Although I’m half-Japanese, I wasn’t raised in Japan, and I’ve done a lot of harmless, embarrassing stuff as an inept foreigner, trying to survive the most basic interactions here, so let me tell you the stories I’d recount if we were both a few too many chūhai deep, squatting outside a glowing conbini near a few chain smokers who glance impassively at yet another shibuya meltdown.
1. How hard could it be to sign for a package? 🖋️
In preparation for moving from temporary corporate housing into my own Japanese apartment for the first time, I was advised to order a lot of items to be delivered face-to-face on my move-in day. At this point, I knew only a handful of the most basic words in Japanese, and I didn’t study specific vocab for such a trivial interaction.
When the first delivery person arrived, I took the package, then the delivery person offered me a paper slip and pen. I motioned toward the pen and used my limited Japanese to ask “where?” to figure out where to sign since I couldn’t read any of the labeled fields on the paper, and, much to my surprise, he pointed to a small, dotted-lined circle on the receipt-sized paper. Surely I couldn’t fit my whole signature in there! The dotting looked kind of like it was perforated, so maybe I was supposed to push out the circle with the pen somehow? I looked at him confused, motioning repeatedly putting the pen tip to the circle hoping my body language conveyed my question. He nodded encouragingly, so I set aside my reservations and plunged my pen through the paper. He gasped. We both stared at each other, utterly confused. He mimed writing and said, “Sign shimasu.” I really was meant to sign in the hole after all… Later, I found out that the circle exists for folks to use their small, circular personal hanko seals in lieu of a signature, but you can also just sign sloppily over the circle and it doesn’t matter at all.
2. Nah, I'm good. 💳
Whenever I buy stuff, I always immediately pull out my credit card and trusty reusable eco bag, so the cashier knows how I’m paying and that I don’t need a plastic bag. I never sat down to actually learn the transactional script that cashiers say during these payment interactions, so I usually just mash A in the form of saying “daijoubu desu” or “keko desu”, which both roughly translate to “I’m good, thanks” / “it’s fine as it is” / “no, thanks”. This always resulted in successfully paying for the items and putting them in my eco bag for more than two years, so it just really didn’t seem that important to learn what cashiers are asking when I have a ton of other stuff to worry about until the day, THREE years into living here, when my phrases didn’t work.
The cashier kept asking, 「お支払い方法は如何なさいますか？」(Oshiharai houhou wa ikaga nasai masu ka?).
I already had my credit card and eco bag out, so I kept alternating with my two prepared phrases over and over while we kept looking at each other increasingly confused.
Eventually, I moved slightly to bring out my translate app on my phone, something clicked, and I was able to pay. This was so weird, so I immediately asked my friends, who are actually proficient at Japanese, what that houhou phrase meant.
They told me she was asking, “How do you want to pay?” since she couldn’t see the credit card in my hand until I shifted, and I kept essentially telling her that it’s fine, I don’t need to pay. I’m good!
3. potato, potahto 🍟
During the early pandemic, the vegan gods smiled upon me and an excellent vegan bakery opened up conveniently near my partner’s apartment. Worried that I was singlehandedly the only customer who could sustain its survival in the area, I went almost every day. The pastries were great there, but, in common Japanese loan word fashion, they were labeled using a mix contracted words like choko (instead of chokorēto for chocolate) as well as French, English, and Portuguese loan words, which were twisted to fit Japanese phonetics. This made trying to read the pastry labels quickly nearly impossible unless I already knew the loan words (I didn’t), which was why I almost always pointed at something and said, “Kore, onegaishimasu.” (This, please.)
I don’t know what got into me this day—maybe I was just recklessly delirious from another wild pandemic evening of staying up late eating snacks while continuing our Steven Universe marathon—but I was feeling myself . As I walked to the bakery, I thought today would absolutely be the day I ordered savory pastries using my limited Japanese vegetable words. I was gonna make sensei proud! 😤
The place was busy, but I finally managed to get up to the glass case, noting the various vegetable galettes. I got excited upon seeing the humble potato galette, one of my favorites AND a vegetable I knew how to name in Japanese! Eagerly, I pointed and called out, “jagabee, onegaishimasu!”, basking in the warmth of sensei’s spiritual approval.
In a barely audible whisper, the clerk verbally confirms my order, saying “jagaimo” instead of “jagabee”. EHHHH?! Sensei’s warmth vanished as I stared intently at the potato galette with a mix of shock, horror, and betrayal, realizing I had just proudly exclaimed to many patrons at my favorite bakery and the staff I saw nearly every day that I didn’t know the difference between a potato and jabagee, a famous potato stick snack.