Sunday, July 30, 2006

上手、上手! ぺらぺらですねえ。

Language barriers often tend to extend a conversation in an annoying manner. Buying a ticket for the bullet train to Tokyo (an event that used to be quite special for me, but which I'm now becoming rather blase about), I was forced into the following awkward exchange:

Me -- A ticket for the next train to Tokyo, please. Non-smoking, and [here I realize I've forgotten the Japanese word for 'aisle']... I do not want a window seat.

Ticket Guy -- OK, the next train departs at 11:30, and you would like a non-smoking, window seat.

Me -- No, I do not want a window seat; I want the opposite of a window seat.

Him -- You would not like a window seat?

Me -- That's right.

Him -- You're saying you want a [garbledy garbledy] seat?

Me -- [slight pause as I consider how best to respond; for all I know, he's just asked if I'd like to sit on the tracks] If it is not a window seat, then that is what I want.

I pushed my credit card at him in a (successful) bid at finality.

I don't get the sense that my Japanese is in any way improving [see above], but clearly lately something is different. Whereas before my attempts at communication where met with the (polite) insult 'Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne...' ['Isn't your Japanese good! Would the nice foreigner like a cookie?', usually said in a slow, painfully over-enunciated staccato], recently the insult has changed to 'Nihongo wa pera pera desu ne...' ['Isn't your Japanese fluent! Did you get all the way here without your dictionary?']. People who actually speak fluent Japanese don't receive these responses -- they're solely reserved for people making attempts at the language whom the Japanese feel need cheering on. One's reply should always be, 'Iie, ton demo nai desu...' ['Oh no, my pathetic butchering of your beautiful language renders me lower than nail fungus. Shall I commit ceremonial disembowelment here, or would that only sully your floor with my vile dog's blood?'] Naturally, however, all sarcasm should be kept on the level of internal monologue; purportedly, the Japanese do not intend these comments to be insulting, though having received them following some particularly horrible language mangling on my part, I occasionally doubt the veracity of that claim.

Just prior to reserving a bullet train ticket, I made a stop at the vaunted electronics mega-store 'Yodobashi Camera' to buy a digital camera (much like buying a seat on the bullet train, I'm becoming alarmingly blase about dropping hundreds of dollars on what could only be considered luxury items: 3 purchases over $500 in the past 6 months...). At the time of purchase, the sales lady threw in a camera stand that fits over the lid of a plastic bottle, thus creating an instant 'tripod' out of any coke or tea bottle -- quite possibly the most ingenious thing I've ever seen. Deeply impressed, I started prattling on about how 'kakikoii' Japanese people are, a word which (in a similar show of ingenuity) I'd apparently created on the spot by combining kakkoii ['stylish/"cool"'] with kashikoi ['clever']. As there are fewer than 200 sounds in the Japanese language (versus just under 2000 in English*), Japanese people have trouble intuiting your meaning even when you're just one syllable off. There's no way she had any idea what I was trying to convey. Wrapping up my camera, she handed me the receipt and cordially told me, "Nihongo wa pera pera desu ne..." Yes, apparently so pera pera that I'm forced to make up new words to increase my vocabulary.

The word for 'aisle', by the way, is tsuuro. Don't worry; I looked it up to make sure.

*I read this in a newspaper... No, I can't really back it up. Sorry.


Anonymous said...

I think the phenomenon you describe is the product of a closed, homogenous society. When I lived in Poland, similarly closed and homogenous, I noticed that any miniscule aberration on my part in pronunciation or grammar rendered my statement incomprehensible to my interlocutor. Then I thought back to the United States, where we are used to foreigners butchering our mother tongue. If someone says "I go bus doctor Tuesday," you know what he means, even though the sentence contains a number of syntactic flaws. You say this in the Polish or Japanese equivalent, and it's incomprehensible. Not because they couldn't understand if they tried, but because they're just not used to having to understand.


Katie said...

I'm sorry? I'm not following you...

Ha! Just kidding.

One of my colleagues shares your opinion. He said China (where they have a long history of not being able to communicate well with each other) was an easier place to use the local language badly. I would guess that the simpler nature of Chinese grammar (vs. Japanese or probably Polish grammar) would likely help as well.