Have you experienced being illiterate?

36383484_10214366791796878_180251586910486528_oI just took my first standardized test for the first time in 14 years.  I don’t do well on these types of things. I got a 1040 on my SAT out of high school and that is incredibly low for someone who is a self identified nerd and now has a Masters of Education from UCLA.  Getting a Masters, I was not required to enter any standardized test scores. I took the GRE but to this day, I don’t know what my score was, the notification came back and I couldn’t understand how to score myself.  I didn’t need the score anyway so I didn’t bother trying to figure it out. I have studied Japanese for at least 1-2 hours everyday for the last two years and I have been studying the format for this test for about six months since I registered and paid for it.  I use the test as a way to measure myself against what is required to work using Japanese in a professional environment. It’s actually a useful standard I think. No employer will ask for proof, the proof is in you and it becomes apparent. I’ve written business emails applying for jobs, I’ve done some low paid work making phone calls for American tourism companies to practice my weakness of phone calls.  I’ve gotten over the fear because I had to. Surviving as an immigrant whose native language is not much spoken in the country is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Everything before this has prepared me for this hardship but it doesn’t make it easier. I got lost looking for the college campus that the test was being held at, I had 8 minutes to spare before the doors closed and I was running there in 90 degree Japan summer sun and I was dripping with sweat and had actually peed in my pants out of anxiety even though I had just gone to the toilet at the train station right before that.  (I have had stress incontinence for a decade or more). Directions, map orientations and being on time are also not my forte. I arrived in time with just 5 minutes to spare and sat in my chair like a college student in a classroom, a familiar feeling (academia) waiting for my heartbeat and body temperature to match the sixty other foreigners taking the test in Tokyo in that level that day.




I have worked so incredibly hard on becoming fluent in Japanese.  I first started this journey at the age of 12, continued in high school and one year in undergraduate and then since moving to Japan, the last two years have been a daily exercise in humility and reconstructing a torn down ego.  I watched the TED Talks on language learning and got falsely inflated like most people do about language learning. It does not take 6 months to become fluent. You can SPEAK a language in 6 months, I came to Japan speaking Japanese on a basic level, and had been since the age of 12.  Fluency, competent literacy at an educated adult level is a whole different thing.



My Japanese literacy is at the 2nd grade level.  It takes me hours to read and understand websites for things I need like getting a package redelivered or reprogramming my password for my banking website.  I use ( and love) a social media app called Hello Talk to write sentences and they come back corrected 100% of the time with incorrect grammar or totally not understood by the Japanese community on that app.  If you have read an email or anything from someone trying to write in your native language and you shake your head at how terrible it is, that is me in Japanese trying to write normal sentences above the basic level.   Reading a menu is easy for me, but that is just one small aspect of adult functioning in society. When I think about how hard I thought grad school teaching was, my weekly trials are about 5 times that difficulty. AND I do not have daily bong hits to make it easier.  I can drink wine but alcohol doesn’t do the same thing for me, it makes me unwind a bit, and then it makes me sleepy. Getting drunk is nothing near as satisfying and mind and ego soothing as marijuana. I don’t want to live in Japan forever, one of the main reasons is marijuana prohibition.  My life is better stoned. I have thoroughly tested this out. My goal is to attain fluency and then use my fluency outside of Japan.


I struggled through my graduate degree which was simultaneous first year teaching in a rough LA low income high school.  I was just thirty years old but mentally and emotionally immature I think in retrospect. I was the oldest teacher in my cohort but I could barely handle the pressure of being thrown to the wolves everyday.  There were a lot of crying fits and smoking weed to cope through these years. I could literally not wait to graduate so that I could give up trying to be something I knew that I wasn’t. The difference with me in Japan, is that I am struggling to become something that I know that I am.  People think they are helping you by speaking English to you, but they are actually basing your incompetence in Japanese on how you look and it really ends up pissing me off when it happens. It means that you have failed for the day. You’re not Japanese enough, go to the end of the line.  WHEN I attain fluency my income will double and I will have the ability to go back to my freelance life with more freedom than I have now as an English teacher. I DO get to use Japanese while teaching English however, so that part is satisfying. The level that I do have in Japanese helps my students in explanation and some of my students cannot speak English at all.  I’ve even had a few clients that I communicate with entirely in Japanese. Even that my Japanese isn’t at fluency level, I know for a fact it has helped students feel at ease and that I have been able to communicate and resolve issues both in my job as a teacher and in real world Japan. But every time they start miming to you silently because you obviously don’t speak Japanese it hurts because you know that you have studied more hours in that week than they even bother to realize, every time you leave a lecture understanding 50% of what was said and your brain feels burnt to a crisp from just 50% it hurts.  I dream of the day when these stresses will be part of my past. This day will come. I will not go home to my comfort zone until this day comes.


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