Talking Good

Have you ever been walking around and gotten suddenly terrified that you had forgotten to wear pants? No? Just me then? Hm, have you ever gotten home and realized your fly was down and people were probably making fun of you all day? That is what life in Japan feels like.
I am fortunate enough to work at a high level academic high school with at least 10 English speaking Japanese teachers and people who have a basic knowledge of English. Some are eager to practice with me, and others are shy about their pronunciation. So, really, it’s a crapshoot as to what someone will say to me in the hall.
The first couple days, I was absolutely terrified. I tried to speak Japanese as much as I could, but the wrong words kept coming out. I kept saying “Thank you” instead of “good morning.” And once to a student I said kancho instead of kocho — “ramming your fingers up your friend’s butt” instead of “principal.” Yeah, I’m glad I said that to a student, and not, you know, the principal.
I later got paid back by karma. After being told many times that “sayonara” is way too formal for normal people to say on a daily basis, I finally got it through my head that “ja ne” is a better way to say “bye for now.” They seemed to imply that “sayonara” is usually accompanied by tears and lovers chasing after trains. So, of course, when parting with the principal in the hall one day, I said “ja ne.” I was later informed by a DIFFERENT teacher that I had said the equivalent of “See ya later, alligator” to the most respected member of the school community. Yes!
One sleepy morning, I passed my neighbor on the way out of my apartment, and just said “Good morning” (in English). I then proceeded to turn beet red and say it in Japanese before biking furiously to the nearest vending machine and getting a coffee. I don’t think anyone should talk before having coffee.
As I got a little more comfortable, I was met with a new quandary. I think I make a lot of mistakes in Japan just because I don’t believe the crazy things I’d heard rumored. Like when you get to school, you say “Ohayo gosaimasu” to every person you pass. Literally. Like if you walk to your desk in a room full of 15 people, you will say it 15 times.
Okay, so maybe not EXACTLY 15, but you’re going to hear such a chorus, that it might as well be. But the door to the teacher’s room is right by my desk, and when I get in, everyone looks busy, and I kind of say one meek “Ohayo gosaimasu” and try to spread it around the room like a weak lawn sprinkler. Apparently this is not the way, but I just can’t bring myself — in a country where silence and conformity is revered — to proudly place my hands on my hips in a Superman pose and announce my presence by shouting to everyone in my radius of morning wishes. It just doesn’t mesh. But whatever I choose to do is wrong, so I stick with the meek one.
The quandary comes with the bold teachers. I get into a Japanese language mentality, and when they say “Good morning” to me in English, outside their own language, I feel the need to return an “Ohayo gosaimasu” in Japanese, outside mine. Later it occurred to me that maybe they want me to reply in English. Maybe they’re trying to be brave and get into a mentality just like me. So I’ve tried to lob back whatever language they serve at me.
But traveling the halls is like walking a gauntlet. Languages are shot at me from every direction. And it’s not easy to just switch what you were going to say midstream. Much like a jousting knight, I sort of need to take a running start before charging towards the ring of cross-cultural understanding in the Medieval Times Dinner Theater of Japan. What I mean is I mess it up almost every time. Oh, well. I’m flattered that they’re trying.
Saying goodbye at the end of the day is also a lot more difficult than the already-confusing sayonara/ja ne debate. Teachers I am friendly with usually say “See you,” but I was also told by one friendly teacher that I should say “Osakini shitsureshimasu” when I leave. I am told this roughly translates to “I’m sorry I’m bothering you/Sorry for leaving before you.” Or something like that. But the way I hear it used, I *think* it is also just a medium formal “goodbye” and has lost most of the connotations of actually doing something irritating.
But I can’t be SURE of the connotations, because most kids and young teachers kind of mumble, and all I hear is “mmmm-shimas.” But that is the ending to a lot of words, so I can’t be sure what they’re saying. Actually, it means so many things, that I could probably just pretend to mumble it myself in every situation. Sure, why not? I think I will.