Immersion is key


I’m going to tell you a story I haven’t told a lot of people before. Because it’s gross. And I still can’t think back to it without feeling embarrassed and creeped out even though it happened almost 3 years ago. But I will tell you anyway. So here it goes:
I’m in Tokyo standing in front of the most luxuriously looking hotel I’ve ever seen. I’ve put on the fanciest clothes I’ve brought to Japan – and I still feel like a homeless person compared to the people in shiny suits and stylish dresses that are entering and leaving the lobby. I take a deep breath and walk inside. The marble walls and chandeliers are blinding.
“Just keep breathing”, I tell myself as I walk up to Manoru who invited me into this fairy tale. Manoru is about 50 years old, he’s a busy surgeon with almost no private life – and he is one of my students. This is only our second lesson – and by lesson I mean one well-paid hour of chatting in English. For the first lesson we met at a Starbucks in a train station. And now we’re here.
I realize that coming here was a big mistake, when we sit down at the bar. We’re having champagne. I think I’ve only had champagne once before in my entire life. It was a gift I’d received for a magazine subscription.
“Why the heck did I listen to my friends when I knew better”, I’m thinking to myself while trying to put on a smily face. Manoru is telling me about a difficult surgery he just did. I’m taking a sip of champagne hoping for it to calm me down. My glass is still half full when our table is ready and we move over to the restaurant. I notice dozens of different forks and knives on the table as I sit down. I can’t breathe. Thank god, the wine is served.
“So tell me about your work”, Manoru says. “You’re working at a cafe, right. A pink one”
“Yes. In Shibuya. Pink chairs and everything”, I reply.
“You like it?”
“Yes, it’s fun. I like talking to the customers. They’re very nice to me.”
The first dish is served. It’s tiny, but it tastes delicious. The waiter pours some more wine into my glass. I’m already feeling tipsy, but I’m scared it would be rude not to have anymore.
Suddenly I can feel Manoru’s hand on my knee. I can’t believe he’s making a move on me after the first dish already! But why is his hand making a crackling sound? I lift the table cloth. Bills! A lot of bills. What should I do? I take them and nervously shove them into my purse. It looks like a lot more money than my usual 3.000 Yen.
For the rest of the dinner, I’m desperately trying to think of a way to get out of this. Should I just go to the toilet and run away? Should I pretend I’m not feeling well? But Manoru paid for this expensive dinner. And maybe he just means well. Maybe he gets that it’s not easy making a living in Tokyo as a waitress. And he’s probably lonely and just enjoying my company. Maybe that money in my purse isn’t that much after all.
After another 6 courses and a lot of wine, we leave the restaurant.
“I have to go to the restroom”, I tell Manoru, finally hoping to be able to escape.
“Me too”, he says. Luckily, he walks away in the direction of the men’s room.
I open my purse and take out the bunch of bills. I count. I count again. And again. 50.000 Yen! Fifty freaking thousand Yen! That’s about 500 Euro. Almost a month’s rent. Now I’m really freaking out. My hands are shaking as I put the money back in my purse. I’m running out of the restroom – but Manoru’s already waiting for me. We take the elevator down to the lobby. There’s an awkward silence.
“So, thank you”, I say when we get to the lobby.
“What are your plans for tonight?”, Manoru asks.
“I’m going to go home now”, I say, hoping he can’t hear my voice shaking.
“Really?” There’s no mistaking his disappointment. “I thought we could go up to my room.”
“Oh, you’re having a room here?” I’m trying to sound naive.
“Sorry, but I really want to go home now.”
“Ok”, he says and walks away.
For a split second I’m too startled to move. Then I turn around and run as fast as I can. I’m not stopping until I’m a block away from the hotel. I feel like throwing up. Instead I go to a game center to play UFO catcher.

P. S.: It wasn’t until more than a year later that I found out that the word pink in Japanese doesn’t just stand for the colour. It’s an equivalent for red-light. Someone should have told me.

When I first came to Japan, I was suddenly thrown back to the state of a toddler. I was 26 years old, but when speaking to Japanese people my vocabulary consisted of nothing more than about 50 words that I was unable to put into a proper sentence. What they were saying to me sounded like a weird gibberish and I’m sure they felt the same way when I was talking in English. So I had to rely on gestures and interpreting facial expressions which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you’re faced with a totally different set of cultural rules and customs. For example, it took me quite a while until I realized that when someone is pointing at his nose, he doesn’t want to tell me there’s something in my face. He just refers to himself.
Of course, I felt a little lost and sometimes desperate not being able to express myself the way I wanted to. I tried to study during breaks while working at a ski lift in a ski resort – and there were a lot of breaks. But I always ended up being frustrated because I didn’t seem to be able to learn fast enough and there were a trillion of words I thought I needed to know and they all sounded pretty much the same and nothing like any other language I had learned before. So I could have ended up like one of these foreigners who spend years over years in Japan, but are still not able to properly order a meal or ask for directions (which is extremely useful in Japan). But I didn’t. Because unlike them, I didn’t just surround myself with people that were speaking the same language(s) I did. I talked to my workmates and asked them to teach me stuff, I made Japanese friends, I watched Japanese TV and tried to read manga.
And after a couple of weeks, something amazing happened: Suddenly, I was able to understand what people around me were saying. Little at first, but my skills were increasing fast. And I realized that it didn’t matter if I didn’t get every single word. I got the overall meaning. And that was worth something. And of course, input created output. There were sounds coming out of my mouth that sounded more and more like proper sentences. My brain had turned into a sponge that was soaking up everything Japanese around me and releasing it when I was pushing hard enough. After only 4 months in Japan I got a job as a waitress. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to understand the customers and my workmates who were all Japanese and didn’t speak any English (except for one girl from France). I was scared I would get the orders wrong. I was convinced I would get fired within a week. But I didn’t. Instead, my Japanese skills went through the roof. It didn’t happen over night, but after a few more weeks I was able to chat with customers, to joke with my workmates. I even went on a date with a Japanese guy – and yes, we just talked (at least at the first one). By the end of the year, I decided to challenge my newly acquired skills and took the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (level 3). It required the knowledge of about 300 Kanji (Chinese characters) and 1.500 words. I passed.
The point I’m trying to make here is: Whatever you want to learn, whatever new hobby or activity you want to pick up – just throw yourself in there! Surround yourself with it as much as possible. Then watch and imitate. You will feel like a toddler trapped in a world of grown-ups. You will trip and fall. Many times. But you will get up again. You will progress. And maybe one day, you will be a grown-up, too! Ganbatte!


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