Curry and Green Tea

I honestly haven’t made a lot of Japanese friends here yet. We international students arrived early before classes started, and we had a lot of activities to bind us together. Because of those things, I’ve gotten pretty to some of them. We still usually hang together–the cafeteria usually has a table or two full of gaijin, and in the lobby of the dorm you can usually see a few groups of international students. This is great–we all have a lot of fun together. And for myself at least, while I still see the other Winona students, I spend most of my time with other people. But for me and a few others, it’s been difficult to get know the Japanese students.

This is because of a few reasons. In the first place, all the international students are at different levels of Japanese. Some people are just learning the alphabet, others are bordering on fluent. The Japanese students are in a similar situation. Because English is the official language of the university, all the Japanese students have to take classes that improve and solidify their English skills. But lots of them are more comfortable using Japanese or uncertain about English. These two things create a language impasse that’s hard to overcome. Secondly, while almost all the students I’ve met have been friendly, they are often fairly reserved about themselves. The international students, who are trying to settle in and create a comfortable living space, freely share lots of information about their lives, schools, and opinions. The Japanese students, who aren’t out of their comfort zone, don’t always reciprocate.

That said, I’ve been very lucky to meet a few who are more than nice–they’re good enough to go an extra step and become friends. I’ve found that most of these are people who have studied abroad before and seem to have an idea of what we’re going through.

Today I was invited to lunch by a friend from my geography class (I’m the only foreigner in the class). I’ve had dinner with her once before, and both times she cooked a meal from scratch. Today she made us Japanese curry (it tastes very much other curries, but not spicy) and it was delicious. We sit and talk about the university, about food, about the geography class (which we both think is a joke), about learning foreigner languages. One of the things I have appreciated about her from the start was that once she found out that I was learning Japanese, she pushed me to speak almost every time we met. She corrected me when I got things wrong and helped me when I had to break into English, but we have only had a few English-only conversations. She is SO helpful! Sometimes I wish we used English because we seem to have so much to talk about, but this way is so much better.  (Plus, she speaks really quickly, so I’m always on my toes.) If I use a word improperly, she’ll tell me a better one. If I say something strangely, she’ll tell me how to phrase it in Japanese. And she’s been quizzing me all week on how to say “big test” and “small test” after she found out that my teacher has been using the wrong phrase.

She tells me that she studied in Ireland in high school, and that when she went there, she didn’t know any English.  (I think she must have known a tiny bit, though.)  She said that the people around her really helped her a lot with English and with living in a foreign country. That’s part of why she’s happy to cook for me. I think I understand that–the feeling of being a foreign student seems pretty universal. And when someone helps you deal with it, it feels like something you should pay forward.

The past week or two, I’ve been feeling really down-and-out about Japanese. It feels like I’m getting nowhere, my core teacher frustrates me, every night I have either a page of vocabulary or kanji to learn, and yet I still can’t manage better than a stuttering conversation with people, or red Xs all over my homework. After so much frustration, my friend gave me the best compliment ever–that I had improved since our last meal a couple weeks ago. It really means a lot to me. Thinking back on it, I think I did understand her better at least. But I hope I always have friends who are willing to teach me so much. Without her help, this would be twice as hard.

At the end of our lunch, she asked me if maybe sometime I could help her with the English in her term papers. I answered with an, “Of course!” because how could I do any less after all her kindness?

Japanese word of the day : hirugohan / ひるごはん  (hee-rue-go-han)  noun:  lunch

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