In the Japanese language, there are two very different distinct ways of speaking, depending on your relationship and status level in relation to your company.
Keigo (敬語) is very formal Japanese, a polite way of speaking used when meeting new people for the first time, as well as for professional work-related relationships.
Tamego (タメ語)ーis a casual way of speaking, used with your family and your close friends.
It is normal to initially use Keigo when first meeting someone in order to show politeness and respect. However, Keigo can also feel very stiff and distant, contriving a wall that clearly distinguishes friend from stranger.
Risa is quite the chatterbox, and within five minutes we’re chummily speaking in Tamego and cracking jokes at each other as if we go back since way back when. Before I realize it, my test anxiety has completely faded away.
My last stop on the school tour, she walks me to my Placement rest classroom, where the fate of my school year is decided. Just like a forty-year old youth soccer coach dad, Risa gives me a hard slap on the back and shares her two cents.
(If it’s you Kevin, it’ll be a breeze. Go ace that test) she tells me.
(I’ll finish it within 10 minutes. No sweat.)
Looking over my shoulder with a thumbs up, I flash back with bravado.
In truth, knowing what’s on the line, I have actually been quite anxious about this test for months. Although I am confident in my speaking abilities, because I am primarily self-taught and have been studying for about a year, there is a profound gap between my speaking abilities and my reading and writing skills.
With that said, it looks like I was actually able to keep my promise with Risa. The test results released about one week later, and I placed in level 5 out of 7 of the course levels.
Rendezvousing with Risa in the school cafeteria, she introduces me to another one of her tutor friends Saki, as well as two other foreign exchange students who came here last semester. Rhyann, a short-haired sporty Filipino-descent American from California, and Charlie, a freckled lanky boy from Chicago.
Up until now, as someone who passionately studied Japanese in America, I have always been alone. This is the first time I have met people just like me. Despite English being easiest way to communicate with other, we only speak to each other in Japanese. I find interacting with these two amusing yet refreshing, and a unique sense of belonging.
It’s now dark outside, and we make a way out of the vacant school yards and into the city. Shibuya looks completely different nightーThe bright light streets are crowded and rustling with people, and even though it’s a normal weekday night, it feels like a festival.
(Kevin, you must be hungry, right? Have you tried Okonomiyaki before?) Risa asks me.
An interesting Japanese dish that looks like a deep-fried pancake, you get to choose what kind of ingredients to use ranging from salmon to kimchi, then grill it yourself on a hot iron table among friends. I have only seen it before in anime, but with that too embarrassing to say,
I just say (No.)
We arrive at a cramped two story restaurant that specializes in Okonomiyaki. The place is saturated with both grill smoke and rowdy college students.
Risa and SakiーTokyo natives flipping their okonomiyaki naturally is a given, but with chopsticks in one hand and a pocket-sized spatula in another, even Rhyann and Charlie are smoothly flipping their patties, looking like Spongebob flipping burgers at the Krusty Krab.
My food unfortunately looks like an 8 year-old who just discovered the kitchen for the first time made it.
….Looks like there are some things you just can’t learn in America.
We cooked more okonomiyaki patties than our stomachs and wallets can handle, and as a commemoration we ranch-frosted our final okonomiyaki with our School name in Japanese.
“Welcome to Aogaku Kevin. Let’s have a blast together this year.”
I feel a sense of adventure and new beginnings among new friends, and I imagine this is how Harry Potter must have felt when he first arrived at Hogwarts.
Looks like this is going to be one interesting year.