This past December I took a trip to Japan – again.
I’ve been to Japan three times. It’s a country where you can stay in the same place for weeks and still feel like you haven’t even begun to discover any of its secrets. There’s always something curious waiting to pique your imagination, and there’s always something for everyone. From little harbour towns to sprawling urban meccas, mountain hot springs to pristine beaches, and generations-old family businesses to over 200 Michelin-star restaurants, this island nation of 127 million people has it all.
During my latest trip, I went to Tokyo for the first time. People are used to tourists in Tokyo. English is everywhere – until it isn’t.
In Asakusa, midway through our meal at a kaitenzushi restaurant, a couple of older ladies were seated beside my husband and I. We watched a shrimp desperately trying to swim up the side of its tank together for a while in silence.
“It’s cute, isn’t it?” one of the women finally said, and that’s how it started. For the rest of the meal, we talked about the shrimp, its lazy friend at the bottom of the tank, the various dishes passing by on the conveyer belt, and what we were doing in Asakusa. They didn’t know any English, so we had to stumble along in our travelers’ Japanese.
Some things we didn’t quite get. Were they celebrating a birthday? No, maybe it was a special year for celebration in Asakusa? We didn’t understand, and that was okay. The ladies bid us goodbye with a smile and a wave.
One of the best things about traveling abroad are the language charades that inevitably occur as you rethink your typical methods of communication. Simple ideas become almost impossible to convey. You’re forced out of your comfort zone and into a minefield of potentially embarrassing situations, and many of those situations begin with a quickly-spoken question and an expectant stare.
So what do you do? Well, at times like these, you simply speak. You speak in any way that you can. It doesn’t matter if half of what you say is in hand gestures, body language, or riddled with grammatical errors and incorrect pronunciation. The important thing is that you try, and that you keep trying again and again and again. At the end of the day, no one will remember exactly what you said (or didn’t say). It’s the idea that matters.
“But wait,” you say, “what about dictionaries?” It’s true that using Google Translate would be the easiest way around language difficulties, but where’s the sense of adventure? Sometimes getting lost in a linguistic jungle is just the challenge that your mind was looking for. And let’s be honest: it can be an awkward experience to watch someone quietly and slowly type what they want to say on their phone.
So on your next trip, whether it’s to a new country or to the neighbourhood grocery store, be open to communication. Talk to someone you’ve never talked to before. Chat about a new topic, or something that you’ve talked about hundreds of times. Speak as much as you can, for as long as you can.
And then repeat.
Not sure where to start? Here are some English phrases that might be useful during your travels.
Food and Eating
- Does this have [pork/cilantro/oil/curry] in it?
- I’m allergic to [seafood/nuts/dairy/eggs/gluten].
- How spicy is it?
- One more, please.
- Can we split the bill? (when you are paying separately and not as a group)
- Can I get the bill, please? (after a meal and you are ready to pay)
- Can you please pack this up for me? (after a meal when you have leftovers that you want to take home)
Directions and Transportation
- Which way is the [garden/museum/bus stop]?
- Does this bus/train go to [Fort Street/Whistler/Beacon Hill Park]?
- Can I get change? (before paying the bus/train fare)
- How often does the bus/train come?
- How much does this cost?
- Do you have another one?
- Do you have this in a smaller/bigger size?
- Do you have this in a different colour?
- What is the expiry date? (when buying food)
- Do I need to refrigerate this? (when buying food)
- Can I put this in the freezer? (when buying food)
- Do you have any non-smoking rooms?
- Do you have a cheaper room?
- Do you have a room with a good night view?
- Do you have a room with [two twin beds/two queen beds/1 king bed]?
- Does this room have [air conditioning/wi-fi/a coffee machine]?
- Can I get a discount if I stay more than two nights?
Talking to Someone New
- Where are you from?
- What brings you to [Canada/Japan/Turkey]? (Why are you here?)
- Do you have any suggestions for what I can do tomorrow?
- Have you been to [the museum/any good restaurants/Victoria]?
- Is it your first time here?
- I like your [backpack/hat/earrings].
- It was nice to meet you. (at the end of a conversation before you leave)
- Let’s hang out sometime. (after you’ve had a good chat and you want to see them again)