Going Through the Motions

I’m either picking up a lot of Japanese, or I’m getting really good at guessing.
I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, but I’ve been surprised a few times. There’s this one teacher who either doesn’t know I don’t speak Japanese, doesn’t believe it, or is giving me an intensive training course without my knowledge. She doesn’t speak English, but she’s the audio/visual lady, so I see her pretty often when I need to scan something or set up a PowerPoint.
And every time I go to see her, she talks and talks, and I feel so bad that I don’t understand, that I think my ears extend a little to try to catch a word I know in her rapid-fire Japanese. I also study her body language like a hawk to try and fill in the blanks. A bad habit I’ve picked up is answering “so desu” whenever someone says “Ne?”
“Ne” goes at the end of the sentence, and basically means “isn’t it?” or “doesn’t it?” As in “samui desu, ne?” It’s cold, isn’t it? (PS – That is the only phrase you need to know in Japan between the months of November to March) So I have been answering “so desu,” which basically means “yeah” or “I agree.” It’s a bad habit because I don’t actually know what I just agreed to, but at least I look like an active participant in the conversation!
Let me know if these Japanese-lesson-type parts are annoying. I know how lame it looks when a person always says Japanese words when English ones do just fine, but it’s honestly how I start to think. But if it’s annoying, I don’t want to be That Guy. (More like “that GAIjin,” amiriteguys?!)
Anyway, the other day, no amount of “so desu”s or watching body language could help me out of this one. I got a knock at my door, and Melissa and I kind of looked at each other, since I don’t really have the kind of friends that drop by, since my apartment is 25 minutes from the train station and located in the middle of a suburban spiral. No one’s ever “just in the neighborhood,” except Jehovah’s Witnesses (of COURSE they have Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan!) whom I have to convince in broken Japanese that I like my own Bible just fine, but won’t you please take some American candy so you don’t pray for me to burn in hell?
Well, it was evening, so I figured it wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, so I went to answer the door to find a man in a uniform. Keep in mind the last time I opened the door to a man in uniform, he was the gas man (allegedly!) who convinced me via ninja sign language that he needed to come into my house and make sure my stove wasn’t running. Yes, it sounds like a hilarious prank call, and he very well could have been an axe murderer, but my problem at the time was the fact that I needed to leave the house in less than 5 minutes to catch a train, while this guy filled out paperwork in triplicate about how off my oven was.
But I dare not neglect to open the door to strangers in uniform because SOMEDAY it’s going to be a delivery man holding out a basket of gifts sent for me. I just know it.
Well, this guy looked really apologetic and tried to tell me something about how he had knocked on all the doors in my apartment complex. Then he pointed to a lightbulb on the ceiling. So…he’s a lightbulb changer? Okay, great. I asked him how much.
GREAT MONEY-MAKING IDEA: Go to various foreigners’ apartments in Japan and tell them that you are a lightbulb changer. Or a “Watching TV tax” man. Or wallet inspector. The less Japanese they know and more awkward the poor gaijin is, the more likely it is that they will give you any amount you ask for just to be able to close the door.
Anyway, he nervously fanned his hand in front of his face to indicate that he didn’t want my money. But he kept pleading something. I picked up some words that he was saying (score!) and I discovered he was asking if I was going to be home all evening. I told him I would be, and he ran off to the parking lot.
Melissa called from the other room, asking what happened. I had no idea. Was I supposed to wait here? Was he coming back? Was he the bomb technician all those Hot Topic t-shirts warn about, and if I see him running, I should try to keep up? No clue.
He came back. With a huge package. Then he ran away again. And brought another package. A new heater! Clearly not for me, but it was as if the Gods had answered Melissa’s and my prayers.
Suddenly, my years of watching detective shows all paid off. (Can you guess the ending yourself? If so, come to Japan! And explain other stuff to me!) He was obviously a package delivery man, but the recipient was not home, and for whatever reason, he didn’t want to take it back to the post office (where *I* have to pick up packages *I* miss, but that’s another story). So he entrusted me with these two packages, and he would leave a note in the recipient’s mailbox to come ask me for it when they get home. And the lightbulb? He was actually pointing to the ceiling, or rather, through it, gesturing to my upstairs neighbor’s apartment. Yaay!
But at the time, I wasn’t so triumphant. It seemed so circuitous, and even though Japan is a country of trust, I think assuming I won’t rip through this brand new heater myself and live in tropical paradise is awfully trusting. But I would uphold my duty, and I filled out a slip of paper, saying I indeed had it. And before he left, I got his name, too, in case I had misunderstood or the package was actually a live baby that I was legally bound to care for or something. I guess knowing his name probably wouldn’t have helped me too much in that respect anyway.
But sure enough, a few hours later, my neighbor returned home, and I was able to hand off the precious cargo. It felt good to be a working cog in the machine for once, instead of the outsider invalid who can’t even buy Drain-o without help from store clerks.
But I’m sure I lost whatever respect I had from Melissa regarding my knowledge of the Japanese language right before she left. I called the taxi service to set up her ride to the bus station, and a few minutes later, I got a call back from them. I answered the phone in Japanese, and had a quick back-and-forth for a few minutes, full of “so desu”s and “wakarimashita”s (I understand). Raising her eyebrows a little, Melissa asked me what they had called to say.
“No idea,” I said, as I lugged her bag out the door. But I was sure it would be fine, and miraculously, there was a taxi there in a few minutes’ time. The taxi guy was probably just calling me back to tell me, “It’s cold, isn’t it?”
So desu, Japan. Yes, it is.

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