anxious encounters at tea table

September 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s a Thursday afternoon at the South Thayer Building–home of the beloved Asian Studies program advisors and professors–which means it’s time for awkward, uncomfortably long pause-laden, spasmodic attempts at conversation in Japanese while drinking tea and munching on delicious though sometimes questionably flavored rice cracker snacks, girl scout cookies (?), and pocky sticks!

Upon entry into the third floor commons area, you are immediately presented with a cup of hot brown-rice tea and ushered to a table of other first-, second-, third-, and–most frightening of all–practically fluent fourth-year students.  Not to mention the not-so-subtle insertion of a sensei (teacher) or two among the tables of students, surruptitiously and eagerly awaiting to break out into monologues of rapid, incomprehensible Japanese that may or may not end in a question directed at you.

You take a seat next to someone you hope is another first-year, given the similar expression of unease, nausea, and general terror at the prospect of coming up with unrehearsed, spontaneous sentences, in the hopes of having at least one person with whom you can exchange strings of vocabulary words in the guise of engaging conversation.

Things start out well-enough with self-introductions–you’ve had this spiel memorized and ingrained into your brain as a rhythmical pattern of sounds and pauses since week two of class.  But then a turn for the worse: you realize sensei has just asked you a question, and have only managed to decipher the verbs ‘to shave one’s beard’ and ‘to boil water’ from myriad other baffling phrases.  You glance over to the fellow first-year for encouraging signs of comprehension, but find no means of salvation in his nonplussed, blank stare.  Hurriedly taking a sip from the still-steaming cup of tea, and only mildly embarrassing yourself by coughing and sputtering, sensei senses your panic and dread and kindly repeats the question in reassuringly slow and even tones.  With only a marginal increase in understanding, you smile vaguely and give an ambiguous head-bob that could, if necessary, function as both a confirming yea or nay.  Sensei smiles and nods too…then offers you a seaweed-flavored snack cracker.

52 minutes later, somewhat dazed and still mystified over the last conversation’s turn of events leading to a heated discussion concerning the intricacies of the caste system in India, you manage a parting ‘sayonara’ and wearily stumble out of the building, brain awash with Japanese exclamations and turns-of-phrases.  There’s still hope for next week’s venture in coherent linguistic exchange…


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