Sunday, April 10, 2011

Language Barriers

There are many barriers to communication when you live cross-culturally, of course, and language is only the most obvious. There are also physical cues, cultural cues and curly cues.

I've been in this country for 21 years, and speak the language reasonably well. I may not be an accomplished writer/poet like Lafcadio Hearn, or a translator, but I get by. But no matter how well you speak, you'll never get by the verbal cock-block of someone who is convinced foreigners can't speak the language and therefore won't listen. This is the Coach-Beast-in-a-tutu of communication.

I've been putting off getting new rear tires for the car, because they're horrendously expensive. But I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer (the belt was poking through the rubber), and found the best deal at a local gas station.

So I go in and ask them to do it, and this one guy is talking to me with his hands a lot, and seeming to have speech problems. But his coworker talks to me normally, we get things set up, and I sit down to wait while they get to work. A few minutes later the first guy comes in with one of my tires to show me the wear on the radials. It's pretty bad, but his speaking is worse. Once again, he's trying to wave and point my eyes and not finishing sentences.

After he goes back out to finish the work, I finally realize the problem. Despite the fact that I'm answering his every question in Japanese, he's convinced I don't speak or understand, and is trying to use gestures to 'help' me. When he comes back in to ring things up, it just gets worse. He refuses to say how much it costs, but writes it down instead. Then when I read the amount out to him he says "Yes", then writes down how much change I'll be getting.

But the ringer is when he hands me this little card and tries to explain in pidgin Japanese:
"100 km, you ka-chin! Ka-chin, kachin, 100"

Now, I have no fucking clue what this numb-nut is trying to say, so I look at the card. It says (in Japanese, of course) to bring the car back when I reach 100 km, and they'll retighten the lug nuts. Why couldn't he just say that? Especially since "nut" is the same word in both languages, and is written on the card in the characters reserved for foreign loan words. Where do you get "tighten lugnut" from "ka-chin"?

I'm going back in tomorrow to get "ka-chin"ed. I think I'll pull the reverse-gaijin trick, and resolutely misunderstand anything not said in normal Japanese. Then ask him to re-explain and pester him for details until he finally either gives up and explains in normal Japanese, or realizes I'm pestering him in Japanese.

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