Pris Pho Tue, 11 Sep 2018 17:08:26 +0000 en-AU hourly 1 Pris Pho 32 32 98265792 Rounding out Tue, 02 May 2017 08:00:44 +0000 To live in a country long term, almost exclusively in the company of locals, means to change in more than just habits and quirks.

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“The line is so long.”

This didn’t faze me. After years of living in the country of unrivaled line waiting patience, I’ve started considering less than a one hour wait to be reasonable. Japanese people can wait without complaining for hours. In the rain. Before sunrise. I know, I’ve done it too.

So waiting for less than half an hour indoors for the best – bar none, the best – egg tarts I’ve ever tasted? Piece of …tart.

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“You get a table and I’ll bring them over, ok?” my dad said.

I nodded and headed into the cramped seating area. Every seat and substitute had been filled so with no existing line in sight, I stood to the side, making my own. In Hong Kong, I had a relative’s pocket wifi. In Macau, I relied on the free wifi that shopping centres doled out so I was perfectly content to catch up on my social media while waiting.

When a seat opened up a minute later, I pocketed my phone and headed over. Before I could reach the table, a woman flanked by bags swooped in and buried the table with her shopping. I looked around to find no one reacting to the table thief and decided that she hadn’t seen me.

It took another two times, once when I was already reaching for the seat, before I finally caught on to the rules of the line waiting: there are none.

This time, the phone stayed pocketed and I was on alert. At the next opportunity, I moved in too close too soon for normal social convention, almost hovering over the finishing occupants and sliding into the chair before they could push it back in.

Immediately, a woman came over and began berating me in Mandarin. People speaking in foreign languages at breakneck speeds have lost the fear inducing panic in me thanks to a long period of exposure, but at the volume and belligerence that she was going, I have to admit, I was a little stunned. I caught on to enough of the words to understand the general message but I decided to use the golden go-to I use for these situations in Japan… in Australia too come to think of it.

“我聽不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng: I don’t understand).”

Later that week, safe in Japan from screaming Chinese people, my housemates shook their heads at me as I told them the story over egg rolls.

“日本人になったね (nihonjin ni natta ne: You’ve become Japanese),” they laughed.

One comment read: “Hahaha she was probably thinking omg what is she?!”

I’ve written before about being mistaken as Japanese and how I had started to change within my first year of arriving. But to live in a country long term, almost exclusively in the company of locals, means to change in more than just habits and quirks. The experience is starting to change my identity in a way that is becoming increasingly internalised; more obvious to me but invisible to anyone I don’t speak to regularly.

“People should have a firm foundation in their own language before learning another” is a sentiment I hear very often as a foreign language teacher.

When they ask for my opinion, I find it difficult to answer. I grew up in an immigrant family. We didn’t have the luxury of choosing when we would learn a second language. The oldest generation in our family made it to Australia around the time I was born and never really picked English up. Although my parents’ generation arrived earlier, language acquisition remains a continual process thirty, almost forty years after moving to Australia. For our generation, it was around the time we started school and the issue became how to keep up with our first language.

As a young child, I communicated primarily in Chinese. I remember wondering what it’d be like if the whole world was in English, which is odd because it kind of was for me; Australia operates entirely in English. Once I joined school and for the majority of my life, I’ve been thinking in English instead. The only memory I’ve kept from the transition is the discomfort of deciding how to address my parents; “媽媽 (Mama)” and “爸爸 (Baba),” which I’d used in early childhood, didn’t feel right anymore as my English proficiency started to overtake that of my Chinese, but “Mum” and “Dad,” which I eventually settled on, also felt awkward at the time. Too distant.

But this transition happened through my early schooling days. My father had accepted that we kids would need to speak English at school but wanted us to speak our family’s native Cantonese at home. Mum, on the other hand, was already influenced by her background in psychology; she just wanted us to express ourselves and feel comfortable enough to do so openly at home, whatever tongue we chose.

We often chose both. The beauty of bilingual communities is that you can mix and match. Some things are easier in one language than another.

Click the link. I cried, half laughing and half out of total understanding.

From around high school, long after I switched to English as my preferred language, I began to regret my lack of upkeep in using and learning Chinese, but also struggled to appreciate my less-than-fluent family members. This feeling only amplified upon moving to Japan.

My maternal grandmother couldn’t speak English beyond a few words but she always seemed to catch the gist of the after school conversations between my brother and I.

One day, she asked Aaron to fix her TV. Even at a young age, Aaron was quite intuitive with electronics but that day, he huffed in frustration.

“Come on, you stupid thing!” he said, slapping the side of the box and pressing the plastic-wrapped remote control buttons with a little more force than necessary.

My grandmother appeared at the door, having only caught one word of his outburst. “You no call me stupid!” she yelled in English.

I remembered this abruptly one day while working at my last job. This was before I’d learnt much Japanese and for months, I would memorise the most commonly used words in the office; “英語 (eigo: English),” “本 (hon: book),” “文法 (bunpou: grammar).” I was desperately hoping that if I caught the words in meetings, I would be able to piece together the overall meaning. But deep down, I knew that I was probably misunderstanding everything.

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A few months later, I was reminded of my grandmother again.

Once we were old enough, Aaron and I started helping my mother shuttle our increasingly frail grandmother to and from the doctors’ between jobs and university. Translation was part of the service but one that I, with my increasingly limited Chinese, always did clumsily and carelessly, never with context.

“Last time, we used this anesthetic and we’re thinking of using it again,” explained the doctor who was to perform her cataracts surgery. I nodded. “Did your grandmother experience any discomfort from it? Pain or nausea?”

I nodded again to show that I understood the question and turned to my grandmother.

“Grandma, last time you came here, did your eyes hurt? Did you want to throw up?” I asked in Cantonese.

“Of course not!” she half yelled; I wondered if she wanted to be heard or if her own hearing was diminishing. “If it had hurt then, I would’ve said so! Are you kidding?”

I turned back to the slightly bewildered doctor and smiled brightly, hoping to balance out his experience with my family. “No, it was fine.”

Years later, over a course of a few months in Japan, my coworkers took it in turns to chaperone me to two separate hospitals for a series of tests and scans. The patience and consideration they had while interpreting back and forth comforted me and shamed me in equal amounts. I realised that I had only ever translated literally for my grandmother.

While my eyes flickered between the doctor and my interpreter, I realised that I had never clarified procedures or expectations for my grandmother, or asked the doctor follow up questions she might think of on the way home. While I picked at my nails listening to the Japanese explanation of what might be wrong with me, I realised that I had never considered that my grandmother was probably afraid as well, listening to her granddaughter and a stranger discuss her declining health in a series of murmurs. It never even occurred to me.

I’m starting to realise how many things never occurred to me when it comes to my immigrant family. The embarrassment of needing the children to correct your speech. The pressure of second guessing everything you say and write. The exhaustion that comes with using every opportunity to learn. The frustration of not being able to learn faster. The rush of gratitude for any encouragement. The nostalgia of your home culture. The comfort of a friend who shares it, who understands.

Dad in HK: “Can you read the signs here?” Me: “Some…by translating from Japanese. Oh, I can read the picture signs!” My family’s fears of me losing my Chinese culture in Japan are becoming very real in some ways. But in other ways, it’s actually helping.

Beyond language, I wrote last year about coming to Japan to see the world from a new perspective. In a culture as new and as different as Japan’s, it’s natural to question everything. The longer I do so and the more aspects I accept and integrate into my own life, the more I question Chinese and western culture, trying to look at them the way the Japanese do. With every different person I meet, and sometimes teach, I think about my own personality traits.

But as I’m losing myself to the experience, I’m also discovering the things I’m unwilling to change. I’m happier to live in tight quarters now and having constant company doesn’t make me as grumpy as it used to but I relish in the hours when the lounge room and kitchen is empty. I’ve curbed my book buying habits but still spend money, preferring food and travel to things that I can’t fit in my shoe box room. I try to be less confrontational – communication is rough enough here without adding emotions to the mix – but believe now more than ever that convictions are worth fighting for. I appreciate equality but I still think that competition and innovation are worth the risk of failure. I value family, the spirit of endeavouring and consideration more and more.

In the process of reflecting what matters to me and how much they do, I’ve come to see how much I’m influenced by both my Chinese family and my Australian upbringing.

Working by day (and some nights) whilst moonlighting in my chosen field, all the while avoiding the potholes of the starving artist stereotype, isn’t ideal. It isn’t easy. A lot of impatience and insecurities bubble beneath the surface. I watched La La Land and heard my own doubts echo in Emma Stone’s dejected outcry. I hear myself telling kids that they can do anything, be anything, and wonder if it’s really true after all.

Regardless, being in a foreign culture is giving me a greater sense of self awareness: my family background fuels my motivation and work ethic. My education informs my ambition and the chase. And now my time in Japan is developing my attitude and empathy.

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The scenic route Mon, 02 Jan 2017 11:00:18 +0000 Moving to Japan started out fun and I'm still laughing, but as we near midnight on unfamiliar terrain, I have to admit that I'm starting to get scared.

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The headlights rolled along a fallen “DO NOT ENTER” sign along the dirt road before leaving it behind in total darkness.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” I said tentatively, really meaning that I didn’t want to alarm myself, “but isn’t this how all horror movies start? Kids exploring places where they really shouldn’t? In their dad’s car?!”

At sixteen, I was the only teenager in the group. Being in a car with twenty-somethings, I really didn’t want to be uncool. Even more than that, however, I didn’t want to die.

My oldest cousin chuckled, though not unkindly. “It’s ok,” he reassured me with his charming smile from the passenger seat. “Things only get crazy when it’s like, midnight, right?”

We all glanced at the clock. 11:55pm. Of course.

We couldn’t help but laugh, albeit nervously on my part. My other cousin rubbed my forearm reassuringly, bumping her knees against mine.

