Thursday, October 16, 2014


The nod of a head, the sweep of an arm, the wiggle of fingers, all these gestures mean something, and sometimes the meaning can transcend cultures and even spoken language.

I’d heard that body language goes a long way in communicating, while I was taking a crash course in conversational Japanese. I also heard that the Japanese are very forgiving when people try to speak their language and butcher it, like I do.

I have found both of these things to be true. Just try, was a phrase I grew to hate last year. I was overwhelmed with words I didn’t understand, and putting them together and hoping something understandable would come out of my mouth seemed nearly impossible.

By the end of my time in Japan last year, I could ramble off short phrases, and with some hand gestures (all on the polite-side), and a lot of smiling, I could usually get what I wanted, postage stamps, a table for two at a restaurant, the direction of Kyoto train station. Needless to say, I impressed myself.

This year, I was able to pick up where I left off, and I’m taking my language skills a bit further, but I still have a problem.

I love to talk, and I realize now that I probably will never approach the kind of skills I need to be fluent in the short eleven weeks I spend each time I come to Japan. What I have found, though, is that just a few words can be a whole conversation.

Today I stood behind a woman who was buying a toy for someone she obviously loved. She smiled at me and twirled the colorful toy.

I said, “Kuwai,” which means cute.

“What?” she replied, and I said it again. Then she burst out laughing and said, “Ah, yes! Cute!” We both laughed as she twirled her toy, and I realized she’d used all the English that would sustain our conversation, as had I, but it didn’t matter. We both laughed and smiled as she finished paying, waved then smiled at me, as off she went with her kuwai toy.

Her little bit of English + my little bit of Japanese = very pleasurable mini-conversation.

I sometimes like to bust out my skills with sugoi, which means great, and oishi, which means delicious, but my all time fave is sumimasen, which means “excuse me.” I seem to use that one a lot!

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