Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Misadventures in video store membership

I scored 100 percent on my Japanese midterm exam last week. I say this not to brag, but to illustrate how completely useless written tests are as a measure of competency in a foreign language.

I may have gotten a perfect score on my midterm exam but I failed spectacularly when I put my Japanese to the test at the video store the other day. (Although, technically, it's not a "video store." It's a "culture convenience club.")

All I wanted to do was get a membership card and rent some movies. Sounds simple enough, right? Simple for a native speaker, yes. Simple for a foreigner trying to muddle her way through the language, not so much.

I walked up to the counter and explained (in Japanese) that I wanted to get a membership card.

So far so good.

The kid behind the counter understood exactly what I said and pulled out a laminated brochure and placed it on the counter between us. The brochure contained two photographs of two seemingly identical membership cards with two very long and very detailed explanations written underneath (all in Japanese, of course).

In rapid-fire Japanese, the kid explained the vast and varied differences between these two identical looking cards. After his long-winded speech, he asked me to choose a card. The only problem was I didn't understand a word he had said. I looked at him with a blank expression on my face.

My reaction caused him to be completely embarrassed and flustered. Instead of responding to me, he simply bowed his head and refused to make eye contact with me. There was at least a minute of complete silence between the two of us. Unable to stand the awkwardness any longer, I told him in Japanese that I didn't understand what he had said and asked if he could repeat himself.

So he did. Afterwards, he gestured to the brochure and asked me once again to pick a card. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders, and told him I still didn't understand. I apologized profusely.

He grew quiet again. He bowed his head, keeping his eyes glued to the floor.

I studied the brochure to see if I could find any clues as to what he might have said. But the only thing I could understand was that one card was free and the other card cost 200 yen. A minute of silence ticked by. Two minutes of silence ticked by.

It was more awkward and uncomfortable than two stiff-armed teenagers attempting to slow dance. I asked him to repeat himself a third time. And a fourth time.

The fifth time around, two words in his speech finally jumped out at me: "credit" and "rental." A light bulb went on above my head. Maybe one of the cards was a credit card and one was for video rentals! I tested my theory on the kid behind the counter and he crumpled with relief.

"Hai!" he said.

I told him I didn't want a credit card. I just wanted to rent movies. He handed me an application form and told me to go over to a nearby table to fill it out.

Assuming the worst was over, I walked over to the table, grabbed a pen and was about to fill out the form. Until I actually looked at it.

Here we go again, I thought. I was tempted to run back to the counter and tell him I couldn't actually read the application form but I wanted to give the poor kid a break. So I decided to pretend I knew what I was doing.

I assumed they wanted me to put my name and address somewhere on the form. But I wasn't sure where they wanted me to write those things exactly. I put my name in the top box and my address underneath. It seemed like a good guess. I wrote the date in the right hand corner. And then I gave up.

There was a line-up at the counter and I joined the queue. As I got closer to the front, I could tell the kid was hoping not to have to deal with me again. He seemed to take an extra long time with each customer, stealing a furtive glance at me every now and then.

By the time it was my turn, another barely-out-of-high-school kid had the unfortunate pleasure of serving me. I handed him my (incomplete) application form and told him I couldn't read the Chinese characters.

He asked me something in rapid-fire Japanese. I didn't want to have to go through the awkward language dance all over again so I decided I would just fake it this time around. I assumed he was asking to see some sort of ID so I handed him my alien registration card. It was a guess but it was the right guess.

And then he asked when my birthday was. Except he didn't want to know what year I was born in. He wanted to know what era I was born in. Umm . . . era? Yes, era.

[Note: In Japan, they count years based on an emperor's reign. For example, the current year is not 2008. The current year is Heisei 20. That's because the current emperor has been in power for 20 years. I was born in the 49th year of the Showa era. I know that now thanks to the magic of the internets. Unfortunately, I did not know it at the video store when I actually needed to know it.]

I told him I had no idea what era I was born in. At this point, I noticed the large beads of sweat trickling down the kid's face. And the way his hands were trembling.

I apologized some more and prayed for this epic ordeal to end quickly. I wrote down the year I was born and asked him if it was okay just like that. He nodded his consent and, finally, handed me a membership card.

But it wasn't over yet! He had to explain the pricing system. The late fees. The cost of a new release compared to an old movie. I nodded my head and pretended to understand. I wanted this to be over more for his sake then for mine.

In the end, I walked out of there with a membership card, a DVD and a headache. I suppose I technically succeeded. We communicated only in Japanese. No English was spoken. Not by me. Not by the employees. But they were able to understand what I wanted and I was able to understand what they needed from me in order to get what I wanted.

If it had been a test, I would have gotten 50 per cent. A passing grade, but just barely.

It kind of puts the 100 percent I got on my midterm exam into perspective.

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