We love our family in San Francisco. We relish vacations to each other’s home countries though they are few and far between. On these occasions, we fall into an easy familial comfort around each other, acting as if we’d grown up together and wishing we had.

The year we’d visited San Francisco over our summer holidays, their winter one, my brother had been honing his then newfound love of photography. A week after landing in the US, we discovered that Aaron is quite similar to our oldest cousin. They have the same face, the same good nature, and the same hobbies as well, including but not limited to photography.

So one night, dissatisfied with the view of San Francisco’s night skyline that an empty car park offered, we four cousins and one of their close friends set up a mountain on a dirt track seeking higher ground. What we didn’t realise was that we would be driving around what looked like an abandoned army base.

“AHH!” The driver, my cousins’ friend, gave a short scream.

Panicked, we all replied with our own screams, all the while looking through the windows for the reason.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said quickly. “Just a deer.”

We fell back into nervous laughter.

“Umm do we know where this road goes?”


“Oh,” I said, pausing to suppress my growing fear. “Oh good.”

We were comforted when we saw another set of headlights driving ahead of us a few minutes later. Then we panicked again when they disappeared around the next corner, even though we seemed to be driving along the only road.

Finally, when both the altitude and my heart rate had noticeably increased, we reached a slight clearing. There, we found a beautiful and seemingly exclusive view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

By the time we arrived safely home that night, my brother and cousin had some truly spectacular photos, and I had one of my favourite memories of us to date.

I’ve wanted to be a journalist for a while now. Even then as a teenager, I had my eyes set on journalism.

I had thought in a general haze of naivety that my life would go something like this:

  1. High school
  2. University
  3. Journalism job
  4. Lots of travelling
  5. House and security and adult stuff
  6. ??

I got through the first two steps before realising that oh, that’s not happening. Not in such a direct route anyway.

Getting experience means paying your dues. Paying your dues to enter the world of media and arts means unpaid work. Unless you’re being financed, this means working other jobs to support your unpaid work. Working multiple jobs simultaneously means exhaustion.

As a child, what I wanted to do changed from being a vet to a painter to an author to almost everything in between. Well, not everything. Strangely enough, the things I had no interest in seemed to be the very things I landed in.

My mum told me that she once watched me as a little girl play with my cousins, ones who lived with us in Melbourne. They were playing with their dolls when an older cousin called me over.

“We should get Barbie a coat,” she said, “or she’ll be too cold.”

Apparently, despite having played with soft toys often, I didn’t quite grasp the concept of dolls at the time. Mum tells me that I considered the doll in my cousin’s hands and said, “No, she won’t.”

Watching movies didn’t cure this disinterest in girly things. Neither did attending an all girls’ high school. Neither did years of gentle teasing by friends and family alike. Neither has the encouragement of the Japanese community around me.

I take this as a compliment.

Still, when it came to getting my first job, I found myself in a denim store telling people that wow, those jeans go great with that shirt they’re wearing and would they like to see the new jacket we just got in yesterday?

Later, as a student, my father asked me if I wanted to be a banker. Such a nice, stable, educated job with multiple pathways to advancement in the future. Who wouldn’t want that for their child, right?

But Father, think about it. Me, banking? At the time, I laughed. I certainly wasn’t laughing when bank telling became a means of supporting myself and my stint in radio during my first year out of university.

See, by using a graph, I show that I don’t inherently hate maths or data.

Perhaps the strangest one of all, I’ve never pictured myself as a teacher.

Never. Nope. Never.

Requirements needed for teaching (well): knowledge, confidence, public speaking skills, ability to play with kids, ability to make endless small talk… overall social aptitude.

Requirements I had for teaching: I have a degree from a good university and I can speak English.

Yet, here I am. Teacher by day and by night…also a teacher. For the past few years no less.

Stranger still, I find myself enjoying teaching. A lot. Even to adults. Even to kids. Actually, especially to kids.

I love teaching. I love living in Japan. I could see myself staying here for years more.

But I want to be a journalist. No matter what industry I work in, I keep coming back to this. Given the chance, I would fight to work at Runway, even if it meant working under Miranda Priestly. It’s the reason why I supported myself with jobs at banks and shops and call centres and now schools. It’s the reason why I came to Japan in the first place.

At the same time, the longer I stay in Japan teaching, the harder it is to find reasons to stay that directly correlate with my goal to become a journalist.

I can’t help but feel a little like the sixteen year old in a car in San Francisco in the dead of night, convinced that she and her cousins would soon become the Zodiac Killer‘s next victims. The ride started out fun and I’m still laughing, but as we near midnight on unfamiliar terrain, I have to admit that I’m starting to get scared.

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Job hunting and homesickness does nothing to lessen the fear.

I’m lucky, really, that this self-induced pressure coincides with the new year, a time for reflection and resolution setting.

So let’s reflect then, shall we? In the last almost thousand days – I still keep count –  I’ve moved to a new country. And survived, despite cultural, language and all sorts of barriers.

I’ve travelled. A lot. Through mountains, country towns, cities, and even countries.

I’ve started learning a new language.

I’ve rediscovered hobbies that I’d forgotten or didn’t have enough time for.

I’ve learnt more skills than I care to count, among which how to teach. I’ve even learnt how to suppress my introversion and get out there.

I’ve come to understand most things from a new angle.

I’ve met so many people, made a tonne of friends. Some, I’m sure, for life.

Quite honestly, I’ve had the time of my life.

In light of this, I realise that by no means should I consider Japan a detour en route to journalism. I haven’t gone off track. After all, the journey carries just as much weight as the destination, right?

Everything that I’ve experienced in Japan, everything I’ve learnt, everyone I’ve met boils down to much more than just background scenery. It’s helped to shape who I am, who I’ll be when I reach that destination.

All things considered, I’d probably pass on the direct route again given the chance to go back and change things.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to sit back this year. But I’m definitely going to enjoy the ride.

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There’s no place like home Wed, 19 Oct 2016 11:00:31 +0000 My new niece, Bao Bao, so soft and pure, has given teeth to my homesickness, making what was once a dull ache something with a sharper bite.

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If I had a hundred yen for every time someone asked me if I liked 納豆 (natto), I’d have enough money to bribe my way out of ever eating it again.

What’s natto? Fermented soybeans in all their sticky glory. Which doesn’t sound too bad, right? I thought so too.

I love Japanese food beyond sushi and ramen. I ate もつ鍋 (motsunabe), essentially stewed organs, for every second meal I was in Fukuoka. When I have friends visiting, I take them out to eat raw horse (馬刺し: basashi) and raw chicken (地頭鶏たたき: jitokkotori tataki), half because I want to give them a unique experience and half because I want to eat it.

Granted, I haven’t tried pufferfish (河豚: fugu) because it’s expensive, or whale, because… well, they’re whales and I can’t.

But natto. It’s something else. It’s healthy and cheap and part of almost every local household as far as I can tell but. No.

You can almost feel the stickiness just by looking at it.

Stickiness not exaggerated.

Touch it experimentally with your chopsticks and watch the stickiness invade everything else you plan on eating that night. The flavour will instantly permeate through whole dishes.

If you love it, I guess this would be a good thing. As someone who doesn’t know how to appreciate it, however, it’s a nightmare.

So as soon as a housemate equated natto with Vegemite, my inner patriotism was unleashed.

“Ok, Vegemite is not that bad,” I said immediately. The others within earshot had already started えぇ(ehh)-ing at the revelation. “You guys like soy sauce, right? It’s the same thing. It’s black. It’s salty. Old soy sauce.”

“しょうゆじゃないよ (shouyu janai yo: It was not soy sauce!),” she countered, having lived in Australia before.

This whole conversation was all in Japanese, by the way. I’m just too lazy to write it out. Also, now that I realise how many Japanese people read this, I’m a little embarrassed by how terrible my speaking is. Shh. Don’t judge me.

“When I was in Australia,” she continued, “they slathered it onto their bread in a thick layer. It was so bad.”

I laughed. “Yeah, you ate it wrong,” I said, thinking back to when my mum used to buy my after school snacks from the local Brumby’s bakery.

Five minutes later, I was making Cheesymite toasties in our toaster oven and converting whoever was in the kitchen to the dark Vegemite side.

Cheesymite scrolls were such a good after school snack.

Cheesymite scrolls for all your munching needs.

A glass of Milo, a piece of Cheesymite and the lingering aroma of my milk tea on the kitchen counter. For a moment, I was home after a long day of school. But I wasn’t. I was speaking Japanese and trying natto again for the n-th time.

Recently, I’ve had to ask my brother and his wife to spread the word to our mutual friends: please don’t ask me to go home to Australia. Not for a while, anyway.

I understand that this is always said with good intentions – an indicator that I am missed –  or sometimes even as a joke. But I find myself getting a little emotional at the request lately.

There are, as always, a few reasons as to why it’s starting to get to me. For one, I’m spending more time at home than ever since coming to Japan to save money, meaning the sense of adventure has lessened somewhat. For another, I no longer live alone and can experience home comforts more often, familiar but different.

I’m insecure about my future. The holiday season is approaching. I’ve been here for over two years.

But in truth, it’s my new niece, Bao Bao, so soft and pure, who has given teeth to my homesickness, making what was once a dull ache something with a sharper bite.


According to One Tree Hill, “This is the ancient symbol for fun.” Ally and I laughed when we saw it. “…isn’t it the ancient symbol for have?”

I’m lucky to have a sister-in-law who I’ve gotten along with for a long time, even before my brother started dating her. We went to the same high school and the same church. I remember doing maths with her around the same dinner table with One Tree Hill playing on her laptop.

“I love the name Hayley,” she said. “Doesn’t it just sound nice?”

Fast forward to earlier this year during her pregnancy, about ten years after that conversation. Our family started chatting about potential names for Bao Bao over text messages. As she and Aaron listed out a few names and their meanings, I recalled this sentiment.

“Ally won’t let me name her Latoya,” Aaron messaged.

“Dang it, Ally!” I laughed as I wrote. A few people on the train turned their heads. I looked down and pretended nothing happened.

