My aim is to understand that one question. The question that consistently irks me and changes with the prime intention of catching me out. The question that wherever I go arises to greet me and knock all linguistic confidence from my inner being.
It’s a Friday evening, I’ve cycled from work, soaked by the rain, keen to escape to the safety of my apartment -but the supermarket draws me in with the promise of sugary goodness and reduced labels. I walk to the till, clutching my Japanese treats, the cashier scans my items in a flash of lightening, I slowly look up and it’s then- that she mutters those inaudible words. The ones I try so desperately to comprehend. She looks at my expectantly. I’m a deer caught in the headlights. ‘Sumimasen…’ I pause anxiously and questionably answer “Hai” (yes). She nods and proceeds to put my purchases in a bag. Today I have won.
Tomorrow I may answer ‘hai’ again and a bag might not come my way, I may have to boldly ask for one directly, or cowardly walk away with my arms grasping a mountain of shopping, but today… today I have won.
I felt a similar feeling a few days ago in the hospital canteen. For the small price of 300 yen we can get a really nice Japanese meal at work, there was just one problem. Cabbage. For my placement partner (a renound cabbage lover) it was a dream, a delicious mountain of cabbage salad. For me it was a mountain I was not keen to climb. Every day I faced the cabbage challenge, I tried adjusting my tastebuds, pouring a variety of sauces over it, not eating it at all. But it still bothered me. So I learnt how to say politely in Japanese “only a little please, I don’t like cabbage’ and so long behold. I no longer have the cabbage challenge… happy days!
The smallest achievements are often the ones that get me through a week of Japanese lessons, make me less afraid to go shopping and order a meal in a language a world from my own. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been pushed into the deep-end and it’s easy to forget that it was you who did the pushing. You have to be prepared to put yourself out there and understand that people admire you trying.