What I guess people don’t realize, when they first start learning a foreign language, is that it is something like a jigsaw puzzle. You don’t learn the correct grammatical form of a sentence in the past (“I watched a film”) and then remember it completely each time after that. This is because you don’t automatically know each verb right away (“to watch, watched”, “to fall, fell”, “to go, went”). So you pretty much spend a lot of time searching for the missing puzzle pieces, trying each one that seems like it might squeeze in there. (Whoops, no, that’s an eye not a flower.)
And you get it wrong lots of the time. Even know, six years later in the Netherlands, I feel I am only just starting to wade in the waters of Dutch. I have an inherent shyness that prevents me from trying Dutch with those closest around me. I’m perfectly fine trying it out on strangers, I can blabber away at someone I don’t know- other dogwalkers in the park, shop assistants, waiters, bartenders, not a bother. I see the looks on their faces (confusion mixed with a bit of dismay) and it doesn’t bother me (Abandon all hope, all ye Dutch strangers who enter my vicinity). And besides, if a stranger is the only one to see me fall flat on my Dutch skills, then in my book it never happened, end of story/einde van het verhaal.
However, with my Dutch friends and coworkers- all who are waiting patiently for me to try my Dutch on them- I clamp up. I suppose it’s something about them seeing me as inferior, or stupid, or unprofessional. I just can’t seem to let them know (yet) that they’re right on all above counts.
Japan was the first time that I was really immersed in a foreign language, day in and day out. I threw myself into learning the language, but quickly got further along with learning how to write Japanese than how to speak it. The difference in how women and men spoke the language, and how younger and older people spoke the language, only added to the confusion and I spent a lot of that year not knowing what was coming next. Where were they taking me? What were we supposed to do next? What page should I turn to in the textbook? Why are we here again? Everything was a surprise, and my shyness prevented me from asking too many questions. I suppose while there I developed a very laid-back let’s-see-what-happens-next attitude. Because I had no choice, most of the time I just had to see what was happening next to figure things out.
I also did a lot of nodding. I nodded to show that I understood, but more often than that I nodded to show that I had heard the speaker say something….but what that something was was anyone’s guess.
(I was that strange foreign exchange student that everyone seems to have in their school. There I was, smiling and nodding, saying “Yes, yes” and going left when they had just told me to go right. It was a confusing year, but also one of the best of my life. I wasn’t held accountable for anything, not even for having a clue. It was brilliant.)
My group of Japanese friends and I were sitting around our hotel room in Tokyo one night, having taken an overnight bus across the country on a girly trip to Tokyo Disneyland. I had bought a small rainbow-colored bag that hung around my neck like a necklace, only big enough for money, change or a small telephone (none of which I ever really had, but I loved the rainbow look). One of the girls, Yukuri, was admiring it, and quite in keeping with Japanese politeness, told me that it looked very good on me.
I nodded my agreement (“I heard that you said something, yes, but….”) before my brain had the chance to register what she had actually said.
You see, in modest Japan, if someone compliments you, you deny whatever it is they are complimenting. And you do so politely and demurely.
“You are very beautiful.”
“Oh, no, no, that is very kind of you, but I am not beautiful. My face is shaped like a pig and my legs are stumpy.”
“You write Japanese so well.”
“Oh, if only that were true. I aspire to one day write a great novel in Japanese, but until then I hope you can help me write my own name. Right now it looks like mud on paper.”
But you should never agree, or even thank them and leave it at that, as that would be seen as very rude and obnoxious.
So for me to nod to Yukuri’s compliment was essentially for me to say, “Yes it does look quite fetching around my neck, doesn’t it?” And that was just not on.
Yukuri threw a shifty glance at me, and that would have been the perfect chance to correct myself, or to deny it as was the polite thing to do, but that would mean admitting to the fact that I walked the days and nights of Japan not having any sort of clue whatsoever, and so I clamped up and cringed inwardly, preferring her to think me obnoxious rather than stupid.
I think that’s when she realized that Amanda no comprendo Japanese-o. The gig was up.
Many is the time that I will be with a group of friends, or in a business meeting, and will be honestly trying to concentrate on totally understanding the Dutch that is flying around the room. But you know how things are: your mind skips a word, and then a sentence, and then starts to wander (“Ooo look, there’s a bee on the window…spring really is here….”). The next thing you know, everyone is laughing at a joke, and it seems like it was such a funny joke! They all look so happy!
So I laugh too, and I smile too. Aren’t we all happy right now? Isn’t it good to be alive? We’re laughing!
And inevitably someone will see me laughing and ask, “Did you get that?” This is a polite Dutch thing to do, to make sure everyone (every-foreign-one) understands, it is not to be mean or to call me out.
But call me out it does. My smile freezes, before completely natural, now made of hard cement. And the trusty old Japan trick comes back: I nod. ”Yes, yes, I got it.”
Meaning: I heard that you said something, and I understand from those around me that it was quite so very funny. And so I, too, got caught up in the moment.
Meaning: I “got” it, like you get measles or the flu. It was a matter of contagion, not comprehension.
Luckily, now that I am an Official Dutch Speaker with an Official Dutch Speaker Diploma to prove it, these awkward occurrences are happening less frequently. But it is taking a lot of mind-power to stay mentally In The (Dutch) Game, and so I fear that now I scowl in concentration more often than nod in happy confusion.
I’m sure most people speaking to me would prefer friendly-looking ignorance to angry-looking comprehension, but they luckily have no say in the matter.
And come to find out, the joke is never really as funny as I had hoped.
And that rainbow bag did look good on me, damnit.