My Experiences

Are You Japanese?

It was my friend FK’s birthday yesterday and one of his friends (who I’ve met once) invited me to a surprise party for him at a Chinese restaurant. She told us all to be there by 7 PM because she would be arriving with FK at around 7:30. I arrived a few minutes early, and since I didn’t want to be the first person to arrive in a group of people who I mostly didn’t know, I sat in my car and stared at the clock. When 5 minutes passed, I decided to finally enter the restaurant, only to find that there was only one other person there: KR, a guy I’ve met a few times. We filled out a birthday card while we waited for the hostess to seat us at our table for 14, and naturally I forgot how to write the kanji for “birthday.” Where’s my electric dictionary when I need it?

Our huge round table was in a special room towards the back of the restaurant, and in this room were two more empty, huge round tables. We sat down and one by one people began to trickle in. It seemed to me that KR also didn’t know most of these people yet, so I got the pleasure of experiencing the “nice to meet you” moment alongside him. Have you ever had that moment in Japanese? Here’s how it goes. (Please keep in mind that this is not word for word how it went, but a rough translation from Japanese into English)

ME: Um, KR-san, is this your first time meeting this guy too?

KR: Yeah, I’ve never met him before.

Both of us half stand up, hunched over like we have stomach aches.

KR: Ah, Ni…Nice to meet you. I’m KR.

Stranger: Nice to meet you, I’m XX.

Ok, here’s what I’m inevitably thinking at this point. Very soon it’ll be my turn to introduce myself and exchange pleasantries. There are two ways this can go: one way I look like a jerk, and one way I probably don’t (although who really knows?). If this new Japanese guy, XX, introduces himself to me before I introduce myself to him, he’ll definitely speak English to me. That’s obvious, I mean, I’m white and since he has never met me before, he has absolutely no reason to think I speak Japanese. If he introduces himself to me in English, but I respond in Japanese, I look like a grade-A jerk. He’ll think his English wasn’t good enough for me to bother listening to or responding to, and he’ll think that I have decided my Japanese is better than his English. I’ll look selfish and rude. After that attempt by him to speak English with me, if I start speaking Japanese later, it’ll only seem strange and forced – like I am struggling to practice Japanese and not like I just naturally speak it and belong to the group that I am here with.

My solution is to introduce myself to XX before he has a chance to introduce himself to me, and I do it in Japanese so there won’t be an uncomfortable “oh yeah by the way I speak Japanese” moment later on.

ME: Nice to meet you, I’m Elliott.

XX: EH! Ni-nice to meet you! I’m XX. Um… are you… Japanese?

Did he just ask me if I’m Japanese? Oh my… this is now officially an awesome day. He has no idea how happy he just made me. He didn’t just say “wow, your Japanse is good!” which is how Japanese people usually compliment a racially non-Japanese person who speaks Japanese. He actually thought I am Japanese. This was a first for me. I’m not going to lie, it felt really good. What am I learning this language for if I don’t want to sound like a real Japanese person, right? It just means I’m accomplishing my goals as planned.

ME: Nah, I’m American.

XX: Ah, yeah that makes sense, of course.

I don’t like to give more information than that unless asked. Usually I’ll be asked why I speak Japanese (since I didn’t grow up there), and then when I say that it’s simply because I study obsessively and have a lot of Japanese friends they will usually ask me why I’m interested in Japanese. There are a lot of answers to that question, but the big one that I like to give (that’s easiest to talk about and easiest for people to relate to) is that I did karate all through my childhood, and studying Japanese was the natural progression of things when I went to high school.

The rest of our party arrives, all Japanese, and half of them I have never met. I repeat the situation above with each of them (they don’t all think I’m Japanese, but I introduce myself just the same). By this point, the other two parties have arrived. They’re also Japanese. Is this a special room for Japanese customers? I am now the only American in a room of maybe 30 Japanese, all speaking Japanese. I have never felt more like I was in Japan than I did last night… and we were in a Chinese restaurant.