“What does it mean?” asked Mum, forever the voice of reason.

I could almost hear the resigned sigh in Ally’s next message. “It actually has a good meaning. It means victorious one.”

I briefly imagined Aaron insisting that they look up the name’s meaning. Then I remembered our high school conversation. “I always thought you’d name your daughter Hayley.”

“Hayley means hay,” Aaron shot out immediately.

“Yeah, I like Hayley but it literally means hay,” Ally confirmed a second later. I tried, without success, to smother another chuckle.

“Beyonce was my second choice,” Aaron added.

“What’s that?” came Mum’s reply. “French?”

I snorted. Loudly. Two minutes later at the next stop, I was still giggling as I settled into a new train carriage. The conversation ended with Bao Bao’s eventual legal name. (I say ‘legal’ because let’s admit it, her true name is Bao Bao.)

It smarts that of these two conversations about Bao Bao’s name, the one I got to have in person with them was the first inconsequential one.

Similarly, I cringe at the knowledge that I wasn’t there for the pregnancy or the birth, and I won’t be there for the foreseeable future. It stings that I have to check my Internet connection every time I can call to see and hear from them. I crave and dread, in equal measures, learning about the things I’m missing.

And most of all, I want to hold my niece.

On most days, お兄ちゃん will send me photos of his baby. Now that she’s a few months old, her cheerful and mischievous personality is becoming increasingly apparent in every photo that he sends through.

When I visit every few months, however, I still find myself surprised by her actions and reactions. When I first went to visit her, I would relish in the moments when she wasn’t crying and way her body sank into my arms.

Now, I find myself enraptured by the smell of her hair, the pitch of her laughter, the wet stickiness of her fingers. The softness of her belly when she tries to crawl over my legs. The way her face scrunches up when she laughs. The surprise in her eyes when she hiccoughs.

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I know that no matter how often I FaceTime my family, no matter how many photos and descriptions are sent to me, it will be nothing like when I first meet Bao Bao. It’s hard not to compare what I’m doing now in Japan to what I’m missing back home in Australia.

As I’m writing this, I can almost imagine everyone else I’ve left back home getting a little offended. What, they weren’t enough to make me this homesick before Bao Bao came along?

Well, the truth is, I’ve always been a little homesick. As I’ve mentioned before, a few times actually, these aches have become the ebb and flow of my routine here in Japan.

There are times when it catches me off guard.

I have a friend – more of a platonic soulmate, to be honest – whose recurring punchline is that she cannot cook. But recently, I woke up craving her balsamic onion tart.

Last week, I scrolled through my Tumblr feed and read something in the voices of my soul sister’s family members.

I keep getting teased for making dad jokes (親父ギャグ: oyaji gyagu) across English and Japanese. I find these genuinely hilarious and wish that my brother was here to laugh about it with me.

But, more often than not, I can anticipate the triggers.

I’ll go to a museum or an event or a certain part of Japan without a friend who I would have dragged along with me had I had the option – or who would have dragged me along, come to think of it.

I’ll take a good photo and wonder if my brother, who taught me how to hold a camera, would like it.

I’ll eat steak or Pho or fruit or cheese or something that’s just not the same here in Japan.

I’ll listen to a song that we’d scream to on road trips. I’ll get sick. I’ll reread one of my few physical books I carted to Japan with me. I’ll mention a pop culture reference that no one will understand.

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The funny thing is, I don’t avoid these things the way I thought I would. They comfort me as much as they make me wistful.

I’ll choose to play Sunday Morning, I’ll cook roast beef, I’ll call home for one of Mum’s recipes, I’ll quote Shrek to my kids. (“Do you know the muffin man?”)

On the other hand, even given this, I still want to live abroad. I still want to travel. I only wish that Australia was closer. On the same continent. In the same hemisphere. I wish it was just a tap of my shoes away.

But I’ve accepted that every coin comes with two sides.

Natto is healthy at the cost of taste. (I know, this is just an opinion. Whatever.)

‘Hayley’ sounds nice at the cost of meaning.

And on the flip side of adventure? Home.

Just, try not to remind me of that for now.

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Love/Hate Sat, 15 Oct 2016 03:00:30 +0000 My housemates recently revealed that they know more English than they've been letting on, begging the question: do I want them to speak English with me?

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Last Friday night. Being the social creature that I am, I did the usual thing of holing up in my room with a book and a quickly emptied mug of tea.

“プリス今どこ?(purisu ima doko: where are you now?)” my phone lit up. One of my housemates.

Texting in Japanese makes me squirm. Instant messaging is meant to be instant, after all, and I am incapable of doing so in this language. Not to mention that all my mistakes are on display as soon as I hit send.

“私の部屋 (watashi no heya: in my room),” I sent back. “どうしたの?(doushitano: why? What’s up?)”

My guess was that I’d need to get the door. There’s no intercom system to get into our house so if you forget your key, you can either get someone to open it for you from the inside or wait until the next person comes home. We all opt for the former.

A gentle whoop alerted me to the reply. “今忙しい?(ima isogashii: are you busy at the moment?)”

“Nope,” I replied, switching languages for speed now that my interest was piqued. Opening doors doesn’t require that much time.

“新しい外国の人がいるんだけど、日本語わからないんだ(atarashii gaikokunojin ga irundakedo, nihongo wakaranainda: there’s a new foreigner here but they don’t understand Japanese),” came an equally quick reply, “キッチンに来れる? (kicchin ni koreru: can you come to the kitchen?)”

I laughed. Uh sure, I thought, wondering what I was supposed to do. Welcome them, maybe? After all their help in getting me settled in, it was time to pass it on. And, if we’re going to be completely honest, I really should be more social. On a Friday night, no less.

Grabbing milk and my empty mug on my way out the room, I figured I could microwave my now cold pot of tea while I was there.


Tea: my social safety blanket.

Our new housemate had just arrived in Japan the day before and moved in earlier that afternoon. So, for the first time in a while, I was able to unleash a storm of English in our common room. It wasn’t long, however, for the other housemates to join in the conversation – in English – to my surprise.

To my great surprise.

“私とみんなは英語でしゃべらない (watashito minnawa eigode shaberanai: no one chats with me in English),” I gasped as everyone’s vocabulary and comprehension seemed to materialise from thin air to accommodate our new housemate. “What! ずるい! (zurui: so unfair!) ひどい!(hidoi: so mean!) 信じられない! (shinjirarenai: unbelievable!)”

They laughed at my genuine shock and jealousy and, quite possibly, my Japanese. “でもプリスは日本語ちょっとわかるから (demo purisuha nihongo chotto wakaru kara: but it’s because you understand a little Japanese),” they explained.

I shook my head in protest. “全然わかんないよ (zenzen wakannai yo: I don’t understand any).”

They laughed again and dismissed it. I was left torn between feeling flattered and wanting to explain that, while I wish it was as funny as they thought, it really was just the sad truth.

But it did get me thinking: do I want them to speak to me in English?

The answer is both yes and no.

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It says: “Please speak Japanese to me as much as you can. I’m in the middle of practicing Japanese.” The sticker itself has thus far been a blessing and a curse.

My initial reaction is a hard yes.

Because first of all, have you tried speaking in a foreign language? It’s mostly fun. It’s like a fast paced, ever-evolving puzzle.

I say mostly fun because speaking with natives is as much a game changer as much as it is the goal. With it, you throw in an element of insecurity and exhilaration, like a verbal haunted house.

I’ve come to realise that there is no win-win situation in this respect. Either I speak Japanese to natives or they speak English to me, a native. Either way, there’s bound to be some level of insecurity involved.

Don’t get me wrong. This is great. With the right mindset, it really is fun, it’s a huge learning opportunity and in most cases, the mistakes generate laughter and the vulnerability garners affection.

At the same time, there are times when I don’t want to learn. Say, after teaching two jobs. In these times, I want to relax and chat. To the same people, mind you, just without restrictions.

This isn’t something I can’t do yet in Japanese, both because of my lack of knowledge and the pressure I feel when I speak.

As a language teacher, however, it’s easier for me to listen to imperfect English and make – usually good – guesses of what the intended meaning could be.

The second reason is pure, childish jealousy.

Knowing first hand the amount of energy needed to hold conversations in a foreign language, I’m usually reluctant to put people through this. I opt instead to do the opposite. I am in Japan, after all. If anyone should learn a foreign language, it’s me. Besides, I like having a way to convey to others the lengths at which I’m willing to go to in the name of friendship. But more on that later.

What I’m getting at, slowly, is that this is an easier thing to do when you think there’s no other choice. On the other hand, knowing that they are willing to put in this effort to communicate with others sparks a green feeling of unfairness.

I can’t be the only one who’s tempted to take the easy way out every now and then, surely.

Logically, however, when I think about it, the answer is no.

The first reason’s obvious: I want to learn Japanese. And that’s not to say that I want comfort and fluency in Japanese, although I do. I want the process and experience of learning it too.

But this is, as always, easier said than done, especially when it comes to speaking.


Summertime Kyoto is crazy humid. So yeah, this was pretty good motivation to start learning Japanese.


The beginning of my Japanese education was …rocky, to say the least.

“In my class,” a favourite teacher of mine used to say, “you speak English. You can speak that at home.”

And the international students, even the newly immigrated ones, would look slightly bewildered for the rest of class. Having heard some of their whispers, I couldn’t help but despair a little for them. After all, many of them only wanted to double check to see if they’d understood the teacher’s explanation correctly.

Far from judging him (he will forever be one of my favourite teachers), I don’t think that this instruction was unreasonable. As a teacher, this makes sense. Classroom management can be tricky enough in one language. And it stands to reason that they’d need to learn the local language eventually anyway. You’d also hope that the kids would integrate into Australian culture faster with this level of immersion.

As an expat and a language student, however, I understand that this would have been likely to have the opposite effect on my teenage mind. For me, the resentment would begin at my declining test scores and be sealed by the difficulties I’d have making friends.

