I told myself after our trip to Tokyo in January that if Six Apart decided to take funding, I would force myself to take a Japanese language class so that, the next time I was in Japan, I'd be able to wipe that "I'm so stupid that I don't understand your language" look off my face.
Ten months later, we're back in Japan and the only phrase I can speak (and poorly at that) is "nihongo-ga wakarimasen" which is, as you could probably guess, "I don't understand Japanese."
Remember that Chris Farley Saturday Night Live sketch where he's on a Japanese game show but can't speak Japanese? And as he misses question after question and is about to be electrocuted as penalty for losing he keeps on shouting "I don't speak Japanese!"
That's basically how I feel -- but probably a bit less eloquent than Farley's character.
The other day, while sitting in a room for about eight hours straight and surrounded by others discussing work stuff almost entirely in Japanese, I found myself trying to will myself to speak, or at least understand, Japanese. It's a safe bet to say that I wasn't too successful and, after all those hours of intense Japanese, I realized that I was basically the human equivalent of a golden retriever who relies on intonation to tell whether his owner is happy or mad or is posing a task/question. I would add, however, that I think that I have a better grasp on the nuances of tone. Like, when I guessed that someone was discussing internal company politics just from that "my hands are tied" sort of expression.
Most dogs wouldn't have a grasp on that.
I should add that while we're in Japan we're almost always accompanied by someone that speaks English fluently. So, much like a child, I've become dependent on someone else ordering food for me, giving directions in taxis or interacting with any sort of person in service. It is those times when I happen to be alone (and this counts for about 10 minutes of an entire week-long trip), that I find myself suddenly trying to will myself invisibility.
In Japan, it's customary for stores to have greeters (though I'm not sure if this is a specific job or if they are also clerks) who say the phrase "irasshaimase" when you enter a store. Because I feel so inadequate in my response -- an odd sort of smile that says "I'm so stupid that I don't understand your language and I probably can't afford or fit into any of your clothes so please ignore me" -- I find shopping to be one of the most painful experiences for me in Tokyo. My inadequacies are compounded by the fact that, to me, the "irasshaimase" greeting is seemingly always uttered by the same exact voice in the same exact tone.
I'm that golden retriever again and my Pavlovian response to "irasshaimase" is the pressing desire to leave the store before I'm further engaged in any sort of conversation or offer of assistance.
The other night we had to go to a department store in Shibuya and find me an outfit for an event I was attending. Because we had little time to shop and because we needed to find an outfit that would fit big gaijin me, we enlisted the help of a personal shopper. Let me preface this anecdote by saying I really don't enjoy shopping for clothes and I really really don't like shopping for clothes with anyone other than Ben. Part of the reason is that it's pretty difficult to shop for a pear shape like myself and even in the United States, clothes are cut so inconsistently that I am almost never completely happy with the clothes that I purchase.
So, picture me, a person that pretty much hates shopping and really loathes shopping with other people, walking around an expensive (I'm frugal as well) designer department store with not only Ben, but with Joi and my personal shopper (who doesn't speak English) looking at $1500 business suits in size 00. Oh, and it's late at night, I'm a mess after being in a office for eight hours and I look like a wet, dare I say golden retriever, because it started raining while we were walking to the store.
So I'm too fat and too poor but something is lost in the translation since I instead just start freaking out and having the sort of panic attack that is so not Japanese. And, this poor shopper is trying to help me but doesn't understand why I look so defeated and frustrated when she hands me a size 4. Other saleswomen get involved -- trying to solve the problem -- and suddenly three people are discussing my body and trying to understand why I'm near tears (all in Japanese mind you).
It's like the most surreal experience I've ever had -- the sort of stuff I literally have nightmares about.
So, I tell Joi that I need to ditch the shopper because I'm so uncomfortable and in my flustered state I'm certain I've completely insulted my shopper. And, this turns out to be an even worse feeling since I try to so hard to not seem like an ugly American while in Tokyo. So, I've probably made my shopper lose face and I've presented myself not only as an ugly American but a neurotic, misshapen freak who can't even fit a sleeve on her massive Krispy Kreme eating frame.
This is the sort of experience that, if I didn't have such a healthy outlook about my body, would drive me to tears.
Oh wait, nevermind.
So after fleeing the shopper and not finding anything else on my own, all along while facing "irasshaimase" at each turn, I flee into the rain and find a Gap, which surprisingly carries one size 10 amongst -- I kid you not, 00, 0, and 2 sized skirts. I'm in an out of the Gap in about 15 minutes and have a complete outfit for the most part*.
But then I realize I need a pair of boots.
Now, I'm already imagining the difficulty I'm going to have since I don't know my shoe size equivalent here in Japan and the stores are closing in about 5 minuts. Fortunately, I'm not given too many options -- there is "S", "M" and "L". I go straight to "L" because I'm a size 7 1/2 and I know that I'm probably on sasquatch end of the bell curve here. When I get them on my feet and they fit I'm ecstatic. When I can't zip them up my Popeye calves, I freak.
When you're already wearing an "L", there isn't much hope.
But the store is closing, I need a pair of shoes and I have no other options. I end up buying a pair of $100 boots (I know that's not much for boots and I'd spend it at home for ones that at least fit). In the rush I'm, a complete klutz, tripping across the store with the knee-high boots down at my ankles.
I'm the sort of freakish mess that's going to be a store clerk's funny story over dinner that night.
I buy the boots and it's over. We go back to the hotel room and I just imagine what sort of sight I'll be tomorrow morning at our event -- which happens to be a press conference that's most likely going to appear on Japanese television news and be photographed by a number of reporters.
Oddly enough, I wake up the next morning and lo, a miracle has occurred. The boots suddenly fit and despite their pointy and high-heeled appearance are extremely comfortable. They, after a fourteen hour day of walking and talking and standing, join the ranks of my favorite shoes ever.
Basking in the confidence gained by a really great pair of shoes, I'm certain that when I go back to California I'll be ready to take my Japanese class and prepare for my next shopping experience in Tokyo when I need to find a replacement for my favorite boots ever.
* I had to buy a shirt that went under my jacket and I grabbed a grey cowl-neck shirt for $20 at a store. When I got to the hotel I realized that the shirt literally had no back and, because I didn't have the right bra and because I didn't want to look like the trampy CEO from America, I had to wear the jacket the entire day -- even in the stuffiest and warmest of rooms. I'm certain that, if there is a word for me in Japanese, it would be roughly translated into "gaijin with the really red cheeks and look of grief."