Now, usually my Japanese friends like to speak English with me at least some of the time. But when in a room full of Japanese people, I guess the mood just takes over and they forget about it. They were at home. The whole situation became somewhat of a “we’ll speak Japanese normally with each other. Elliott will sink or swim” scenario. Well, lucky for me, I live for sink or swim. This is what I’ve always wanted. How do I measure up in a room full of Japanese people who aren’t slowing down their language to my level? Do I understand? Can I participate?

If I had to grade myself on last night, I’d give myself an 90%. I had to adapt myself to the situation. I sat back and just listened for a while to get a feel for the flow of conversation. Eventually I began to interject into the conversation, and almost every time I opened my mouth, everyone stopped to listen to me. Actually, this was kind of intimidating. But I can’t blame them, they were curious and excited to hear me speak Japanese. They also probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t being interrupted or confused by peripheral conversation.

I messed up my grammar a couple times, I had to maneuver around a few vocabulary words that I didn’t remember, and I occasionally didn’t understand what people were talking about. That last problem could very easily be due to a lack of context, however, since some of these people already knew each other. I won’t take off too many points for that. I’d say that overall, I didn’t sink.

I was in the middle of saying something when a 10 year old Japanese girl needed to sneak behind me to get out to the bathroom. When she walked by me she said,

「すみません」 excuse me.

A little girl I don’t know said “excuse me” in Japanese. She thought I was Japanese too.

The waitress came by and asked me if I wanted more water.

“oh, yes please. Thank you. And can I please have another napkin?” I answered in English.

“Wow! Your English is good!” Said one of my Japanese friends (in Japanese).

Everyone stopped and looked at her. We all laughed.

For the first time all night, I didn’t know what to say.


If you’re in a situation where you’re a little bit intimidated by the amount and level of Japanese being spoken, just sit back and relax. Let it come to you. They will understand your efforts to learn and practice Japanese. If you mess something up, just keep going. They won’t stop you and say “Jeez, I can’t believe u screwed that up. You suck at Japanese.” They’ll keep listening politely, even if you aren’t making any sense. So talk, have fun, and jump in the deep end. You won’t drown.

One Final Note:

I am not making fun of any of the people I have described in this post. They are all my friends, and I talk about them with the utmost affection. Obviously, when I say that I think it’s cool that they ask me if I’m Japanese, I don’t mean that they are asking me if I’m racially Japanese. I mean that they’re asking if I grew up in Japan. I write about this topic from a place of humility, and realize that while I do consider myself to be an advanced language learner, I do not consider myself completely fluent.


The Nature of Fluency in Japanese: My Huge Breakthrough

I had a major breakthrough in my Japanese abilities this past weekend. It happened on Christmas Eve.

I went to a bar in downtown Chicago with a rather large group of friends. All but JLPTCafe and I were Japanese. Now, JLPTCafe and I are good buddies, and neither of us is Japanese, so when we spend time together we usually just speak English.

On the other hand, when I see any one or two of these Japanese friends at a time, we tend to speak an odd medley of Japanese and English (I like to call it Japanglish) in which sentences tend to start in Engish, follow English sentence structure, but feature mostly Japanese vocabulary. Also, these sentences almost always end in 「ですよ」. Is this good for my Language skills? Not really, but these people are my friends, not language learning tools, so I’m happy to just spend time with them nonetheless.

This Christmas Eve was different though. There were probably eight Japanese people, and every single one of us (including JLPTCafe and I) speak Japanese, so being outnumbered, the natural ebb and flow of the conversation tended towards Japanese. Obviously, my Japanese friends who speak English as a second language are not going to speak English to each other when there are no English speakers participating in the conversation, right? Well, the entire conversation of the night, with the exception of maybe a few minutes here or there, was spoken in Japanese.

