It's human nature to want to be understood, and being understood in a language you can barely speak is beyond satisfying.
But nothing has topped my most recent adventure.
Out for my afternoon jaunt, I successfully ordered lunch at a local restaurant; bought a squeegee from a hardware store; and negotiated receipt of a Mr. Donut coffee mug after racking up 150 points on the store card.
Again, nothing that you'd even think twice about in your own language, but quite a feat as far as I can tell for someone who spent two years trying to figure out the difference between sashimi and sushi.
I began my quest for a squeegee by piecing together a sentence using my phrase book and a Japanese-English dictionary.
As you might surmise, there was no Japanese word for squeegee in the dictionary. So using my inimitable logic, I prepared a couple of questions to ask the sales assistants. Do you have car accessories? I figured they'd just take me to that section and I'd take it out from there. But if they pressed me, I'd do my best imitation of a homeless man in New York City cleaning your car window at a stoplight. (I figured this would be easier than miming a window cleaner on a Manhattan skyscraper) True, the chances of someone working in this store in this little town who had been to New York and seen this service were pretty small. But, hey, who am I to judge?
Just to be sure, I worked out an alternate phrase that amounted to something like "window" (and the verb) "to clean," followed by more squeegee action.
I walked in the store ready to go. I asked the cashier the car accessory question. She nodded and called over another assistant. I think that one asked me asked what kind of accessory was I looking for.
"Squeegee," I blurted out. The assistant rolled that one around in her mouth for a few seconds. Then I quickly referred to my "window to clean" phrase and threw in the wiping motion. To make a long story short, it worked like a charm. She took me to see the squeegee department, showed me several sizes, and I walked out with what I wanted a few minutes later.
Turns out, that was just the prelude to more linguistic fun.
I met my son that afternoon after work and we went to the grocery store to get the fixings for a salmon dish. After returning home and starting the recipe, we realized we didn't have sake, the ubiquitous rice wine alcohol of Japan.
I was dead-set on doing the recipe correctly -- and hungry -- so I suggested that instead of biking back across town to get the sake, he ask our downstairs neighbors, the Kandos, for a couple tablespoons. The Kandos have been gracious neighbors, but for whatever reason, Teo was reluctant to go downstairs and ask. But since I was the one with all this newfound Japanese knowledge, why didn't I go down there, he wondered? So I said, I'd go, but tell me what I need to ask.
Teo told me how to say the equivalent of "may I have some sake?" Then I planned to show them the picture in the recipe book to indicate it was for a dish we were making, and that would be it. Now here's the punchline. Sake is also the word for salmon. They wouldn't be confused, right, son?
Nope, most people say salmon, instead of sake, he assured me. Besides, I rationalized, I could always perform my well-rehearsed imitation of a drunk homeless man with a squeegee to get my point across.
Mr. Kando greeted me at the door and ushered me to the dining room, where his mother, a spry 92 years old, sat at the dinner table. His wife, the one who actually knew a little bit of English, was still out shopping. After exchanging some preliminary greetings, I posed the request for sake, and pointed to the picture of the dish in the book.
Both their faces lit up and grandma headed into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later and handed me two sashimi-grade filets of salmon, wrapped in plastic. I realize in retrospect that showing her a picture of a salmon dish and asking for sake was sheer brilliance on my part. I thanked them profusely, and tried to explain again that I needed the drinking sake, not the swimming sake. Just a smidgen, I indicated with my thumb and forefinger.
Their faces lit up again. Grandma again disappeared into the kitchen, only to return a few minutes later with a small container of translucent orange salmon eggs, one of Miyako's signature dishes. She even brought a spoon for me to taste. The eggs were delicious, of course, and who was I to turn down a healthy helping? She sealed the container and placed it in a bag with the salmon filets. Apparently she thought my smidgen gesture meant really small salmon, as in eggs.
As we glided into Abbott and Costello territory, I thought, I might as well give it one more try. Sake, I said, adding the gesture of knocking one back.
Mr. Kando was having fun now. He was apparently quite pleased that in addition to raiding his fridge, I wanted to drink with him, too. Grandma went to the kitchen and returned with a small unopened bottle of chilled sake, and a gift -- a colorful, many-faceted, cloth ball. I resigned myself to the fact that we'd have to wait for Mrs. Kando's arrival to clear things up and accepted a cupful of sake. Kompai -- "cheers" -- I said, and we were off.
Several shots later, Mrs. Kando arrived home. I didn't really care at that point. But after a few more minutes of hand gestures, my broken Japanese and her reading the recipe, she got it and simply pointed to the nearly empty sake bottle and uttered something to the effect of, "just take that with you."
Now my point is not about miscommunication. I think it goes way beyond that. What I got out of it is an example of how our higher self knows much better what we want than we do. Really.
The little me went downstairs for two measly tablespoons of sake. The expanded Phase 2 player, came back with a fine buzz, the final ingredient for our dinner, the next night's dinner, a local delicacy, a gift, a bonding experience, and a great story. Who says I'm not living large?