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I’ve Become My Own Worst Enemy

Readers may recall scattered mentions of my encounters with Japanese who simply walk up to foreigners in the middle of the sidewalk and want to practice their English. Often, these foreigners are not native speakers, which makes it all the more amusing for me, as a bystander, to overhear some of the resulting confusion.

The main motivation for all these encounters being, of course, many Japanese want to feel like they’ve had an "international" experience, a close encounter of the 3rd foreigner, a chance to put into practice some of the skills they learned in school besides bowing and aisatsu (recorded messages). For those with the time and resources, an eikaiwa is often the better choice; foreigners on the street may not exactly be in a talkative mood… or capable; foreigners in private schools are paid to be your eigo tomo (English buddy).

It’s been a strange experiences giving up my Japanese residency and traveling to several different countries – China, Thailand, New Zealand, the US – over the past few months. Beneficial and beautiful, but still, I feel a little out of place, and want to recapture the feeling of being in Japan. I do so by looking for Japan-like hot springs (only one or two have come close), and trying to keep up my language skills.

Arriving in Auckland proved to be a major eye-opener. I knew that the Kiwis and Asians had a common ocean, but I never imagined such an incredible Asian influence in a city like this; Queens Street is lined up and down with Korean, Thai, and Korean restaurants, there’s a 100 yen store (or, rather, NZ $3 store), and quite the diversity.

The opportunity to test out my skills, the desire to practice, was too strong to resist… I find myself eavesdropping on random groups of Asians to see if I can understand anything; more often than not, they’re Koreans, but on occasion, I can catch some Japanese phrases. Take this evening, for example: the Lantern Festival, a celebration of Chinese culture, is being hosted in Albert Park. Out of the numerous Chinese and Thai food stalls, there was one takoyaki yomise. I couldn’t help myself… I positioned myself close to the sample tray under the pretext of looking at the menu (at a takoyaki stand? I mean, com’n…) and listened in… after a few seconds…

(in Japanese)

Japanese person: "Just look around… everywhere, gaijin, gaijin gaijin."

Me: "Yes, indeed, there are many gaikokujin, and some of us understand you. Watch out."

Japanese person: (jaw hangs slack with surprise)

I was cracking myself up walking away from that stall, but at the same time, I felt a little guilty – I was no better than the drunk Japanese businessman who once accosted me demanding a free English lesson in front of my apartment; I’m the one walking around an English-speaking country, attempting to discern whether someone with Asian heritage is Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, or just a local Kiwi, and, when I do find such a person, practice my Japanese skills. A truly international experience.

Nor am I above the nihongo tomo crowd; in Auckland, there are many restaurants run by Japanese, but I enjoy dining at Sharaku on Queens Street. It may not exactly be a sterile classroom, but the teachers give me cups of hot green tea, the conversation is fluid, and I look very international to the curious spectators who ogle at the Japanese-speaking white face.

I am such a tool… but if it helps me retain my nihongo… I had to think for ten minutes before I could remember the word for "study". I mean, benkyou??? Really?

Any similiar experiences?