“When white people go to China and speak fluent Chinese, we all go, “Wow, that’s awesome!” Why doesn’t it work the other way ‘round? If I went up to someone here [in Australia] and said, “Hey, check out how good my English is,” they’d probably go, “Good, it should be!”

Aaron Pho, 2011

If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, it’s not easy to learn another language, regardless of what that language may be. It’s far easier to slide back to your comfort zone. It’s a different story, however, when you choose to do this on your own.

These days, I force myself to go on language exchanges and earlier this year, it was a factor in choosing my new job and housing. To some extent, it’s working out.

For one thing, my communication has improved somewhat. At least, I sure hope it has. Having spontaneous bouts of charades, celebrity heads and air pictionary to make up for my lack of vocabulary is just part of our everyday lives now.

“わかった?(wakatta: did you get it?)” we’ll check hesitantly after every attempt.

Although this happens several times within the same conversation, we still celebrate and laugh after every round.

I’m biased, but I think it’s worth celebrating every time. I had to become a language teacher and student to discover this. I’m pretty lucky that I live with people who understand this without having to do so.

The other reason was mentioned earlier: I’m willing to put in a lot of effort to make friends. Not that you’d ever guess by the way I socialise.

I’m not the most social being. I could drink an ocean of tea but one glass of alcohol will put me to sleep. In my mind, clubs and bars are associated with stickiness and fatigue. Friday nights, on the other hand, evoke the feeling of blankets, tea and books. Normal is me walking into a crowded room and sitting in the corner for the rest of the night with my book, laptop or phone. Not exactly ideal housemate material.

While this isn’t something that I’m likely to ever stop doing completely, I also want to make it clear that I’m not trying to be antisocial. Quite the opposite actually.

I like the people I live with. In fact, in retrospect, I’m really quite relieved that I didn’t get my own apartment again. Communicating this is a little trickier though.

The clearest way I’ve been able to do this so far is by showing how much effort it takes for me to speak Japanese and then doing just that whenever I do engage in conversation.


So, overall, the answer is no. I don’t want people to go out of their way to speak English to me. And I do truly appreciate the patience they have in conversing with me in Japanese.

It just doesn’t guarantee that I won’t whine about it on occasion.

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Broad strokes Sun, 02 Oct 2016 11:00:42 +0000 I think Japan is taming me somewhat. What a shame that they barely realise it, at times thinking of me only as a foreigner.

The post Broad strokes appeared first on Pris Pho.


“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox, “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I think Japan is taming me somewhat.

To them, before I came to be called プリちゃん (Purichan) or プリ子 (Puriko) or even プリス (Purisu), I was nothing more than a hundred thousand other foreigners with a hard-to-pronounce name. One of the thousands stalking around famous landmarks and little alleyways in search of a photo opportunity. One of the many miscommunications.

Then suddenly, one day, they started talking to me about other foreigners – even Australians and Chinese people – in front of and to me without that filter of politeness.

I will never completely shed my foreign status, no matter what my passport says or however fully I integrate into society. Yet apparently, neither am I considered wholly and newly foreign either. I’m in limbo. In the stages before I become someone who is more than just a Chinese-Australian, a foreigner. In the process of becoming tamed and therefore unique in all the world, beyond ethnicity or nationality.

“True or false,” I half yell over forty children whenever I start teaching a new class. It’s customary to do at least a short self introduction. “I am half Japanese. True this way, false that way.”

After a short countdown and a verbal drumroll, I reveal that no, that is false. I am not Japanese and I am not half. I am from… which country is this flag from? No, it’s not England, and oh it’s very close to New Zealand. Ding ding ding, that’s right, it’s Australia. I’m Australian.

I’ve found that from this point, the class reacts in one of two ways:

a) They accept it without question; or,
b) They fight it tooth and nail.

I personally think that option (b) is a better response because it gives them, and sometimes even their teachers, a chance to consider that ethnicity is not always congruous with cultural identity. But then that begs the question of how to begin explaining this to them in a way that makes sense in their world.

“Listen,” I say, refining the example that has worked the best so far. “Imagine you move to America and have a child there. They would have an American passport. They would not come to visit Japan very often. They would go to American schools and speak English with their friends and eat American food.

“That’s the same as me. I was born in Australia, schooled in Australia, think like Australians. I haven’t been to Hong Kong in sixteen years… that’s longer than you’ve been alive.”

Would I crave these things if I weren’t Australian?

Of course, I am still Chinese. Our family still speaks Chinese and I even still think in Chinese sometimes. I celebrate our cultural festivals and carry some of those habits. My heritage is present in my personality and values.

I leave all this for another day, however. Start with the broad strokes. Not just for them, but for me too. I’m still working it out for myself let alone outloud to impressionable kids.

Funnily enough, that’s the same way I approach explaining things to my friends and family back home.

“Everyone back home seems to think I’m the same as when I left Australia,” I told my pseudo-godparents when they came for a visit. “But I… it’s weird because I feel like I’ve changed. A lot.”

“Yeah, you have,” confirmed Pseudo-Godfather.

Having lived in Japan before, I imagined that they were going to be some of the only people who would just understand, regardless of eloquence or lack thereof.

“Yeah, 妹 (mui4: little sister),” agreed Pseudo-Godmother, “in the time that you’ve been here, you’ve experienced things and emotions more intensely. You know what I mean? Like happiness, loneliness -“

” – frustration and achievement,” I added.

She nodded. Pseudo-Godfather leapt back in. “Yeah. You don’t know how long you’ll be here, right? Like, you think it’s not forever. So every day, you do something. You think about it. But in Australia, you don’t.”

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It’s true: every day is a potential adventure. All I need is a full PASMO card, camera and headphones.

Broad strokes, I think, as I write these blog posts, a tool to process and a platform to share.

Sadly, this only applies to when I’m in my element of writing or if I’ve had time to practice and refine my explanations, like in the classroom. In everyday conversations, it’s a different ball game, one that I rarely try my hand in. These days, however, I’m starting to wonder if I should – try, that is.

“You know what I was doing the night before I joined our school?” I asked.

It was hard to avoid the lure of nostalgia, sitting in my empty apartment, ready for the next teacher to move in after me. At least, it would be ready once my gas meter turned off.

My former manager yawned. To be fair, she’d woken up early that morning for my moving day.

“Wake up, 起きて (okite),” I repeated in Japanese to soften it. She groaned and I nudged her with my shoulder. “You’ve gotta talk to the gas guy when he comes.”

She nodded drowsily. I tried again, “Know what I did in training the night before I joined?”

She sighed. “うんん。パーティー? (unn. pātī: nope. Did you party?)”

“Yeah, ’cause I’m a real party animal,” I deadpanned. “Nah, my training friends and I went on the school website and stalked the teachers we were replacing.”

“えぇ (ehh),” she murmured obligingly, clearing her throat of sleepiness. “何で? (nande: why?)”

“To see what they were like,” I shrugged. “I saw the girl I was replacing and was like, ‘Oh no, she’s pretty and she looks super nice. They’re gonna be so disappointed with me!'”

At this, she sat up and made the effort to turn to me.

“誰? (dare: who?)” she asked.


“No, プリシラ (purishira),” she swatted my arm lightly. “Who did stalking?”

“Me. I did.”

“But you’re…,” she frowned in her effort to phrase it in English. So early in the morning. “You’re… I didn’t know foreigners are not confident.”

“Not confident. ‘Insecure,'” I said clearly, allowing her the time to repeat it to herself. “Yeah. Sometimes.”

After eighteen months of seeing each other almost every day, I thought she would’ve worked this out on her own. But, I reasoned, I’m always consciously trying to balance how I behave against how the locals behave, how they expect foreigners to behave, and what I would usually do, with varying degrees of success.

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“プリス先生、今日はありがとうございます (purisu sensei, kyou wa arigatougozaimasu: thank you for today),” a homeroom teacher said at the end of the school day.

As always, I reciprocated the abbreviated bow and sentiment awkwardly but sincerely. A few teachers turned around to look. I rarely speak in the staff room.

The teacher I was speaking to watched me carefully, apparently deciding on whether she should speak her mind. I misunderstood it to mean that I’d done something wrong.

“違う?(chigau: is that wrong?)” I asked, scratching the back of my hands. “すみませんでした。(sumimasendeshita: I’m sorry.)”

“いいえ、いいえ。プリス先生は…すごい…えぇっ (iie, iie. purisu sensei wa…sugoi…ehh: no, no. You’re…very…umm),” she brought her fingers to her mouth and pushed them out, a reversed grabbing action.

“Loud?” I suggested.

“そう!(sou: yeah!)” she said, delighted that I’d understood her.

“Oh.” We were talking about a class of forty eleven year olds. Was volume really an issue? “Umm すみませんでした?(sumimasendeshita: I’m very sorry?)”

“いいえ、いいえ (iie, iie: no, no),” she waved her hand in front her face quickly to reassure me before rolling them around each other slightly to help the flow of her speech. “えと、プリス先生 (eto, purisu sensei: ummm you) look… I think プリス先生は (purisu sensei wa: you are)… おとなしい? (otonashii?) えぇぇ… (ehhh: ummm)”

“Shy? Quiet?” I offered again, effectively stemming the mental word search.

“そう (sou: yeah),” she smiled with relief and gratitude. “でも今日は (demo kyou wa: but today) … えぇっ (eh: um), ‘Let’s play a game! Yay!'” she raised her arms and voice briefly in her impression of me in the classroom. Catching herself, she lowered them again, glanced around the staff room and smiled sheepishly. “すごい外国人でした。びっくりした (sugoi gaikokujin deshita. bikkurishita: You were very much a foreigner. I was so surprised).”

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I have a mode I call “Full Gaijin Mode,” frequently activated when I’m being a teacher or tourist.

