I went to Tokyo many moons ago. (I was there for my 26th birthday and now I’m 30.) I did very little on my own. I was in Tokyo for student orientation at IES Tokyo and my second language is Spanish. Spanish is not too terribly useful in Japan. Shocking, right? The only ordering I did on my own the whole time was at Starbucks, because everything is called the same thing.
If you know anything about Japan, you might know that there are a number of alphabets. Kanji is the symbol based system that idiots are always getting tatooed on them without really knowing what the symbol means. (We all got tattoos that say unique in Japanese!)
There is also Romanji. Romanji is using roman letters like those you see me use everyday to spell out words in Japanese. Like kudzu. That is a Japanese word spelled out in roman letters. It doesn’t help you define the word if you don’t already know it, it just helps you pronounce the word so you don’t sound like a fool.
Towards the end of the stay, two of the Japanese staff members, both women, take me to a sushi place. One of those little joints with a conveyer belt and you pay by the color and number of empty plates stacked on your tray. Very cool. On the way in, one asks the waiter for the English menu.
She gives it to me and we sit at the counter.
I stare at the menu. It stares back.
“Go on, Leah-san, order something,” one colleague says.
“Um… can you order for me?”
“You have the menu, try to order,” she repeats. But what she’s really saying is, “For Pete’s sake Leah! You’ve been hear a over a week, you are a grown woman, look at the damn menu and order some raw fish for yourself!”
Or maybe that’s what I hear in my head, so I order “ami ebi” which is cooked shrimp. And they are out. Crap. I can’t do this, I plead, I stare at the damn menu.
The other woman looks over my shoulder and starts to giggle. She says something in Japanese to the other woman, who looks over my shoulder and giggles. The giggles turn into all out laughter, rare for Japanese women in public, and they gasp for breath to try and tell me what the deal is.
“Bua ha ha… I asked for… ha ha… english… snort ha ha… and they gave you,” here’s the punchline, “ROMANJI!!!!”
The whole menu was still in Japanese. It didn’t say Ami-ebi/Shrimp, it just had picture of a shrimp with Ami-ebi under it. Which is fine for a shrimp.
Photo of pink fish. Slightly pinker fish. Sort-of tannish fish. White fish. Bumpy fish. Smooth fish.
I can not deciper slightly pinker fish from sort-of tannish fish with the names given in Japanese, now can I? The two take pity on my and hysterical not-quite-English menu and order me piles of delicious sushi, while they continue to giggle.
“Romanji… we asked for English!”