Let me take you back in time for a moment, 2 years approximately. When I met my first primarily non-English-speaking Japanese friend, my spoken Japanese was… not so good. If you asked this friend (let’s call him NK) he would say that my Japanese was amazing. But then again, I’m sure it sounded that way to NK, considering that he had just moved to the US and he didn’t know any Americans who speak Japanese at all. So, my broken Japanese was probably a relief to him. He and I became really good pals, and I spoke Japanese almost exclusively with him. For one year until NK went home to Japan, my skills gradually improved. And then I hit a wall. A big brick wall with graffiti on it that says:


In English: “You shall not become more fluent than this!”

my illustration of the wall I've been facing for two years now


I’ve been staring at this wall for almost two years now. I speak with friends regularly. I watch Japanese TV all the time. I read in Japanese. I study constantly. My academic skills have definitely improved, and I understand much more spoken Japanese, but my ability to speak would not really improve at all.

Until Christmas Eve. I’m not sure what happened, but all of a sudden, the wall was gone. I don’t recall destroying it with brute force, and I don’t recall climbing over it. But somehow, it was gone.

And I stepped into the space beyond.

I spoke quickly, clearly, with correct grammar, and with advanced vocab. I didn’t have to ask anyone to repeat anything. I was even thinking in Japanese.  It was almost as if I flushed all the English out of my system.

JLPTCafe asked me a question in English at one point during the night when there were no Japanese people around, and I instinctively and accidentally responded to him in Japanese. My mind was just working in Japanese, like the language gears in my brain were turning counter clockwise for Japanese but would need to be reset to turn clockwise for English.

I had a breakthrough this weekend and I had an epiphany to boot. I think this wall exists for everyone who learns Japanese (and possibly any other language out there too, but this is the only language I know so this is all I can talk about), and I don’t think there is a way to knock it down. I have been hammering away at this wall for two years, and it wouldn’t break, wouldn’t chip, wouldn’t even crack. I’ve tried climbing over it but it’s infinitely tall. You can’t even see the top. Why did it disappear? My best guess is this: time, consistency, and acceptance of an inability to force fluency.

You cannot force yourself to be fluent. I always thought I could, and to a certain extent, that’s what I’ve been doing for five years by studying like I do. But, there is a certain amount of fluency that you cannot control, and that is the element of time. No matter how much time and effort you put in to learning Japanese, you cannot cancel out a lack of experience and exposure. Let’s assume you study five hours a day, like I try to do. That’s nice, but your brain needs to rest to reap the benefits. And when you’re resting, your exposure to Japanese is sinking into the deepest nooks and crannies of your brain, where it can never get out, and where you’ll never lose it because you know it’s there even without looking for it. You can’t rush this rest period. It takes years.

Well, I now understand why they say it takes seven years to become fluent in Japanese. I never believed it before, but now I do.

When will you have your breakthrough? When you’re relaxed and when you have finally accepted the fact that you cannot force fluency. Only when you accept that no matter how much you study you can’t make yourself fluent, will you start to feel fluent. I’m not telling you to stop studying. You have to study. Japanese won’t learn itself, as I always say. What I mean is, just relax. Learn Japanese, but let fluency come at its own pace. It will know when you are ready, and it knows you better than you know it.

Santa gave me a pretty awesome Christmas present this year.

Thank you, the view is breathtaking without that hideous wall.

will the real Otaku please stand up?

It’s Saturday, June 20.  I’m going downtown on the Metra train with Ai to see Michigan avenue and walk around, maybe do some window shopping. Sounds like fun, right? Well, you have no idea just how fun this was going to get. Why? Well, today was no ordinary day in the city of Chicago…

We got downtown and I began to feel uneasy… why are the streets so empty?  Where is everyone? Its 80 degrees outside, sunny, we’re in downtown Chicago, and theres no one here.  You could hear your own footsteps on the sidewalk, that’s not supposed to happen in the city.  We start to notice a lot of people congregating near Millenium park as we headed farther east.

“Should we go check it out?” I said.

“Sure, I want to see the bean anyway” She said. I like the bean. We went to see the bean.  For those of you “non-Chicagoans”, if you exist and are actually reading my semi-entertaining blog, the bean is exactly what its called: a bean.  A big metal one.  Why is this attractive? It reflects the skyline nicely.  Is that cool? sort of.