Apparently, the traditional image of foreigners – endlessly energetic, charismatic, dramatic… obnoxiously so – remains prevalent, even with those who interact with foreigners often. And without the time and ability to pull anecdotes like I do on these posts, I can’t really explain how I feel and what I’m experiencing. So, I usually choose between two options;

1. Continue to feed the stereotype like I do in the classrooms; or,
2. Shrug and say, “しょうがない (shouganai: it can’t be helped).”

The only thing is, if I took the time in conversation the way I do here on this blog, perhaps it could be helped.

“Just watched ‘The Little Prince’ on Netflix. Such a beautiful movie. Must see!” a friend texted me a few months ago.

“Really? I’m scared because I loved the book… I heard they changed stuff in it. Or added a whole storyline to it. Was it any good?” I held my breath.

Three little dots faded in and out. “It’s pretty okay,” came the reply. “I love it for the visuals.”

Well, I thought, good enough to try.

Surprisingly, I loved it, new storyline and all. Keep in mind that I love books so much that I sometimes have a hard time reading sequels by the same authors (*cough* To Kill a Mockingbird *cough*). In fact, I found that while keeping to the original tone and story, the new storyline made it more palatable and clear for kids. The kids the book was written for and the movie was marketed to.

This blog offers no wildly new or original ideas. But the way people differ from their stereotypes sometimes only becomes clear after they are tamed. Sometimes, even then, it requires discussion to appreciate it. After all, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And this fascinates me. Enough to record them on a public platform.

Still, these thoughts are only really accessible for English readers, meaning very few in Japan can read it with ease. What a shame, ね (ne: right)? The country that’s taming me barely even realises it. So, very slowly, I’ve started the process of translating some of these posts into Japanese. I repeat: very slowly. With help.

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll become unique in all the world, to all the world.

The post Broad strokes appeared first on Pris Pho.

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Little noodle Sat, 24 Sep 2016 09:30:59 +0000 There's no love like a brother's love, which is true in my case. I'm lucky to have the best brother. And that makes you, my new niece and his new daughter, even luckier.

The post Little noodle appeared first on Pris Pho.

I love my brother, Aaron’s, Chinese name. It means something like “looking upwards,” implying humility and also, in my opinion, great dreams. My name is less fitting. Mine means something like “beauty and grace.” Our parents struck much closer to the mark when they named Aaron.

“My Chinese is pretty terrible,” Aaron said one night over dinner. He turned to his then-girlfriend, now-wife. “It’s so bad I think I’d name my first kid 叉燒 (cha siu: Chinese barbecue pork).”

She laughed. I gasped. “Yes,” I nearly shouted in excitement. “Do it. No matter what you name that kid now, I’m gonna call it 包包 (bao bao: bun). And then I’m gonna chase that little munchkin around the house and pretend to eat its cheeks.”

“Yeah, you would,” Ally said, digging at her pasta.

“唔好啊 (m4hou2aa3: it’s not good/don’t do it),” said my father, thoroughly unamused by the suggestion. Unsure of how serious Aaron was being, he looked a little scandalised.

“Cutest name ever,” I said, undeterred.

Dad looked at us, half bewildered and half confused. Where did you two come from?! I could almost hear him thinking.

Is this not the cutest nickname to exist?

Seriously though, is this not the cutest nickname to exist?

Sometimes, when I call home and last December when I went home, I remember how stupid Aaron and I are when we’re together. Half the things we say don’t make sense, even to us, but can reduce us to ugly, choking laughter and tears.

Don’t get me wrong. We still drive each other crazy. We are siblings, after all. We’ve fumed and screamed and done all that. Now that I’m in Japan, we don’t talk nearly as much as we should. And now that we’re older and I’ve stopped literally copying everything he does, our tastes and interests don’t always match up either.

He, for example, could ride his bike for hours and even made a gym in our garage.

“Come see,” he said, trying to usher me in. I was trying to avoid physical contact. He looked filthy. “Check it out, I just put a bench in the garage.”

“Oh!” I said, a little surprised. He was rather good at woodwork in early high school but he had already given it up for a while by that stage. “What are you going to put on it?”

“Huh?” He pushed the door open. Instead of a wooden table, like I was expecting, there was a flat chair with a metal bar across. Aaron scoffed. “This kind of bench, you idiot.”

“Well I don’t know!” I said. “I’ve never been inside a gym before!”

He pfft-ed at me and pulled me in. “Get on,” he said, still giddy. “I’ll teach you how to bench.”

I looked at the chair. “You’re joking, right? This looks like torture. Literally. Like out of the movies. You know? Like in James Bond?”

I see no difference.

He sat me down and started pulling the weights off the bar. “Just do it, ok?”

I sighed and leaned back. There were no weights on the bar.

“Ready?” he asked, effortlessly pulling the bar off its stand.

No, I thought, accepting the bar anyway as he coached me on which muscles to focus on and when to breathe. When he finally released the bar, my arms wobbled.

“You serious?” he laughed, watching me struggle to push it up in one neat movement. “I haven’t even put any weights on yet! You’re so weak.”

No arguments there.

Other times, he’s the one confused and I’m the one pushing him with my interests.

“So instead, some people think Harry should’ve named his kid after other people like Neville or Mr Weasley. Because, you know, they loved him because of who he was instead of whose kid he was,” I explained. Or rather, I ranted.

“And I see where they’re coming from and I totally agree but at the same time, I think it’s really nice that people loved his parents so much that they loved him too. Before they’d even met him. Like, Harry didn’t remember his parents but he could at least feel what kind of people they were by this overflowing love from everyone, you know? Like the parents had to be pretty great to inspire that kind of loyalty.”

Aaron took his eyes off the road for a second and blinked at me. He’s never read Harry Potter before. I’m not even sure if he’s seen all the movies.

“Umm, it’s just a book,” he said, apparently ending the conversation. I slumped back into the passenger seat as Aaron hummed contently to the radio.

Um excuse you, Aaron, but Harry Potter is not JUST A BOOK.

Regardless of what he thought, Aaron has always been the champion of my wants and needs.

With a mum like ours, Aaron never felt the need to bake. But when I began to try my hand in it as a preteen, he got pretty excited.

“What’s this?” he asked as I pulled the first batch from the oven.

“Cookies,” I said, watching him take a bite. He hissed at the heat before choking it down.

Then he made a face. “That’s disgusting.”

I sighed. Practice, I thought, thinking of Mum’s impeccable baking skills. I set them all on the cooling rack and went to watch TV. Twenty minutes later, I came out to put them all into a container only to find an empty cooling rack.

“Where’d they all go?” I asked.

Aaron smiled sheepishly. “I was hungry.”

“But,” I stammered, “you said they were disgusting.”

He nodded. “I was hungry,” he repeated simply.

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I’m a bit out of practice now but my baking got pretty good thanks to my willing taste tester.

And when I finished high school and got a good score, good enough to enter the university of my choice, he was even happier than I was.

He and Mum knew I would be too nervous to open the text message with my scores. So they came into my room in the morning, and sat on my bed to do it themselves. Aaron positively squealed with happiness.

“You can look!” he said, bouncing a little on the bed, his boyish features bursting into a smile. “You did great! You killed at English!”

It is no secret to anyone who knows us that he is my greatest supporter and friend.

So that – my new niece, the newest little noodle to our Pho family – that’s the person you get to call “Dad.” He’s the person who will undoubtedly become an even greater source of strength for you, much more so than in the physical sense.

That’s not even to mention your mum, who I’ve shared a good many adventures with and who I love like a sister.

I know we won’t meet for a while yet and I know that I can’t be there for you the same way your parents have been for me.

But grow up assured that it kills me not to be there with you. Know that I will support you the way I’ve been supported, no matter what your dreams and interests are. Know that I’m looking forward to sharing our own in-jokes and adventures together. Know that I love you just as much as I love my brother, your father.

Welcome to the world, Bao Bao. You’re in good hands.

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Made up Wed, 07 Sep 2016 11:00:22 +0000 People told me that one day, I'd come to love makeup and all things girly. I'm still waiting.

The post Made up appeared first on Pris Pho.

“先生、先生、いい?(sensei, sensei, ii: teacher, teacher, can I…?)” my older, more brazen students would ask, already running their fingers gingerly through my hair.

I’d chuckle. These girls always preferred to ask for permission only after they’d started.

“Go for it,” I’d tell them.

Their hands would grasp the air for my wrists, where they knew I kept a hairband handy. I never admitted it to them but I always found their giggling and the gentle tugging on my hair an amusing distraction while I corrected students’ writing and homework.

In some classes, when this happens, I see other girls sink further into their books. Or some will never participate, but only watch on from the sidelines as they chat with my amateur stylists.

But I’m not the only one who notices these girls. I’ve heard others – sometimes adults and sometimes their own peers – reassure them that they’ll become more interested in these things as they get older.

When I hear it, I’m suddenly back, an awkward preteen afflicted with eczema and, worse, a liking for my brother’s baggy hand-me-down jumpers. I’m showing my teachers my palms when they ask to check my hands, implying that they’re really checking for nail polish at school. All the aunties telling me the same thing I hear these girls being told now; that “beauty is pain,” and that one day, I’ll be spending all day in front of the mirror “putting my face on” and chasing after boys.

They were wrong. That day never came.

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I never lost my liking for oversized jumpers.

Fast forward ten years or so to find me at last Saturday before a friend’s wedding, nodding to answer a question I didn’t understand. (To be fair, this is something I picked up from the locals here.)

I was at the hairdresser’s and had made their day by insisting they should make all the style decisions for me. “何でもいいよ (nandemo iiyo: anything’s ok),” I kept saying when they showed me example hairstyles and makeup.

They spent the next hour or so waving hot instruments very close to my scalp and ears. By the end, they had used so many pins that I sincerely prayed for a forecast clear of lightning that day.

All the while, the makeup guy was unrolling his brushes onto the counter and asking me this one question that I couldn’t understand.

