one roller coaster in particular, which was also in Japanese, it wasn’t too hard to make some casual assumptions about what to do and not do, based on my somewhat-extensive roller-coaster experience.

And when we were at Universal Studios in Osaka, or Tokyo Disneyland, or DisneySea, hearing characters from Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or whatever your favourite IP was, speak Japanese was certainly eye-opening. It made me realise that while I was used to those characters speaking English in the movies/TV shows/games, by the same token Japanese were used to the same characters speaking Japanese. English might have been the “canonical” language, but for Japanese, having Ollivander from Harry Potter speak Japanese2 was as natural as it was unnatural for us English-speaking folks.

But fun can be had regardless of what language you speak, and that’s exactly what I did.

Language barrier be damned.

  1. Unless you look like you’re a businessman in a suit, walking along a street with girls in maid outfits and other costumes, in which case you can be expect to be handed a flyer and harassed to come to whatever establishment they were advertising. Strangely, either because I was wearing shorts most of the time, or because I didn’t look like their preferred clientele, I didn’t get waved down. 
  2. Even though the Ollivander on the particular day that we visited was an old white guy (as per the movies) that were were impressed at how he seamlessly switched between Japanese and English, I’ve heard that other Ollivanders are actual Japanese. Which kind of makes sense, but would have been a little disconcerting for anyone who has seen the films. Which is probably a lot of people, if you’re going to Harry Potter world at Universal Studios Japan, but you never know! 

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