The Art of Small Talk (or “How Living in Japan has Turned Me into a Total Weirdo”)

Me having a basic English conversation

Being back in Amerrica for the first time in eight years has certainly been an eye-opening experience in many ways. It’s been great to be back in a country (or at least a hometown) where the stars aren’t completely non-existant at night and traffic congestion and packed trains and light pollution and regular polution and fifty white haired dudes hacking up a lung in full business suits aren’t just parts of daily life.

I’ve been living in Japan for essentially all of my adult life with the exception of a week’s vacation in Hawai’i and being back in California over the last month plus has made me realize just how much my life as an expat in Japan (despite being a citizen) has turned me into a complete and total weirdo (this is in addition to the many other ways I was a total weirdo before moving across the Pacific Ocean after college). One subtle and yet important category where I realize being in Japan for the better part of a decade has affected me is the ever so crucial “small talk.”

In my various vocations ranging from when I was a plain English teacher new to Japan and later on as a translator, fixer, and “English teacher to the stars*”, I’ve often stressed the importance of knowing how to make small talk as a key step in achieving fluency in a secondary language. Sure, their pronunciation might not be perfect but they could at least feign attention as some client or the other would tell them about a vacation they had to the Balkans or whatever topic rich powerful people tend to talk about when they get together.

“Know how to hold a basic conversation about nothing in particular and you’ll sound like a fluent English speaker,” I’d always tell my students with abundant confidence. This prescribed fluency of course would mostly consist of just being able to ask basic follow up questions.

*Mostly B-Listers and behind the scenes guys

“I went to the zoo yesterday.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”

Sure, they would run the risk of sounding like a cop in the midst of a really really stupid interrogation but at least they’d be talking. And that would make them sound fluent. Or so I’d tell them.

But being back in America for a month has sorta taught me that being a truly fluent speaker is more than that…

That’s right, today I realized that I am no longer fluent in English, the language I grew up speaking.

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Life Updates (Again) -Flying Internationally in the time of COVID-19 and rueing the Olympics

Sleepless in Sacramento.

Well hello there. I’m curently writing this from the bed of my parents’ guest bedroom in Sacramento, California.

“But Stephen,” you say, befuddled but only a teensy little bit while you feign interest, “I thought that this was a blog/site about your life in Japan!”

Yes, well, I’ve been in America for the last month and a half and only feel a little guilty about it. Sometime around mid-April in Tokyo, things started to look a bit gloomy in Japan. Vaccination efforts were fully underway in California while Japan still seemed intent on doing it’s typical “Nihonjinron” thing and asking the stupid questions no one else dares ask like “Do these vaccines work on Japanese people?” (As if there are no Asian people in any of the countries where vaccination drives were in full effect) and “How long can you force people to ganbatte for the sake of the Olympics?”

COVID cases were reaching a critical tupping point in Osaka and rising in Tokyo, prompting the priime minister to declare yet another flaccid state of emergency, this time with additional special “Don’t sell alcohol at your restaurants please” provisions. So I did what any self-respecting coward/holder of a US passport would do and jumped ship (temporarily but we’ll get to that in a bit). Booking a ticket on the first flight out of Haneda Airport that was landing in the general vicinity of somewhere I could actually go, I hit up my local PCR test clinic (there was miraculously an open slot at the precise right time for someone looking to catch an international flight in the coming hours), hastily taught my Japanese grandparents how to use FaceTime, apologized profusely to my comedy partner, and, within two days of booking, was on a redeye flight from Tokyo to San Francisco.

Several things that stuck with me about travelling internationally from one of Asia’s major transportation hubs in the middle of a global superpandemic:

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