Being a gaijin, a foreigner, in Japan can be an adventure. When I first started living in Japan, I was a bit of a hermit. Why? Because I was afraid to be in a situation where I didn’t understand what was being said to me or embarrassing myself because I couldn’t clearly express myself in Japanese.
For a typical westerner of non-Asian descent, most Japanese people will at least attempt to speak to you in a slow and easy to understand Japanese, if not English. For me however, since I am of Japanese descent, people would assume that I was fluent in Japanese; For example, I once was talking to a worker at the airport, and she spoke to me in Japanese at a fairly fast pace. When I asked her to slow down she gave me a look like “are you slow, or what?” To say the least, I felt stupid.
On another occasion, I used an elevator to go to another floor. Along the way, the elevator would stop, so that people can get off and on. I was standing in front of the elevator control panel, so it was my responsibility to press the buttons to keep the door open or to close it. I was a bit nervous as the kanji, Chinese character, for open (開) and close (閉) are very similar, and I didn’t know which was which. As the elevator stopped and the door opened to let people in, lo and behold, I pressed 閉. The people entering probably thought I was an ***hole. I was so embarrassed! Luckily, the person behind me covered for me and pressed the correct button.
In another incident, I was at my cousins house preparing to brush my teeth. So I grab the tube of toothpaste, apply it to my toothbrush, and proceed to brush my teeth. “Man, this stuff is gross!” I thought. Just my luck, it turns out that what I thought was toothpaste was actually facial detergent!
I could go on and on about my gaijin experiences. My advice to those that are planning to visit or stay in Okinawa for a while is to not let your inability to speak or read Japanese keep you from getting out, exploring, and enjoying all that Okinawa has to offer because that’s the only way you’re going to learn, improve, and adapt. I have lived in Japan since 2003, and I’m still evolving!