June 22, 2005

Avoiding The Language Barrier

I've never been comfortable when it comes to confronting language barriers, a minor phobia that stems, I believe, from living the first 17 years of my life pretty much fully immersed in a purely English-speaking small town community.

Therefore, when I went to live in Tokyo in 1992, I was genuinely unprepared for the culture shock inherent in suddenly living amongst over 20 million people for whom English was a secondary language. Those darned Japan natives seemed intent on speaking. . . Japanese. Who would've thunk it?

Over the first few weeks, I experienced any number of language barrier surprises. For example, I bought a Game Boy cartridge, which I thought was a super awesome good deal, until I fired up the game and realized that all the text was in. . . wait for it. . . Japanese. From a culinary standpoint, the language barrier led to all sorts of distasteful mistakes, most notably the pastry I purchased one morning, which was quite good, until I hit the cream filling, which turned out to be bean paste. And, just a quick note about bean paste: BARF!

Given all the surprises I encountered early on during my Japanese living experience, I think it's understandable that I started developing language barrier avoidance mechanisms to ensure I didn't squander money needlessly, or end up with a mouthful of bean paste, or cow tongue, or both.

One thing you quickly learn upon living in Japan is that you build up a collection of spare change, or Yen, rather fast. This is because, in Japan, the lowest denomination paper money is the U.S. equivalent of a $10 bill. Everything lower than that comes in coin form. So, you start accumulating spare change almost immediately. And, it's not like the pennies and nickles you squirrel away here in the States. In Japan, spare change can mean real money, what with all those coins worth $1 and $5 floating around.

The obvious solution to all this spare change is to go to a bank and have it tallied up and converted into bills. Obvious though such a solution was, I was firmly in the throes of language barrier avoidance syndrome. For some reason, I thought that if I went into a bank with a Folger's can full of coins, I'd come out of said bank with the deed to a scooter or something. When it came to my money in Japan, I had become almost pathological in trying to protect it. I had spent it foolishly too many times thanks to language misunderstandings.

Well, one day, I was purchasing a soda from one of the city's omnipresent vending machines. I was using a handful of 10 Yen coins to buy a Coke that cost 110 Yen. For you math whizzes out there, that equals 11 coins. Unfortunately, the machine was out of Coke, so I pushed the coin return lever, and out popped a 100 Yen coin and a 10 Yen coin. I had magically gone from a pocket-heavy load of 11 coins, to just two. Out of curiousity, I put in five 100 Yen coins, and pushed the coin return lever, and out plopped a 500 Yen coin.

See if you can guess where I'm going with this.

Inspired by my discovery, I raced home and grabbed my Folger's can full of Yen, and returned to the magic vending machine, and I started a most laborous process of inserting Yen until the coin load equaled 500 Yen, at which point I'd pull the coin return lever and retrieve a 500 Yen coin. As you might imagine, this was a fairly time-consuming process, but I was avoiding any language barrier faux pas, so I was immensely pleased.

However, I also realized, deep down, that my actions were somewhat odd, so any time I saw someone approaching, I'd quickly gather up my Folger's can, and walk around the block. I didn't want anyone actually witnessing my eccentric behavior, after all. All told, when it came to repeatedly feeding coins into a vending machine, and the occasional walk around the block, it took me over an hour to convert my Folger's can of coins into 500 Yen tokens.

As the year progressed, I performed this odd routine a few dozen times, whenever my Folger's can started overflowing. I even had a mental map in my head as to which vending machines functioned properly when it came to dispensing 500 Yen coins. I knew where they were located, what goods they dispensed, and how secluded they were. I became so proficient, in fact, I brought my overall time down to about 40 minutes per Folger's can.

Overall, it was a harmless activity, but I often wondered what the vending machine maintenance people thought when they found their machines depleted of 500 Yen coins, while overflowing with every other coin denomination. That, and my classmates often wondered why I carried so many 500 Yen coins around with me.

If they kept asking me, however, I'd just threaten to buy them some bean paste. That usually silenced them.

Posted by Ryan at June 22, 2005 10:36 AM

If course the part of this story that sheds the most light on your personality is that you evidently consume a lot of Folger's coffee.


Posted by: Joshua at June 22, 2005 02:50 PM

Actually, my parents did/do. I just inherited the empty cans. I'm 30 now, and I still don't drink coffee.

Posted by: Ryan at June 22, 2005 03:11 PM

I'm laughing my ass off. Deed to a scooter, eh? You sound like a damned criminal with how you plotted out your vending machine hits. But you know what. I would have gotten the same phobia being in an unfamilar place.

Posted by: Desult at June 23, 2005 10:34 AM

Of course, the best solution would've been to plan what you use more wisely. Instead of using a 1000 yen bill to pay for something that costs 600 yen, see if you have the coins for it. That's basically my philosophy with both bills and coins over here in the US. I'll give the cashier $5.07 for an item that costs $3.32 ($1.75 in change), or $21.13 for something that costs $5.88 ($15.25 in change), for example. It's extremely unusual for me to have more than 4 pennies, 1 nickle, 2 dimes, 3 quarters, 4 one-dollar bills, 3 fives (that just because it's not uncommon for registers to have no tens), or 1 ten.

Posted by: Nik at October 15, 2005 12:45 AM
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