Sunday, May 17, 2009

Language Lessons from an Elevator

Japanese are studious. English is compulsory. I let these two bits of my pre-departure knowledge of Japan fog the real need for tackling the language. I recall trying to fumble "konichiwa" to myself on the plane, which was on a word list in the on board flight magazine. The screech it set off in my mind was enough for me to close that idea while we were still on the tarmac. I proceeded to spend August '94 believing that everywhere I went, everyone was playing a joke on me. They don't know what they are saying. They are doing this to make the typical ethnocentric American think they are really communicating. It sounded that nonsensical and impossible to me.

My job was to teach English and attend to international related duties at the city board of education. The board of education office was on the 4th floor of a building that housed I have no idea what else. My world was about surviving the adventure of the day. It was a public facility. I took the elevator to the fourth floor. My Japanese knowledge was founded on this 17 second ride. "Doa ga shimarimasu, go chui kudasai," the high pitched operator tone recording would shriek when the doors closed. I could repeat that in perfect harmony (well, perfect monotone as the language sounds). Unfortunately this ego trip did little to help me navigate a ramen shop menu, or complete a transition at the post office. In fact, I don't recall a time in 14 plus years that, "Please be careful, the doors are shutting" have helped me an any Japanese conversation. Thanks to the elevator repeat after me lesson, I added to my bank of 6 well pronounced words by standing on the train platform: I could also do a pretty mean, "In just a minute, a train will be approaching platform 1, so please be careful." Again, I wasn't exactly on board the bullet train to mastering the language with this stock of mimicry, but it did speak to me, in the sense that, I do have the gift of imitating, and it was these recordings brought me to the starting gates of formal Japanese lessons.

My background of having studied, worked and lived in France, and then having taught French in Ohio, resulted in overly high expectations of myself in language. It took me a full month get a head above in the language, and no longer just stand a head above of the natives on the elevators and trains.

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