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Breaking The Silence Spell

Posted by Shaun

You know what I almost forgot about? Today’s Pearl Harbor Day. There was actually a brief mention of it on the Japanese news today that reminded me. It was so brief that I couldn’t tell how they were framing the issue.
Anyway, onto the real topic for today.
The hardest thing about Japanese for me has been talking. Not speaking the language, per se, but talking. It’s a bizarre problem to have, considering that in English it can be difficult to get me to shut up, but I suffer from it none the less.

In much the same way that I suffer from the fact that every H&M commercial I’ve seen in the past 3 months has had the same song in it, albeit in a different remix or with different images. Perhaps I shouldn’t watch TV while I blog.

In any case, from the moment I moved in with my host family, I’ve been under a sort of spell that’s made it hard to get the words out. It started with a combination of bad  habits and bad timing. During my high school Japanese classes, I was a level below most of my friends, so when we would have class parties and speak Japanese, I would come along, but I would mostly just listen because the conversations were hard for me to follow. Of course, listening is part of learning a language. If you can understand everything, you probably aren’t learning. But, like everything, it can be taken to extremes. The same thing happens when I talk to my major advisor, which caused him to tell me that Japanese host families would like me because I’m quiet. Then I moved in, completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and apparently, I found out later, Missus had a hell week at work and couldn’t be around for me right at the beginning, so we didn’t exactly have time to sit and chat and get to know each other.  Things started to get better, but then I had a bad time in Japanese class where no one could understand me, and it made me feel like giving up, causing me to lose all the progress I made. That’s when it really began to feel like I was under a spell, instead of just in a new situation I wasn’t used to yet. It’s just been over the last few weeks that I’ve been beginning to figure out how to break that spell.

My advice is this, if you happen to find yourself trapped in your own spell of study abroad silence: talk about it. See if you can figure out the reasons and let your host family know why you’re having trouble talking to them. I had to do this after I overheard Missus asking Mister if I talked to him. He was home for two days and I hardly said five words to him. Partly this is because I was busy, but it’s partly because of the silence spell. I thought I had nothing interesting to say and I thought that no one would understand it anyway, so I should only try to say anything unless I absolutely had to. Obviously, this is a terrible state of mind to be in when you’re trying to learn a foreign language. I also wanted everyone to like me, so I didn’t want to do anything that seemed to get in the way, like ask for things I wanted. But, if you don’t show any personality at all, that’s not giving people much to like, is it?

Erina still doesn’t talk to me unless she’s telling me how to eat something when we’re having dinner at the same time, and Ryunosuke still asks me weird questions in his difficult-to-understand voice when he happens to be at home. I can’t really change those things. But I’ve been working on my friendship with Missus and Arisa, and at least I let Mister know where I was coming from right before he left for the month.

After I overheard the conversation between Mister and Missus, I felt terrible. I was feeling terrible anyway because I didn’t know what was up with my communication skills, but at that point I realized that I was probably not only frustrating myself but making my host family uncomfortable as well.  So I wrote myself a speech. Or perhaps a letter, if I lost my will to say it out loud. I wrote, in Japanese, about the professor who told me it was good to be quiet, and about how my English-speaking friend couldn’t even understand my Japanese in class. About how I had given up without really realizing it, and that I definitely want to be good at Japanese and speak to the family but my confidence had just disappeared. At breakfast the next morning, I recited the speech. I didn’t even need the paper because I ended up memorizing my own words while I was writing. And I broke down crying in the end. Other than one moment of homesickness during the first week, it was the only time I’d cried in front of my host family. But it turned out to be a good thing. If I was going to feel like an actual host family member, I needed to show them some emotional vulnerability. I needed to lean on them a little bit. Missus told me that she had the same problem when she was studying abroad in England. There was another person she knew who would just say all these things and she couldn’t figure out why he was so fluent and she wasn’t. Then she realized his grammar wasn’t very good. He was just saying whatever he wanted to say, practicing and practicing, without worrying if his sentences came out right. She encouraged me again to say anything I felt like. And I promised myself I would take her advice to heart this time. Mister told me that it was okay that I was crying because they were がんばる涙, “doing your best tears,” so it meant that I really wasn’t going to give up.

I felt so much closer to Mister and Missus after that moment. Although after that I had to go help prepare for our Japan Study Thanksgiving Party and Mister had to leave while I was gone, I could definitely tell I’d gotten closer to Missus when we reunited at the party. My focus had changed, from trying not to be a burden to trying to learn how to be myself, so we had better conversations. 

The next steps were these: talk to Missus in front of Erina, even if you’re a little afraid of her. Talk about the things you’re happy about. Get overcharged at karaoke, try to get over it, but come home angry anyway and talk about it. Then calm down and talk about England. Do your homework in front of the TV, since it’s warmer there anyway and it makes you more accessible. Stay up a little bit later and you can watch TV with Missus when she’s done with teaching for the night. It’s been a lot of fun. I like how she makes a face and a “bleh” sound whenever a singer she doesn’t like comes on TV, like Koda Kumi or AKB48. How she talks about being “macho” and “not typical Japanese” and likes to watch women’s sports, and she comments whenever something on a TV program is overpriced. How she explains to me Erina and Ryu’s personalities so that they seem less frightening and mysterious to me and so I’m not afraid to say that they intimidate or confuse me, and she lets me know when they’re not on their best behavior. The other day when Ryu had just left, she asked me if I could understand him, because his voice is notoriously difficult for foreign students, and I told her that I just didn’t get him at all. She was like 「ショーンは男の人が苦手ね」(literally “Men are your weak point, right?”) and instead of being embarrassed at how obvious it was that I’m no good at interacting with dudes, I was really pleased that she understood that about me. I feel like we’re finally getting to understand each other’s personalities. I feel like I’m finally making progress. Let’s home I keep up the good work.

One Response so far.

  1. ~~ Chris says:

    I really liked this post of yours. I've been under the same spell - but not just with my host family. Really, with any native German speaker I'm nervous speaking. I talk to my host mom more and more and she'll take over the conversation sometimes when she can tell I'm getting frustrated and give me a break from talking for a bit, which is incredibly helpful. I still can't really talk to my host dad, even though he straight up told me I need to stop being so quiet.
    I like this post because I'm trying to find the courage myself to show my personality and stop being so shy - who really cares if I make a few grammar mistakes? Knowing that you're going through the same thing and it's getting better gives me some of that courage. I didn't mean for this comment to get so sappy. Thanks for sharing.

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