Finally, he called a younger staff member over. The younger worker spoke a little English. After a few false starts, he translated, “What are you wearing?”

I looked down. “A dress?”

They snorted, trying to keep in their laughter. Apparently, they were talking about whether I was wearing any makeup.

Nothing’s changed from when I was that awkward teen. What makeup I do own has been given as a gift. But that hardly matters. I don’t know how to use them anyway.

“What a waste,” some people tell me. “Japan and Korea have great cosmetic products.”

And by great cosmetic products, I assume they mean snail essence. Mmmm mucas.

And by “great cosmetic products,” I assume they mean snail essence. Mmmm mucus.

“But why don’t you learn?” others press.

There are so many reasons, but let’s condense the list for today.

People don’t notice when I’m not wearing any anyway.

Nod and look interested, I thought, kicking myself to stay alert.

In Sydney, at the interview for my last job, we spent about half an hour with the interviewer going through some office rules.

“And another thing,” she said. “In Japan, wearing too much makeup can be unprofessional. So please try to be moderate.”

I nodded and smiled. She looked up at me.

“Mm,” she nodded too, approvingly. “What you’re wearing now is good.”

I wasn’t wearing any makeup. But I nodded anyway and shrugged internally. I’ve followed that advice ever since.

You could argue that they just don’t know me well enough but I once went home, tossed my keys by the door, and said hi to my mum.

“Where did you go today?” she asked, watching me grab a towel and my glasses.

“The beach,” I thought I’d already told her that morning. I started pinching the contacts out of my eyes. “Why?”

“Why did you wear makeup to the beach?”

One contact out, one in, she looked half blurry. “Umm, I didn’t. I’m not wearing makeup. I just have contacts in so I could go swimming.”

She ran the pad of her thumb along my cheek.


If no one, not even my own mother, can tell if anything’s on my face, then no harm, no foul, surely.

I can’t put it on.

“大丈夫。大丈夫。大丈夫。(daijoubu. daijoubu. daijoubu: it’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.)” Saturday’s makeup man crooned as he tried not to jab my violently twitching eyes with his various brushes and pencils and metal death clamps.

As he asked me to look around the room to find a good angle to …actually, I’m not sure… I noticed other customers and other workers smirking slightly at his mantra.

Last year, for my brother’s wedding, there was also a makeup lady for the bridesmaids. She told me to look over her shoulder, leaned in, and backed away a little at the first twitch. I smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry,” I said. “But I really am trying to stop that.”

She nodded and leaned in again. “This is where you can really tell who wears makeup often and who doesn’t.”

“You can’t fake this?” I murmured, hoping the movement of my mouth wouldn’t add to her difficulties.

“Why would you?” she replied.

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If you think being in a wedding will keep me out of trackies, you are dead wrong, sir.

Makeup makes me uncomfortable.

When I was little, I always preferred my mum in soft pyjamas with no make up, always holding a mug of milk tea.

“She’s beautiful,” people (herself included) often told me. And I could see that she felt confident whenever she dressed up, although it was quite rare. Still, the powdered mask sharpened her features, changed her smell and shifted the way she carried herself.

I prefer her as my mum, comfortable at home, over her as a beautiful woman any day. (I know, what childish thing to say.)

Growing up has only strengthened this conviction, not just for her but for myself as well.

I sometimes wear makeup. I wear it for fancy parties and weddings and for any event that calls for it.

But when I do, people pay more attention to me. I know that probably has something to do with the fact that they never see me like that. They make it a point to look at me carefully and talk about my outfit. This is very sweet. I feel like other girls would love that attention.

But to me, it just feels …like a hot day would in winter – it should come as a nice surprise but it ends up being a little uncomfortable and unexpected despite having seen the forecast.

I also don’t know how to walk in heels without a handhold. I want to touch my face or my hair, simply because I can’t. Red smudges the lip of every cup I drink from. Contact lenses are not as comfortable as glasses.

If all these things helped me feel happier or more confident, then it’d be worth it. But it’s not. Because I just don’t really feel like myself.


In the morning from the minute that I wake up / What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup / Who says I must conceal what I’m made of

“When a Girl Can’t Be Herself,” Alicia Keys

I don’t even look like myself.

On Saturday, I went home after the wedding and headed into the lounge to share the edible wedding take home gifts with my housemates.

“こんばんは (konbanwa: good evening),” they said, conversations stopping as I pushed open the door, digging to the bottom of the bag to pull the chocolates out.

“こんばんは,” I replied as usual.

“誰? (dare: who is it?)” I heard one of them whisper.

I smiled awkwardly, spilling chocolates onto the table. “プリスです (purisu desu: I’m Pris),” I said, as they leaned in slightly to look at me. To be fair, the floral dress was a far cry from the trackies I wear around the house.

“びっくりした!(bikkurishita: I’m surprised!)” they gasped, raising their volume, before giggling together. I had no idea how to reply.

“I’ll be back,” I said instead as I scurried off, eager to avoid their glances and get back into my trackies.

I went back within minutes, in pyjamas, with my big mug and a new iBook.

As I waited for the water to boil and started a new chapter, I pulled the pins from my hair and ran my fingers through the curls. In the background, I heard the girls asking anyone who walked through the door if they recognised who I was.

This kind of anonymity isn’t always so bad, especially in this kind of society, which treats foreignness as a slight gimmick. Whenever I wear contacts or a face mask, I say I’m in Clark Kent mode: hidden in plain sight. I can walk through my local coffee shops where they know my usual order without getting recognised.

But if looking pretty means looking like a completely different person, I’ll pass.

I've never looked this happy with makeup on. Only in the presence of food.

I’ve never looked this happy with makeup on. Only in the presence of food.

I can’t take it off.

Ok, this one’s a real problem.

“おやすみ (oyasumi: g’night),” I bade my housemates.

Twenty minutes later, I was downstairs again.

“お帰り (okaeri: welcome back),” the girls smiled, bemused.

“Ummm,” I stuttered, realising that I didn’t have any vocabulary for what I wanted to say next. “メイクを。。。(meiku wo: makeup…)” – I pretended that my hands were sucking it off my face – “できない (dekinai: I can’t.)”

They peered at my face.

“Well,” I began to explain again. “これは (kore wa: this)” – I said, tapping my cheeks, realising as I did so that I know the word for face: 顔 (kao). Oh well, too late. Next time. – “これは大丈夫 (kore wa daijoubu: this is ok). …Eyelashes だけ (dake: only)…できない (dekinai: I can’t).”

One of the girls took me upstairs, squirted clear gel into my hands and instructed me on rubbing it into my eyes and face.

“どう? (dou: how is it?),” she asked as I rubbed.

Some of the solution went into my eyes.

“痛い (itai: ouch/it hurts),” I murmured, without stopping my fingers. I felt, rather than heard, her smile.

I have never, to this day, been able to remove makeup by myself, no matter how hard I try.

Seeing as I only ever wear makeup for bigger events, I’m always tired by the end, making the process just a little more overwhelming and frustrating.

“…I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.”

Scout Finch, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee

I’m sure many tomboys do grow to appreciate the fashion and all the different subcategories that come with it. Even within the last few years of teaching, I’ve had glimpses of that happening.

But I hear these girls being told, “Don’t worry, it’ll happen soon.” I have a crazy impulse to jump in and counter with, “Or, you know, just don’t worry, whatever the outcome.”

Instead, I catch their eye and shrug, sometimes with a stage whisper, “I don’t get it either. What are you reading?

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A different light Sun, 14 Aug 2016 11:00:45 +0000 A lot of people ask me why I came to Japan. Well, some travel to find themselves. It seems that I came to do the opposite - to lose myself.

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I am useless when I’m hungry.

When I was a student, I volunteered for an organisation called The Oaktree Foundation. They run an annual fundraiser called Live Below the Line. The fundraiser is for an undoubtedly good cause – aiding those living under the poverty line and empathising with their situation – but it’s also a special kind of torture, if we’re going to be honest here. You see, participants need to spend a week or more where their meals can add up to only $2 a day.

That’s a week or more of agonising over every gram and every cent of every meal. A week or more of having my saliva ducts set off by anything and everything from the fruity scent of my shampoo to the spelling of my surname. A week or more of savouring every bite, every flavour, every moment my stomach was full.

The first time I participated was in its inaugural year so I made the mistake of doing that week alone. My manager was so fed up (ha pun) with my grumpy disposition within our first shift together that she begged me to let her feed me.

“Donate to my page instead,” I huffed.

“But you can give food to the poor,” she reasoned. “Why can’t I do the same for you?”

“Because, ok? It’s just… That’s not how it works!” I cried out, scurrying off to fold more jeans before I snapped at her or burst into tears.

As it turns out, hunger makes me surprisingly emotional. At the time, it was also hard to identify what those emotions were exactly on an empty stomach. Was I angry? Was I sad? I couldn’t pinpoint anything beyond feeling “not good.”

Watch as my public thoughts become slightly manic.

Although I never did Live Below the Line alone again, I did agree to participate over the next few years as long as I had a group of friends suffering with me. It was an improvement. Friends meant camaraderie (turns out, misery does love company) and that the quantity of food increased. The flavour, however, did not. During those weeks, I was more depressed than angry.

My mother watched on, half empathetic and half amused.

She came into our kitchen one day to find me dejectedly shovelling rice into my mouth. One look and she laughed.

“I know,” she said soothingly. “I was poor even before I was a refugee, remember?”

Suddenly, all those stories that she told me about her childhood and refugee days seemed more three dimensional. I mean, they were always tragic but in that moment, while I was experiencing hunger in a very minimal way, knowing that she went through decades of poverty made me empathise with her in a very different light.

Ron, however, had always been used to three delicious meals a day, courtesy of his mother or of the Hogwarts house-elves, and hunger made him both unreasonable and irascible.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” JK Rowling

Same, Ron. Same.

I’ve answered a few FAQs before but never the biggest one: “why did you move to Japan?” I’ve alluded to it from time to time but in truth, it’s not a one sentence answer.

