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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What’s So Funny? Comedy in Japan versus America

Comedy in Japan versus America

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of appearing on abemaTV’s live late night show, Muramoto Daisuke’s The Night, to participate in a discussion about comedy in Japan versus comedy in the rest of the world (namely America).  While the whole fact that I showed up on Japanese TV is a story in its own right, the discussion that we had on the show really struck a chord with me.  What is it about Japanese comedy that makes it hard to enjoy for foreigners and, on that same note, what is it about American comedy that makes it hard for Japanese people to enjoy?


Obviously, there is a language gap that has to be leapt between the two forms but the gulf between comedic cultures and understanding of how humor works goes beyond that.  This whole discussion of Japanese comedy versus comedy “elsewhere” stems from a tweet by scientist and writer Ken Mogi.  In it, he calls out “major” Japanese entertainers (not by name, mind you, but as an entire class) as being far off from the international standard of comedy and, thus, “finished”. Continue reading

Too Much TV (or That Time that Stephen Reveals That He has No Life)

So living in Japan, it can be a little difficult to maintain a feeling of “connectivitinesstitude” with your home country, what with the not-English and all, which makes TV from back home all the more welcome.  I of course took that concept to the extreme and am now watching way more TV than I probably should.  And since I don’t want this blog to be barren of new content, I decided to share (well not share share because that’s illegal) what I’ve been watching with you.

Banshee: helping to prove that face tattoos can only mean bad things since 2013.

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On the Eve of My Big Move

Remember when I wrote that I’d be a good blogger and update and write things on a consistent basis like a good boy?  I lied.  I’d like to say that I’ve been too busy to write but that’d be a boldface lie.  The majority of my days over the past two months have passed with marathon Doctor Who Blu Ray collection sessions and getting more in-depth into basketball statistics than is probably healthy for a normal human being.  But all those days, all those wasted hours have been done in preparation for this moment, this day.

As I write this, I only have about 20 more hours left in the United States before I haul two suitcases jammed to the brim with snotty office clothes that I never imagined I’d ever wear onto a plane bound for Japan and the high-stakes world of underground wolf wrangling.  Okay, so maybe I made that last bit up in a desperate attempt to impress you guys and not seem like a total sad sack.  Here’s the reality of my whole move thingy:

  • The destination: Mito-shi, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan.
  • The job: English instructor/ teacher at a large chain English conversational school (Not quite sure if I want to disclose which company at this juncture)
  • The salary: 250,000 yen a month (I think)

My contract official ends in March of 2014 due to a technicality but I’m actually probably signed until 2015, at which point, who knows what the hell’s going to happen.  Until that point, I’m going to be living in Japan, away from my family, away from my friends, away from my beloved American sports (which is probably a good thing because I swear I’m a bad luck charm for the 49ers), and more importantly, away from all of the people who have filed restraining orders against me.  In short, if graduating from college wasn’t enough of one, this is a brand new start from scratch (disregarding the four suits I’m bringing with me and the laptop I’m typing this on).  I didn’t really need a fresh start or anything but I find that concept all sorts of fascinating.  All those ties and social circles I’ve acquired over the years? Gone.  That safety net of family and friends? Adios friendo.  Now, if I screw things up (which I probably will… repeatedly), I’ve only got myself to blame and I’ll be the one suffering.

In writing this post, I’m once again procrastinating on the whole packing deal.  I’ve made the decision to take two suitcases, which I’ve found to be surprisingly empty, even as I do my best to fill them with everything I’ll need to be a professional in uptight business Japan, which means I’m probably forgetting something important.  It’s not money (I’m barely gonna be scraping together enough to survive for the first month there) and certainly not socks.  Maybe it’s something less physical and more… abstract.  I already know the most important thing: No matter how much I prepare myself, I’m going to be caught off guard.  So why worry about packing?  Once I have the big stuff down, what point is there in sweating the details?  I don’t want my last couple of hours in the states to be filled with dread and panic.  I want to savor that thick American smog, get stuck in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic of the American commute, smell the roses undoubtedly doused with some drunk hobo’s urine.  If the time comes and I’m missing something crucial, so be it.  It’s not like Japan is a distant way station in the middle of the Sahara.  They have stores there too.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading the ramblings of a dude who’s low on sleep and high on impatience.  I promise I’ll try to write a bit more once I’m over there since I’m sure some of you will be curious about what I’m up to amongst the chilly natto-fields of Mito.  If that doesn’t appeal to you, why the hell are you even reading through this blog?

I know the impact of what I’m doing has completely gone over my head but oh well.  I’ll have plenty of time to ruminate on the deeper meaning of my job in Japan during my twelve hour plane flight.  Let’s just get this show on the road.


Something I probably won't be getting in Japan

Something I probably won’t be getting in Japan

P.S.  I should probably check whether or not I’m actually booked on this flight.

P.P.S. If anyone is reading this and has my phone number, just get rid of it.  My sister’s taking over my phone and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to deal with you guys texting her with your nonsense.

P.P.P.S. Whoever invented the Rice Krispie Treat deserves a Nobel Prize.