“…warui…” without thinking I comprehend. “Wrong” something is wrong. We are on a plane to Frankfurt, Germany. I am over hearing the woman in front of me talking to the flight attendant in Japanese. She is talking about the person next to her.

“Dozo…….wasuremono”- {Please go ahead, I have forgotten something}.  I am approaching the check out line at the Fresta, my local grocery store. A small elderly lady motions me to go ahead as she speaks, the meaning of her Japanese effortlessly synthesizes in my brain.

“Doko ni kimasuka? {Where are you from?}.  The 7-11 clerk has a kind face. She is ringing up all of her current inventory of Hichew candy for me. I know I have been asked this question many times, but could not make out the words. Today they all connected like Lego blocks building a simple form.

Most of the time I only understand about twenty percent of what is being asked. Through context clues I hobble together conversations. This is about two or three words per sentence. Recently I have been experiencing instantaneous comprehension.  This usually happens in familiar circumstances grocery store, yubinkyoku (post office), standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. I now understand that the lady inside the elevator is saying please shut the door. Or on the amstram she reminds me to please be careful.

How I came to remember, “please be careful” is a good example of what I am talking about. It was a beautiful, sunny, late autumnal day in November, we are headed to church. The sidewalks are deserted. Rich is zooming down the street. Some street crossings have signals and some do not. He is zig zagging and standing on his pedals. I am coming up behind him pausing at each corner, for every corner is a blind corner. The train rumbles above our head as we go under the train’s overpass and that is when I see Rich run a red light and almost get hit by a car. I yell “dame!” [Which means ‘bad’ in Japanese] as I screech to a stop. A small elderly lady is standing patiently for the light. She turns and with a smile says, “Abenai desu ne”. Its meaning, “dangerous isn’t it” instantly known. Little, celebratory fireworks go off in my head. “So ne” {yes indeed} I reply. She looks at me and smiles. Ping pong. The light has turned green. As I struggle to get my pedal she says “Kiyostukite kudasai” (please be careful). More fireworks ignite as I catch up to my husband. After that I hear ‘kiyostukite kudasai’ on the train, I read it on the tram doors, I hear moms’ yelling it to their kids.

Eves dropping is very useful to me. Once standing on the corner I overheard a girlfriend say to anther “ii otenki desu ne” {isn’t it nice weather}. How could I have forgotten that phrase?! Now I use it whenever I can. It’s my response to any native that bravely smiles back at me in public.  We make eye contact, we simultaneously smile and then I say “ii otenki desu ne?” They bow in agreement and “so desu ne”. This simple phrase is priceless because it generate an authentic smile, a respectful bow, a conversation.

Sometimes the response is in rapid, complicated Japanese. I have good pronunciation because of my high school experience. Occasionally they assume my language is advanced. It is so humiliating to stand there and let the incomprehensible language wash over me as a wave. When the speaker stops I only have a one-word response. “Wakarimasen.” {I don’t understand.} Then it is their turn to look deflated.

The truth is you can’t get good speaking a language studying a book or taking a class. You get good at speaking by conversing with the natives.  My cooking class is invaluable to my language development. I am immersed in Japanese with no subtitles for six hours. Only when it is crucial for my understanding, like measuring ingredients, do I get English. (Note: salt and sugar look exactly the same and used in similar quantities in Japanese cooking). Otherwise it is piecemeal sentences and Japanese charades. I am happy to report that all of the cooking teachers are now interacting with me. Maeda sensei will come up and speak to me as if I am Japanese. There is no English at all. My brain searches frantically for some clue to what she is saying, some familiar syllable or sound to help me remember how I am suppose to cut this lotus root. It is significant progress that she feels comfortable enough to talk to me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand a word she says.

The Japanese language has word markers. These markers tell the listener and speaker the function of the word. There is no direct correlation in English. The subject gets ga after it, the topic marker is wa. Setting is de, but the direct place, time, and person marker is ni. Direct objects get o. Possession is signaled by no. The order of these chunks is “non demo ii” {any way is good}. The verb is always at the very end. I love it when my teacher says, “Please memorize this”. Memorizing isn’t the problem, remembering it in the heat of the moment, is the problem. Being immersed in six hours of Japanese in a setting with a specific context is helping me develop an intuitive sense to these markers. I am picking out more and more words and hearing these markers. Fireworks are going off more frequent.

The other day I was hanging out with two and three year olds. “Konnichi wa, genki desu ka?” [Hello, how are you today?] I say. Their response is clear, crisp and a rapid stream. I look to my friend, Rie san for help. She tells them I can only speak a little. A little boy brings me some sticks. Ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku, nana, hachi, ku, ju. We count them together over and over. He puts them in one long line, then bunches of five. He puts them in my hand and I then put them in his. Each time counting in Japanese. At first he is standing by me, then leans in, and finally he climbs into my lap. When our time is up, we put our sticks in a nice pile in the sun. With bright, dark eyes looking right into my heart, he asks me when I will be back. We hug, luckily that requires no translation.

3 thoughts on “Fireworks

  1. You are so very courageous and tenacious, my friend. The little boy didn’t need a translation into your heart. You exude love, joy, and kindness without any words at all.


  2. Beautiful! I love the moments of understanding in a non native language- yet, these times can also remind us that we still want more instant understandings, deeper conversations. I am so impressed with all your meaningful encounters becasue your love, passion and compassion shines through it all. Good on you for keeping at it all the time! Love, PJ


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