So I usually tell people that I wanted an adventure, that the timing was good, that I wanted to become more independent, that I loved Japan as a tourist. All these things are true.

But honestly, I came to Japan because I wanted to be foreign.

It comes back to my parents, and quite a number of family and friends, who have experienced poverty before. In fact, a number of them were boat people.

As I became acutely aware of during Live Below the Line, not even I understand what it means to have experienced what they went through. That’s even with my unique insight into their stories.

But what I do know is this: they’re great people. What’s more, they’re good people.

People sometimes tell me that I’m brave for coming to a country where I didn’t have connections or language proficiency. They tell me I’m clever for getting a job and learning the bare basics of Japanese.

My parents were younger than me when they did the same thing minus the comforts of a plane ticket, the Internet, or money.

The Children Overboard Incident of 2001 was the first time I realised how important the media is.

If they had chosen to evade a corrupt system of authority, they’d be mysterious. If they had chosen to cross the sea on a boat into a new country despite all odds, they would be courageous. And if they had chosen to climb from manual labour jobs to their current educated professions, they’d be inspirational.

I never understood why their doing so out of circumstances rather than choice made them people to be pitied or threatened by.

Granted, most kids will tell you that their parents wear invisible capes. Even so, I still feel pretty justified in thinking highly of mine.

In light of this, I’ve once mentioned how confronting it was to hear a co-worker teach me about “the dangers of immigrants”. In summary: immigrants are out to steal jobs, probably because they don’t share the same values as Australians.

I’m not blind to the fact that refugees and immigrants are not all pure hearted. Still, considering the personalities of the immigrants and former refugees that I did know, I found this misconception and their subsequent fears to be sad and funny in equal measures.

What tipped it away from the funny end of the scale was when I heard these sentiments repeated about Middle Eastern and Islamic people in the wake of terror attacks.

Even worse, when I heard it from former refugees.

Something I hadn’t considered was that having similar experiences does not guarantee empathy.

There weren’t many Asian kids in my primary schools. So, children being what they are, I’ve been victim to racial slurs, both malicious and ignorant.

In high school, I changed to a school with a larger pool of Asian international students. I was never cruel to them. Never intentionally, anyway. But I’m ashamed to say I never went out of my way to offer friendship either. I could justify that by saying that I rarely initiated friendship with anyone. But the harsh reality is that despite my upbringing and my family’s origins, and despite the fact that no one openly bullied them, I just didn’t want to be grouped in as one of “the Fobs.”

I finally extended that hand of friendship after I entered university, when I joined my church’s international students’ group. Perhaps it was to somewhat rectify my actions in high school. Mostly, it was because I saw such a divide between their group and our second-generational group, even though we were parts of the same church.

As these friendships grew, I quickly came to understand that I couldn’t relate to their experiences. And that made me realise that while it was possible for me to work in the industry, it wasn’t likely that I’d become the type of journalist I dream of being at that rate. In fact, it would’ve been dangerous for me to enter meaningful conversations with such a limited worldview.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Atticus Finch, “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,” Harper Lee

So, coming back to why I decided to come to Japan. Some travel to find themselves. It seems that I came to Japan to do the opposite – to lose myself.

I certainly wasn’t in the popular cliques at school and I’ve never been drawn to the centre of the limelight. But I’ve also never truly been an outsider and chances were I wouldn’t have such an experience as long as I was in Australia. Not with such a comfortable and supportive community, anyway. Not with my social and professional skills …well, nowhere near perfected but certainly on the rise.

On the other hand, with life in Japan – that is, without established connections, language proficiency, or the skills required to be a teacher – everything has been a learning experience. Think about it: complacency is discouraged even among the locals.

The first thing that pops out when skimming this blog is that I’m wrong and awkward. Often. Still.

Just last week, to my shock and horror, a housemate pointed out that I’ve apparently been buying low fat milk for the last two years. (So I, of course, switched back to full delicious cream immediately afterwards.)

Moving here hasn’t been without its difficulties, even with a smartphone in my pocket, in a country as accommodating as Japan.

But it’s given me a taste of the challenges and the discomfort of being a foreigner. Not in its entirety. In fact, it’s been more like a rollercoaster ride; fear and nerves going down, but all the while safely strapped in, knowing I’ll reach the top before long. And, if I’m honest, the rush is a little addictive.

The point is, I haven’t at any point been without lifelines and I doubt I’ll ever be willing to go that far. Still, it has helped me to appreciate the insecurities and triumphs of those I had once struggled to relate to.

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The deep end Mon, 01 Aug 2016 11:00:10 +0000 After two years of living in Japan, I am now immersed. I haven't moved to a different country, or even a different city, but it feels very much like it.

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“久しぶり!(hisashiburi: long time no see!)” I heard as soon as I walked through the door. “How have you been?”

“Good, good,” I smiled.

I caught up with my old office over the weekend for dinner. I used to see these people almost every day for the past two years. So after going a month cold turkey, I had half expected it to be a little jarring to catch up with them. As it turns out, it took about twelve seconds before we fell back into our old routine.

I asked about the office and their families. They asked about my new …everything: job, house, life.

“Well actually, this is nice. This is the most English I’ve spoken all week,” I laughed.

My former manager smirked at the computer screen where she was trying to focus half her attention. You have to understand that they were – and still are, I suppose – very likely to laugh as soon as I attempt to speak any Japanese. Without malice and with good reason, I’ll grudgingly admit.

“That’s good, though,” said お兄ちゃん, ever the teacher. “It sounds like a great learning environment.”

“I guess,” I said. “I just feel so stupid. Every day. All the time.”

I tried to speak a sentence or two in Japanese a few minutes later. Sure enough, both of them snorted almost immediately.

So I guess it’s official: after two years of living in Japan, I am now immersed. I haven’t moved to a different country, or even a different city, but it feels very much like it.

This change came partly because my workplaces no longer operate in English, but mostly because I’ve moved from my own private apartment and into a share house with lots of Japanese housemates. I say share house, but it’s really more like a dormitory with my own private shoebox bedroom and then much larger common living areas, bathrooms and kitchen.

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Do I miss living alone? Well, yeah. One of the best things about moving out was having a lot of my own space.

I miss singing in the shower and dancing in the kitchen and going pantsless around the house in summer. (Quick reminder that this is a no-judge zone, everyone.) I miss being a slob. I miss not being shy at home. I miss the ability to shed my foreigner status at the front door. I miss not having four flights of stairs between my bed and the kitchen. I miss having a ton of space for all my books. No wait, now I’m thinking of Australia.

The perks certainly do balance it out, though.

Aware as I am that I’m in a travelling faze, I’ve had to change the way I buy things. I make sure my clothes, seasonal and all, fit into my narrow wardrobe. I’ve started buying iBooks recently. (I maintain that nothing beats the feel of turning paper pages, but after moving from my last apartment, I can also bear witness to the fact that nothing hurts like selling books either.)

I forgo buying a lot of things that I know I can’t take with me when I inevitably up and leave. Case in point, before caving in and buying a fold-out chair, I used to sit on my toilet when I got sick of sitting on the floor.

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Another case in point: I didn’t buy a bed for the first hundred days in Japan despite having hardwood floors.

So there are plenty of amenities and appliances already included at my new place of residence that I don’t need but certainly won’t say no to. There’s a massage chair, a studio, a fridge in my bedroom (dreams do come true), a huge TV, a Wii, a PS3…

Oh, and I swear the laundry room’s going to be my favourite place come winter. Almost ten washer/dryers running at the same time makes for a very warm space that smells like fresh laundry twenty-four seven. Not to mention, dryers are magical. I loved swinging on the Hills Hoist as much as the next Aussie kid, but with a dryer, my clothes are always so fluffy and warm and almost wrinkle free.

For my non-Australian readers: in the place of dryers, the staple of most Australian backyards are Hills Hoists, where you’re just as likely to find swinging children as you are drying clothes.

Then there’s the kitchen.

“Wow,” a rare fellow foreign housemate said, walking into the kitchen one night to boil water for his two minute noodles.

I was at one of the four stations in the kitchen, reading American Gods on my phone while pushing mushrooms around a pan.

“Mushroom sauce? Steak? You’re going all out,” he said, leaning over and piquing  the curiosity of others in the kitchen. “What’s the occasion?”

I looked down. A pot of potatoes were simmering on the side, salad drip drying in a colander, raw steak already seasoned waiting to be fried.

“Having more than one stove top,” I said, my hesitancy making it sound more like a question than an answer.

It sounds crazy saying it out loud but I didn’t realise how much a kitchen contributes to the feeling of a complete home until now.

Now, with multiple stove tops and a jaffle/waffle maker and big fridges and microwaves and toasters. And best of all, an oven. An oven, you guys.

An oven.

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Funnily enough, the kitchen, being next to the living area and all, is also where I discovered the very best part of living in a share house. Sounds numbingly obvious in retrospect, especially when you consider how much I blab about how much I love the communities around me, but the best part about the share house is the people. Keeping in mind that I love living alone and get tired talking to people, I was pleasantly surprised.

For one thing, it’s good for me to be forced to see people, even if it is just to bid them a ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’. Having just a small group of close friends in Japan and not being someone who naturally initiates social contact means that I thrive off Prison Cell Friendships.

Thus far, it seems like I’ve landed myself in a very sociable house. My housemates seem as comfortable initiating and carrying every conversation with me as they are hanging out in silence.

For another thing, coming to Japan to talk to Japanese people was part of the plan. I’m lucky that a few of my housemates seem to understand basic English, with more fluent speakers peppered in more sparsely. It was just easier when I was at a language school where everyone wanted to talk in English. I now realise that that was not the norm and that Japanese people idealise English.

“‘Bu-ku‘.” I looked up from reading at the kitchen counter to find one of my housemates pointing at my book. She raised her eyebrows, a silent question: Was that right?

“Uh…yeah, mmhmm,” I nodded, reminding myself to smile.