Anyway, we got to the bean, and what do we find? Literally, hundreds of people dressed up as anime characters.  Full costumes.  Adults.  Dressed up as Anime characters… little more needs to be said than I felt like I was in Akihabara.  There were even girls dressed up as Maids like from “Maid Cafe’s” (places where somewhat lonely guys or guys with an otherwhise apparent “Lolita Complex” get served by girls with high pitched voices dressed up as… maids).  Thats not even Anime, its just something creepy that happens in Akihabara (Tokyo’s electronics district).

I began to wonder, as any normal person would, “what’s going on here?” So I asked someone, a girl, dressed up as Cloud from FFVII (I’m not an Otaku just because I know the character… its a famous character).  She said to me “tsk, sighhhhhhh…. it’s an ANIME conVENTION” as if it was absurd that I wouldn’t know that.  And come to think of it, it kind of is.  So, being the idiot that I am, I asked her “what convention?” as if it made a difference or as if I would recognize it by its name anyway.  She answered me, and I didn’t listen, naturally.

It was at that moment that the world ended.  Five Naruto’s walked by, followed by one Sasuke and an Ichigo.  I wont lie, I recognize these characters, not because I’m an Otaku (hey, I’m not the one dressing up), but because I DO read this stuff in my free time.  Even if you say you don’t, you probably do if your reading my blog anyway.

I took a picture of this phenominon, so for your viewing pleasure, here you go:

Grow, Grow, Fight the Power

Believe it!!

Oh, and I saw a Pikachu too.

How is that costume not rediculously hot?

How is that costume not rediculously hot?

I heard Pikachu talking, not just saying its name, so needless to say I was disappointed.  She dashed all my hopes and dreams that there could be a real Pikachu.

So, what’s my opinion on all this? However much I’m making fun of these people, and I won’t hide it, I am, to a certain extent I’m also proud of them.  Why? Because these people are truly… Happy. Happy with CAPITAL “H”. They actually care so little about what people think of them, that they’re willing to go outside in the morning, dressed in a full body Pikachu Jumpsuit, or wearing a rediculous Maid costume, get on the train like that, talk to regular people doing business (selling tickets, selling food, what have you) and then spend the entire day in public dressed like that.  I’m impressed.  It’s incredible, and I’m jealous.  How many people in the world love something SO MUCH that they will go to those extents to participate? They face riducule and humiliation with a smile. They like what they’re doing and no one can stop them.  Otaku’s are in their own world, they have each other, and they’re fine like that.

So, what’s my conclusion here? All the power to them.  Go OTAKU’s.  I’m not one of you (please don’t ask me to be) and even though I make fun of you (because you ARE funny, just admit it) , but I respect you.  To quote an Anime: “GROW GROW, FIGHT THE POWER!” (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann)…

Jeez… am I an Otaku?

(PS, for all of you who are interested in finding out exactly what an Otaku is, go to and watch the Japanese Drama: “Densha Otoko”)



Sayuri is going back to Japan this coming weekend, so Kazuma, Andrew, Ai and I took her to a famous Yakiniku restaurant on the North side of Chicago called Chicago Kalbi.  The restaurant is in a Korean neighborhood and it is a Korean style menu (serving kimchi and other assorted Korean side dishes with the main course) but it is an entirely Japanese wait staff and almost every customer inside besides myself and Andrew were Japanese.  There are Chicago Cubs figurines, photos and souvenires all over the restaurant because the Japanese Cubs players (according to Kazuma) come here frequently to celebrate.  This is apparent when you see the decour.

