(MSI’s mission statement was released last week, details here)
The antennae are vibrating with the city’s movements, the tentacles are growing out of tips of fingers dipped in many pies. The hunt has begun.
However it turns out a week isn’t really suficient hunting time to find enough Japanese people so that I can be immersed in Japan (in Milan) for 3 hours every day. While it also turns out that when you don’t speak much Japanese, it’s kind of hard to convince the few Japanese people you do meet to decide that you are a person worth hanging out with (…for 3 hours a day). Especially when all you can say is sentences like ‘I eat lunch while I am at work’. Sentences which aren’t even true as I teach at 5 in the afternoon which is way too late to have lunch at, while in any case I wouldn’t eat during a lesson as it’s unprofessional. Actually that’s not true as I had a beer and a sandwich during a lesson last week. And then just talked about my cycling trip for most of the time.
But to the hunt: it was on the third day after MSI’s announcement that I decided to hit the local sushi joints. After having run through a whole Michel Thomas course in 2 days, and thus with a sort of basic idea of the structure and 9 or 10 verbs under my belt, I felt I had enough to go practice. ‘Sushi bar’ was the name of the first place I came across, and after having drunk a coffee there, I finally plucked up the courage to call over the barmaid and ask where she was from. ‘Plucked up the courage’, now obviously asking someone where they are from isn’t that scary, but we hadn’t spoken, and hence I had been wondering if it was quite rude to ask someone where they are from just because they have a complexion that gives away that they are from somewhere else. I decided that it probably was quite rude, and that’s why I had to pluck up the courage; in order to overcome caring that I was being rude…. the courage to be an asshole. ‘Chinese,’ she said. ‘Fuck,’ I thought, ‘I just wasted a euro on a coffee at a Chinese Japanese place.’ I vowed not to make the same mistake again, next time it’s ask if they are Japanese first, buy coffee afterwards.
Enter next place. I walk in and the sushi restaurant is empty. The whole staff turn to face me and usher me to a table, and I think about trying to interupt them mid-table ushering to ask them if they are Japanese. I don’t have the courage to do it, so I end up sitting at the table. The waitress comes over to take my order and I hesitate while looking at the menu for a while, trying to get the question to come out of my lips. Instead I just say I need another moment, and she walks away. ‘Compose yourself Sam,’ I think, ‘You can do this.’ The waitress comes back and I ask, ‘what’s the number 12 special?’ A sort of warm up question if you like, she tells me what it is, and then I go ‘and um are you Japanese?’ ‘Chinese,’ she says. ‘I need another moment,’ I say and she walks off. I don’t like much the situation I find myself in as I’m sitting at a table of a place I don’t want to eat in, but if I get up and leave now it could be racist since they’ll think I only did it because I found out they’re chinese. Which to be fair is true. So I fight all of my British reservedness and get up and walk out of the restaurant, staring at my shoes the whole way.
It’s four places later and every restaurant has been Chinese. I’m starting to wonder if there are any Japanese Japanese restaurants in Milan, though also I’m starting to get much better at asking people if they are Japanese. I walk in to this final place and like a proffessional, say ‘Hi, excuse me are you Japanese?’ ripping that plaster off right away. ‘Yes,’ she says. Jackpot. ‘あなたが日本語を話すか?’ (do you speak Japanese?) I ask. ‘Ok’ she says, having clearly not understood, ‘I’m actually Chinese’. So then it’s kind of awkward as she’s just outright lied to me and been caught doing it. So once again I leave looking at my shoes, and it was during those steps I gave up on the idea of using sushi restaurants to teach me Japanese.
The language exchange group of Milan also yielded similar results. A chinese girl found an advert I’d posted on Couchsurfing about teaching me Japanese and lured me over to her exchange with promises of Japanese people. This started last Friday, but there were no Japanese people. She promised there would be this week though, and I said there better be otherwise I’ll come back and ‘rompo culo’ (lay the smack down). She didn’t laugh, but instead just looked a little frightened. However again I turned up, and again there were no Japanese people, just a ton of people who want to learn English and me, the only English person. So I laid the smack down. And by laid the smack down, I mean I taught a whole room of Chinese people how to speak English for a while. However one Chinese girl knows an actual Japanese restaurant and she took me there today, and I managed to conduct the whole lunch ordering and paying in Japanese (-ish), so there was at least a positive.
And where did the hunt take me next? The schools. Given that a lot of my ‘contacts’ at the moment are school kids, or people who work in education, unfortunately when I spread the word about finding me Japanese people, what seems to come back is just school kids. Namedly two Japanese girls who both dislike their mothers so are eager to spend time away from home, and coming somewhere to teach me Japanese actually seems like a fun activity therefore. They can put these lessons on their CV (or school applications thingymajig) so the parents are behind it too.
Though just because you can’t find any Japanese people near you, doesn’t mean you can’t find any Japanese people. Enter internet. I’ve made myself watch 2 hours of Japanese shows (without subtitles) every day and have found language exchange people (and some tutors) on skype who are giving me my daily hour of conversation. There’s my 3 hours, BAM.
So my family will know that I have been spending the last month looking at kanji (a bit of a waste of time in retrospect), but for the record I want it to be known that this has really been my first week in touch with any of the vocabulary and the grammar. I knew (almost) no Japanese words at the beginning of the week, yet at the end of the week I’ve had conversations in Japanese and watched whole shows in Japanese. Sure, non ho capito un cazzo (I didn’t understand a dick) as the Italians would say, however the thing that is I now understand the process of learning a language, and not understanding a dick is just how it goes. Chuck yourself in the deep end and the deep end will show you what the most important thing to be learning is, it will force you to learn how to swim the fastest. If you book a skype conversation in Japanese at the end of the week, it will suddenly become quite clear to you what you need to be studying during that time.
This isn’t a language blog, so I don’t want to go to far into it, but the biggest mistake I made before coming to Italy was thinking that I’d learn the language here, or more specifically, that I couldn’t learn it outside Italy. It’s not always much easier to learn a language in the country*; I guarantee there are thousands of people doing JET (a teaching English in Japan program) right now, living in Japan, and will be learning the language 10 times slower than me who is studying it by myself here in Milan. Not because I’m smarter, but because I know how to go about it better. And I’m smarter. I’m really aiming this bit of this post at my brother as well, as I know he wants to learn Japanese, and I can see he’s thinking that he’ll wait until he goes to the country. Bro, if you want to do it, START NOW. Speaking from experience, I know the regret you’ll feel when you arrive there and realise how much more you could’ve prepared yourself at home. No matter where you are it’s always going to be difficult; in every case you have to find people to talk to, and you’ll always be making an effort. This will never change no matter where you are. After 1 week in Milan I’m ordering Japanese at a restaurant and telling the waitress about my plans to go to Japan this summer. It’s just making an effort, something you can do anywhere.
Sorry, the tone of this post is a bit all over the place, but I hope that gives a rough impression of the first week of Mission Semi Immersion: Japan in Milan. A lot of watching shit anime to be honest, then bowing lots to people on skype and telling them every fact that I can think of that makes use of the 50-100 words I now know.
There’s a lot of other news that I want to write up about Milan, but that’ll have to wait. My Italian is getting much better too.
Sorry no time for the doubts either. I’ll cry next week.
*I actually wrote a whole post about this for a pretty successful blog called fluentin3months … checkedy check it here