“‘Mi-ru-ku‘,” she continued, pointing to the milk carton. “えぇぇ (ehh: umm)… ‘cookie’… ‘cappu‘..”

She pointed to each object as she named them and paused in between so I could confirm that yes, her vocabulary was spot on.

After a minute of this, she asked me to say it. “Umm ‘book’, ‘milk’, ‘cookie’, ‘cup’.”

“カッコイイ!(kakkoii: cool!)” she exclaimed enthusiastically, a sentiment often repeated when people pass my laptop to find my social media sites and Internet searches full of English.

This is very kind of them considering that I sound like a toddler and look like I’m playing an endless game of charades whenever I talk to them.

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Take last week, for example.

“えと (eto: umm),” I stammered before giving up slightly, “evaporated ミルク要る(miruku iru: we need evaporated milk).”

Two of my housemates and I were embarking on the quest to find the right ingredients to make egg tarts, which is actually quite a task in Japan. They cocked their heads at me: Huh?

“大丈夫 (daijoubu: it’s ok),” I said, deciding to just make, rather than buy, the evaporated milk.

I measured out some milk and set it on a low heat before passing one of them a wooden spoon. Then I took a deep breath before launching back into my stutter realising that, not for the first or last time, I was out of my depth.

I wanted to tell them that evaporated milk was just milk that had been evaporated to half its volume. The problem was that I didn’t – and still don’t – know the Japanese words for ‘steam’ or ‘evaporate’. I could describe it as “water gas”-ish but that would most likely complicate things even more.

“Ummm 普通な牛乳(futsuuna gyuunyuu: normal milk)… 温め?(atatame: heat up?) – ” here, I started to mime steam going up from the pan with sound effects and everything, “- 半分まで (hanbun made: until half). Yep. Evaporated milk.”

There was a pause. I was torn between my frustration and wanting to laugh. Before I could choose, the two of them started to guess at what I was trying to tell them. Miraculously, they nailed it.

One month in, I’ve realised that as a group, they’re more patient than many language teachers I’ve met in Tokyo. So, even if my Japanese level isn’t brilliant, at the very least, my communication skill is improving.

Now that I’m out of the shallows, I have a feeling it’s something I’ll be grateful for as I wade in even deeper.

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In other words Thu, 21 Jul 2016 03:00:08 +0000 Being immersed in another language is like real life Twitter: you can't say much and the conversations move too fast to keep up with.

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Oh Twitter, you misleading bird, you. 140 characters? So short! Finally, a social media platform that won’t suck the time from your life… Wrong!

I have Twitter. Mind you, I only tweet about myself and about television shows. Well, I’ve only just gotten access to TV in the first time in two years so…I only really tweet about myself. Occasionally. Ok, fine. I don’t really tweet.

I wish I could use Twitter proficiently and join one of the many Twitter communities. But let’s be honest here: for such a small character limit, its nature of instancy means that it involves a lot of time commitment. Even on a non-participatory spectating level: if you refresh the page as soon as it’s loaded, there are sure to be new tweets already. It’s impossible to keep on top of it all.

So as a wise meme once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!”


“Dang it!” *Blitz…*

I didn’t realise there’s a real life equivalent: being immersed in another language.

There are times when someone’s making a Japanese speech, be it at an event or every week at church. I guarantee that in every one of these occasions, the speaker will make a joke – even a small one – that will make everyone laugh. I’ll laugh too… a beat or two after everyone else has finished.

Some sentences contain vocabulary that is beyond my grasp, even when it’s used in context. Inversely, there are times when I will understand all the words separately but the grammar muddles the semantics. And then there are sentences that I will understand…if only I have enough time to work it out.

Just think, in these situations, I don’t even need to construct a response. So imagine how much worse I am in conversation, which, ideally, has more than one person monologuing.

Even on the few occasions when my comprehension and response times are quick enough to engage with the conversation, my response is sure to be devoid of things like intended meaning, tone, personality and wit.

“The more Japanese I understand and the more English you learn, the funnier you seem to be,” I once said to my former manager.

“そうでしょう?(sou deshou: I know, right?)” she stopped working and nodded vehemently. “You don’t know this, but I’m actually really funny in Japanese.”

At the time, I laughed at how bluntly she agreed to the compliment, a rare quality in Japanese people. But now, I don’t doubt the truth of what she was saying. I’m just impressed that she can keep up with daily conversations in a foreign language with native speakers.

A lot of people ask me: do you need Japanese to live in Japan?

Well, take away the language ability required for most workplaces and perhaps life in the countryside. (Honestly, what would I know? I’ve been living in Tokyo this whole time.) My answer would be a resounding “no.”

You don’t need Japanese. You can certainly get through life here without it. Many foreigners I’ve met who have lived here for years can’t say anything beyond greetings. As for me, I came here without being able to count to ten.

But let me just say that, boy, does language affect your quality of life here.

My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was younger. Correction: my parents dragged me to Chinese school when I was younger.

On several occasions, in the midst of violent protest, my brother and I would cry out (in English), “We don’t need Chinese! We live in Australia!”

Fast forward about seventeen years later and I finally realised that I have never been so wrong. Whoops! Sorry, Mum and Dad.

From “Japanese study resources

As a language teacher, this is something that I’ve become quite adept at telling my students. You don’t need English, especially if you’re going to live in Japan your whole lives. You can hire translators if your company handles business internationally. You can travel in tour groups on your vacations. You can Google Translate almost everything…to varying results.

But if you want to make independent friendships with people? If you want a better chance of promotion? If you want to make your own travel itinerary? If, God forbid, your phone battery dies? Well, languages can come in handy. And let’s be honest, some people who only speak a very predominant language like English can be jerks about it.

Sometimes, I reminded my students that I got how frustrating language learning can be. After all, I’m experiencing it in reverse and I’m lucky in that most monolingual Japanese aren’t jerks about it.

I mentioned once or twice that I came here to experience life as an outsider. A big part of that experience is trying to climb out of that isolation.

Here are some difficulties that I’m experiencing along the way:

Understanding what people say and knowing how to reply in the appropriate language is two very, very different things.

It is deeply uncomfortable to make people wait for you while you’re digging for the right words to reply to their simple question. If they’re not used to speaking to foreigners, they will fill the silence by repeating the question a few times at different speeds, intonation and volume. Meanwhile, you’re still trying to fit all the puzzle pieces of the answer together in your head.

You say a sentence that you know is wrong but you can’t stop now.

You say a sentence that you know is wrong but you don’t know how to fix it.

You can say a sentence that is fine, but has a different meaning to what you were actually aiming to say. At a restaurant, I once tried to ask the waitress to help take a photo of our group. Instead, I asked if I could take a photo of her.

Depending on the person speaking to me, my listening comprehension fluctuates wildly. I had an assistant manager who would speak to me in Japanese, only to have me appeal to the nearest Japanese teacher for a translation. The Japanese teachers wouldn’t translate it to English but repeat exactly what the assistant manager had said to me again, verbatim, in Japanese. From teachers’ mouths, where words were formed with textbook clarity, I would understand. From that assistant manager, older men, and other foreigners, I could hear the same words and still be at a loss.

But it’s not all bad news. Here are the rewards I’m reaping:

I’m learning a whole new culture! Some phrases are really hard to translate from English to Japanese, and vice versa. Getting to know the concepts in both languages is really opening up the way I think and my understanding of people. It’s testing my values, assumptions and expectations. Which helps with the next point.

I’ve made better friends. Speaking and thinking in a different language for a long period of time is exhausting. It’s much easier to halve the burden and doing the conversation half/half – by which I mean, periods where both parties speak their own native language and just listen to the foreign language. It’s only through that that I can hear their responses unfiltered by language barrier, which, as I mentioned above, tends to simplify thoughts and censor out things like wit and tone.

Me, fangirling friends without context.

I’m also much more engaged in conversation when speaking Japanese. I have to be. I watch people’s expressions and mouth shapes more carefully. Gestures and tone become paramount to making sure that the intended and perceived meaning matches up.

I appreciate language learners more. In Australia, it’s an expectation for all foreigners, visitors or residents, to have at least a basic working knowledge of English. In Japan, I’m going into my third year of teaching English. It’s easy to go from that culture into this profession and completely underestimate how it feels to struggle in another language.

Television makes it look so easy. (Dany learnt Dothraki in less than a season. What?! Not even the creator of Dothraki is fluent in it!) The truth is that it’s hard. It takes a lot of continuous and conscious effort. Knowing that made me more patient. Experiencing it is making me a more empathetic person and a much better teacher.

I’m more independent. Not in everything. I never went to the hospital alone and I still need to send my friends photos of official looking mail. But I can go to the bank or city office alone. I could sign up for my new apartment alone. I can travel alone, even in the countryside where English speakers are scarce.

I feel a sense of achievement in mundane tasks. Since moving to Japan, I’ve visited Australia once for a week. A busy week. So  I do, of course, feel homesick. Often. One of the best remedies is making good friends, which, as I mentioned earlier, Japanese helps with. Another is keeping busy. Yet another is knowing that it wasn’t a mistake to move away from home.

Having constantly shifting goals while embarking on the long journey of language learning means that every hurdle I clear feels like an achievement. Every achievement feels like growth. A conversation with someone new? Reading a whole a short story? Laughing at the right places while watching a TV show? Understanding the announcement on the train? Achievements. Every one of them.

There are a lot more points to add to the argument of learning languages – if you think of any, let me know! – but I think I’ve made my point.

All in all, language isn’t absolutely necessary. You can have profound connections without it.

My favourite scene from "The Good Dinosaur," has its two main characters - Arlo and Spot - bonding and mourning together over one word: family.

My favourite scene from “The Good Dinosaur,” has its two main characters – Arlo and Spot – bonding and mourning together over one word: family.

But language proficiency makes communication more efficient, more detailed, and more accurate. Getting that proficiency, however, is a different story.


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