Written as a classroom example for my students.
What I wanted was katsu-curry, but I didn’t know that. I had looked at the pictures of various dishes, almost all involving a mild brown curry familiar in Japanese home cooking, and had decided to try my luck again. Walking in and finding a seat had been easy enough. Getting a menu and some tea had been easy enough. Reading the menu, on the other hand….
Well, the simple truth is that I couldn’t read Japanese. That was part of the experience, of course: on the one hand, schools in Japan wanted “Foreign English Teachers” to speak in English with their students; on the other hand, going to a country where I was functionally illiterate sounded like an amazing adventure. In Japan, most of the street signs, warning signs, ATM menus, food labels, and bus schedules were in Japanese—and often there was little or no English translation available. I couldn’t easily ask passersby for help, either, as I couldn’t speak enough Japanese to understand their answers! I had to rely on many helpful English-speaking Japanese and foreigners to help me get by.
I could also rely on my general language skills, to some extent: as an English teacher and salesman, I was pretty skilled at breaking things down to explain them simply. I’d also had a bit of experience with travelling, and could usually work out prices and train tables even in languages I couldn’t read. I had felt keenly proud the first time I had fumblingly said “sumimasen” to a Japanese man waiting for the bus, even though I was unable to clearly ask what time the next bus for the train station would come. I was both embarrassed and pleased that I had figured out how to say “hanbagaa setto, onegaishimasu” to get a hamburger combo (with “kora”—Coca-Cola) at “Makudonarudo”(McDonald’s).
None of that helped me, though, with a menu full of Japanese home cooking, a restaurant full of Japanese strangers, and a friendly waitress who spoke not a word of English. Continue reading