The tables are in small private rooms with decorative Japanese style curtains in the entrance way, and every table that is in a private room has a hole in the middle of it.  The waiter or waitress will put a bucket of hot coals into this hole and put a grill on top of it, then bring a tray of assorted raw meat for us to cook ourselves.  Sound scary, like what if you don’t know how to cook? Well, it is kind of scary, which is why Kazuma did most of the cooking.  We had a few fire incidents, but its ok, Andrew tried to put them out with his chopsticks… which are made of wood… because it makes sense to put out a fire with little wooden stick…



So once we were done eating, Andrew talked to Sayuri about his arrival in Japan, and I believe she told him she was going to help him get acclimated, but I can’t tell that story very well, so check is blog “Life’s a Journey” to find out more about that story.  He told me earlier that he wrote a post about how she was going to help him.  We all gave her goodbye cards, and I told her I look forward to meeting her again sometime when I can finally go to Japan.  Its a goal that’s still very far away, but it’s one that I have not yet given up on, and I now have one more reason to make it happen.


So, we ate ice cream and parted ways.  That’s about it for today.  Look at my friend Andrew’s blog when you’re done reading mine, I’m sure he has some interesting stuff to say.


A Sukiyaki Saturday



I picked up Ai at Old Orchard at around 2:30 PM and she helped me study Japanese for a few hours.  My reading packet asked me some questions about Phenomimes (a word that she knows from her ESL class that I’ve never heard in my life and that my dad, who has a bachelors in English, also doesn’t know) which are apparently words that use sounds to describe things that don’t make a sound.  For example: “きりきり痛む kiri kiri itamu”, to have a sharp pain; “ふらふら歩く fura fura aruku”, to walk in a wobbly fashion; or “ペタペタ peta peta”, sticky.  The fact that I’m not aware of these words in English, I’ve never even heard of them in fact, is sheer proof that sometimes people who learn a language later in life know it better than those who speak it naturally.  They work so hard to understand grammar and the rules of English, so they do everything precisely, and we don’t even think about it when we write in our native language.

When Ai was helping me study, I made a decision:  I’m going to attempt to take the Japanese Proficiency Exam Level Two this coming December.  The tests are ranked from four to one, four being the easiest and two being the hardest. I passed level three this past December, and since I’m not in classes right now, I need a little bit of extra motivation.  I will need to memorize somewhere around one thousand Kanji and six thousand vocabulary words.  Its not going to be easy, but even if I don’t pass it’ll be nice to know where I stand.  I don’t, however; intend to fail.  Failure isn’t something that I usually consider as a possibility, so if I decide to succeed, I probably will.


After we were done studying, we drove to Kazuma’s house for a Sukiyaki party that we’ve been planning for a while.  Andrew drove on his own (ask him why, his blog is on my blogroll — Life’s a Journey) and I drove Ai and Myself.  When we got there, Kazuma and his friend Sayuri were already preparing the Sukiyaki.  Now, before tonight I’d never had Sukiyaki, so If I didn’t know what it was, you guys probably don’t know either.  Its like, a lot of meat and cabbage and mushrooms and tofu all boiling in a pot of some brown mystery liquid (the bottle is in complicated Kanji, so naturally I can’t read the ingredients).  Sounds like soup doesn’t it?  Well, its not, because here’s the catch.  Before you eat it, you crack a raw egg into your bowl, mix up the egg with your chopsticks, and then dip the meat and vegetables in the raw egg.  Now, all of our mommies told us since we were kids “don’t eat raw eggs, you’ll die of Salmonella”.  When Andrew asked Kazuma why its ok to eat these eggs raw, the answer, roughly, was “because they are Japanese”.  You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like “We use magic to make eggs that don’t kill you.  That’s right, magic eggs. we call them Dragon Balls”.  

Sorry, I made a stupid joke.

In reality, their eggs are more organic and the chickens are raised in a cleaner and more controlled environment than we raise our eggs in, so its probably OK to eat them raw.  After all, Rocky did it when training to fight Apollo, right?  If Kazuma’s been doing it his entire life, and he’s still alive, I’ll probably be OK.  But then again, he bought these eggs in America… who knows where they came from.  Well, I’ve talked about this for too long.  If any of my readers know more about the issue of Japanese people and Raw Eggs, please feel free to comment on this blog.  I want to know.



PS — take a look at my friend Andrew’s blog: Life’s a Journey.  I made his new custom heading, and I’m sure he’d like the traffic on his blog.