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.

For my non-American audience, I should probably offer a bit of clarification.

Living in Japan, most of the miscellaneous daily interactions and transactions happen under the auspicious soundtrack of silence. A typical trip to the supermarket typically goes like this:

Middle-aged mom working the cash register: Next.
Me: bow and push my cart ahead.
Register lady: quietly starts scanning items before finishing and finally speaking Will you be paying with cash or credit? (In more recent cases after my local supermarket has finished renovations, she doesn’t even do this much but rather points a furtive finger towards the automated money taking machine.)
Me: Cash.
Register Lady: Understood. That’ll be 4500 yen. (I buy lots of groceries)
Me: Ah, yes.

And that would be that. Seems pretty simple right. Generally most of the English conversations in textbook lessons about buying stuff at the supermarket (normally with a dumbly specific shopping list like “Five BIG onions, three RED peppers, and three gallons of milk!”) seem to follow that same basic progression and, while I haven’t really checked into this, I’m pretty sure most other language books would follow this same basic template. But, while sticking to the script may work in the rigid auspices of the greater Tokyo-area’s stiffly formal Japanese, most American grocery sojourns end up going something like this:

Register lady: Hey! Welcome to Generic Supermarket Chain! Will you be needing a bag for this?
Me (having forgotten to bring a reusable shopping bag be=cause I’m a horrible person who’s probably going to hell): Yes.

Then the conversation branches off into a million different directions largely dependent on random factors like what shirt I happen to be wearing, how hot of a day it is, and what I’m purchasing but inevitably deviating from that same basic script. And that’s where the trouble begins.

Scene: I’m buying groceries but wearing a Justice League t-shirt.
Register lady: Nice shirt! You know, my son was watching that new Wonder Woman movie the other night. So violent.

Scene: It is 100 degrees outside and I am buying hot dog buns
Register lady: Sure it hot out today, isn’t it. You having a picnic?!

Scene: I’m buying groceries but am also buying Flaming Hot Cheetos.
Register lady: Boy, those sure are spicy! How do you eat ‘em?

All three of these scenarios are conversations that I’ve actually had since coming back to the states in April and all of them are frustrating nails in the tires of the carefully cultivated sedan that has become my English-speaking ability as a person who does business in Japanese in Japan. All three are on their face rhetorical questions that are less asking for answers but rather just the register lady oversharing and/or revealing dumb quirks/ character traits that a textbook person wouldn’t.

Back in the before times, before the idea to move to Japan ever popped into my CTE-addled mind, I’m sure I would’ve known what to do or, maybe, that’s just what I think now that I struggle so much with it so much. The register lady, I’m sure, doesn’t actually care what I have to say and is just being polite but how can I reciprocate her politeness without doing off like a total tool or some dude that’s trying to hit on her? But then I can’t help but think that that’s the Japanese part of my brain talking and I get caught in a ever-growing death spiral, an argument with myself about that division between Japanese and English, the pre-Japan Mister Stephen and the post-Japan Stephen-san.

Maybe it’s something that goes away with time. Or maybe it’s a struggle that’ll always exist now that I’ve spent all those years onegaishimasu-ing my way through daily life.

My answer to all three American grocery scenes, by the way? Pretend I didn’t hear her.

Yes, living in Japan has turned me into a weirdo and, no, I don’t know whether I like it or not.

What have you got to say for yourself???

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