June 11 Learn a foreign language to feel at home

An old friend of mine recently upped and moved to Egypt to be with her husband, who had been posted to work there for a few years.

"But what on earth are you going to do in Egypt?" I asked at her farewell party last year, my wine-fogged mind conjuring up visions of riding camels to go shopping at exotic bazaars.

"Oh well, you know," she replied in her usual breezy way. "A bit of this, a bit of that... also, I'll be taking Arabic lessons every day."

I shook my head, half in admiration and half in incomprehension. I, too, would soon move to Japan with my Nipponophile husband, but I had no intention of devoting myself to mastering a foreign language at the jaded and inflexible age of 30.

This conviction had been sealed a few years ago, when I took a brief course in Japanese and discovered that I was less interested in it than in counting the leaves on the tree outside the classroom window.

Unlike the other students in my class, I had never read any manga comics, watched any anime cartoons or understood why Takuya Kimura was "kakkoii" (cool).

To be honest, all I really wanted to do was to finish the homework so I could pass the beginner proficiency examination and get my certificate.

It didn't help that Japanese is a fairly tricky language with three different alphabets and barely any pronouns.

Everything hinges on context and subtext, which is why Japanese people often fail to finish their sentences.

The official way to reject an invitation to anything is to say, "Well, today is a bit..." and then abruptly walk away.

With these frustrations in mind, I arrived in Japan six months ago with only the vaguest of plans to learn the language in a country where most people speak practically no English.

"Here's what I'll do," I told my husband, who had entertained sadly unrealistic visions of us chattering fluently in Japanese. "I'll go to the bookstore and buy some Japanese books... at some point."

As winter deepened and I absorbed myself in my (English-language) work, that "some point" became more and more distant.

But every time I ventured out into civilisation, I was invariably reminded of how essential it is to learn Japanese - not just the linguistics, but also the multi- layered unspoken language of the people.

The first time I took a bus in Fukuoka, I merrily stuck out my arm to hail the vehicle as it approached the bus stop.

My husband batted down my arm with alarm. "No one does that here!" he said. "You'll confuse the driver."

"But then how do you get the bus to stop?" I asked.

"You just sort of... make meaningful eye contact with the bus driver," he said.

That sounded sketchy to me. What if I eyeballed the driver and he misunderstood the gesture as a threat, a come-on or - worst - a message that he should drive on without stopping?

But I didn't want to look like an ignorant foreigner, so the next time I had to take the bus I performed a nonchalant but complicated wiggle of my eyebrows at the driver as he approached.

When he slowed down and stopped, I felt a strange new thrill: the triumph of having successfully posed as an insider in a foreign land.

That is, until I was on the bus and had pressed the button to signal that I wanted to get off at the next stop.

Polite Japanese commuters gave me sidelong glances. My husband buried his head in his hands.

"What did I do now?" I asked.

"The next stop is the terminal stop," he said. "Since everyone knows the bus has to stop anyway, no one presses the button."

"How would I have known that?" I said.

"The bus driver just said it," he replied. "In Japanese."

By the time March rolled around, bringing with it sunlit warmth and chirping birds, I had decided enough was enough.

If I didn't commit to learning the languages of Japan - written, spoken, bus and others - I would always be a disgruntled outsider and Japan would always be an insurmountable enigma.

I resumed learning Japanese the only way I knew how: by signing up for the next level of the proficiency test. But now I also have some new Japanese friends to hang out with, watch Japanese dramas in my free time and understand much more of what is going on around me.

As someone who has relocated for expedience, rather than passion, I sometimes sympathise with foreigners who have uprooted themselves to live in an increasingly unfriendly Singapore.

It can be a lot of trouble to learn a new language, much less get used to unfamiliar customs in your host country, especially if there is a convenient enclave of friends from your hometown to retreat into.

But from my experience, if you plan to make a country your temporary home, there's really no excuse - and no fun - in staying a stranger.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

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