Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001
Subject: I think I just bought a laptop
I've been planning to buy a laptop since I came to Japan—well, actually, I'd planned to buy one before I came to Japan, but extenuating circumstances related to total poverty forestalled that effort—but the actual time of purchase has been repeatedly postponed due to unforeseen expenditures. Since I don't think I can get an English OS locally and I don't have a credit card, I'd initially intended to go to Tokyo to buy one, but given the prohibitive expense involved in my last trip to the nation's capital, I decided to take another look at making the purchase online. Toshiba had been advertising in the Japan Times, and they had some good deals on for December, so I investigated and discovered that I could, in fact, pay via direct bank transfer.
Of course, I wasn't sure exactly when I was going to buy the thing. I'd been trying to keep enough cash in my account to buy a flight home in case of emergency, and I had a fair amount of money left in traveller's cheques, but my friends wanted me to visit them over the New Year's holiday, and my kendo sensei wanted me to buy armour so I could fully participate in class, so I was pushing the laptop issue back to January. But about a week ago, my friend's dad asked me to do some work on a slide presentation, and I know he really doesn't have anyone else to go to, so I decided it was time to go buy the bloody thing. Besides, another friend of mine wants me to do some computer work for him as well. I'm just going to have to avoid kendo for a little while and see my friends in February. And unless it's an emergency and someone wires me cash, I'm not coming home for a while.
Ordering the laptop itself was fairly straightforward, although I spent a lot of time humming and hawing because none of the models available had all the features I wanted for a reasonable price. But after the inevitable compromise, it was off to the bank to stick cash into Toshiba's account.
I needed to deposit my traveller's cheques into my account before I could do the bank transfer. The cheques would cover about half the cost of the computer, while my bank account had enough in it to pay for about three-quarters. I knew this was going to be a little difficult because it would involve actually talking to the tellers for the first time, but I knew the words for "put in" and "take out", so I figured I could get the idea across well enough. It hadn't struck me as a problem at the time, but my vocabulary of actual banking terms is approximately zero.
So I walked up to the counter—it was, in fact, the first time I'd even seen the tellers—and saved myself a little embarrassment by following the lead of the patron ahead of me and taking a number. At the appropriate time, I headed up to the teller and told her that I wanted to put my traveller's cheques into my account, displaying the cheques and my passbook to demonstrate since I didn't know the proper words for either. The woman looked a little troubled and gave me the impression that this wasn't something she could do. I started to get a little worried, since I'd just told Toshiba I was sending a sizeable chunk of cash its way, so I pressed on and she told me that the reason why she couldn't do anything had something to do with my passbook and the month of May, which really confused me since I'd only arrived here in September, and if there was something wrong with my account that had to do with May I was going to have some serious words with my employer. Since I didn't seem to be moving—or, for that matter, comprehending—the clerk recommended that I go upstairs to the foreign exchange department.
Upstairs I was met by a blessedly patient woman who was kind enough never to show frustration at having her day complicated by a stupid foreigner. When I showed her the cheques and my passbook, she explained the problem to me again, and this time I understood: this was not, in fact, my bank. My housemate had advised me to use this bank, but I had never noticed that the name on my passbook and the name of the bank were different. My bank and this bank had apparently merged in May, but the accounts had yet to be consolidated, so the clerks couldn't deposit money into my account—I could only do that using the ATM since my bank didn't actually have a branch in Shizuoka. Following her advice, I decided to convert the traveller's cheques into cash and deposit the money into my account using the machine downstairs.
While the teller was getting my cash, I considered my remaining conundrum: I still had to figure out how to get this money into Toshiba's account. The English instructions on the bank machines didn't have a "Transfer" option, and I had no idea where Toshiba's bank was, so I was pretty much buggered if the tellers couldn't do it for me.
Now, in retrospect, I can reconstruct and translate most of this conversation with reasonably accuracy. But while I'm talking to someone in Japanese, it's all I can do to desperately listen for the few words I know and use the context to estimate how they relate to each other. And if the context is subtly changed, it takes me a while to realize that we're talking about something else. I once nearly told a convenience store clerk that I didn't need a bag when she told me I spoke Japanese very well. That would have been nice and ironic. And, just for the record, my mastery of the language had been displayed by the judicious use of the words "Yes", "Yes", and "Thank you". It's so bloody hard to determine when you're actually being complimented in this country.
My conversation with the foreign exchange teller was, to say the least, humbling. It went something like this:
Me: "Um... this money... I want to put into this account."
I indicated my notepad, which had Toshiba's account information written on it.
Her: "Well, murble wingy lubby wum, so cuffy fumby sug bemble gru."
When I replied with a wide-eyed stare, she did what most Japanese people do when I'm clearly not understanding: she slowed down so the clauses in her speech were very distinct. While it's very kind, this is not particularly useful, since hearing words I don't know enunciated slowly and clearly is no more comprehensible than hearing them said quickly. “Lubby wum” is gibberish to me at any speed.
Her: "Murble win-gy lub-by WUM, THEREFORE cuffy fum-by sug bemble GRU, OKAY?"
I started to get that wonderful prickly feeling of total despair running down my spine. But I decided that it would be best to make her feel that her efforts were at least helping me a little bit. Maybe it would also encourage her to use some words I might know.
Me: "Um... So, what would be good to do?"
Her: "Well, we can gurby febbin here, but figgyrub fengle mum is cheaper."
Me: "Um... Sorry, I don't understand well."
Her: "You can gurby febbin here, but there's a mungle frung, so flebby burgum at another bank is cheaper."
Okay, there was clearly some kind of service charge involved in doing the transfer at this bank, but what was this other bank? Did she mean the Toshiba bank? I had no idea where it was! And how would they get access to my money? This was a problem. I needed more information.
Me: "Um... Another bank?"
Her: "Yes. If you beggle mig wongy num take out glubbum here and go to another bank, it's cheaper."
Wait a second! Take out? I wanted to put money into my account, not take it out! Maybe I'd misheard her. Or maybe she didn't know that I didn't have enough money in my account yet, and I needed to put more in before I could do the transfer. How would I explain this?
Me: "But... this money is, um,... Wait, no, um, in my account now... um..."
I think I need to patent my look of despair.
Her: "Okay, take this money, then guggle fung take out gurby cash fergle nem, and mebble scubby bingle foo other bank."
Okay, I was sure I'd heard the words "take out" that time. Maybe she hadn’t understood me.
Me: “Take out?”
Her: “Yes, take out.”
Me: “Not… put in?”
Her: “That’s right. Take out gibby beng luggy CASH, and feggle other bank.”
Her: “Yes, cash.”
Okay, I apparently needed to take out cash. Why, I didn’t yet know. But where was this other bank? And what was I supposed to do there? I could at least clarify where this other bank was.
Me: "Other bank... is where?"
Her: "It's next door."
Me: "Really? Next door?"
Well, that was a load of my mind.
Her: "So grummy fug this money, then go downstairs and feggle buf melgy take out mubble, CASH, and bergy num other bank because it's cheaper. Do you understand?"
The hell I did! What was I thinking?
Me: "Well, actually, um, wait a second... uh..."
At this point I started to have visions of the drunken guardsman sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Normally, once I've achieved a vague idea of what someone is trying to tell me I thank them for their trouble and walk away to fumble around, hoping everything will work out for the best. But as this transaction involved a rather large amount of money, I wanted to be absolutely sure of what I was supposed to do.
She responded to my patent-pending expression by drawing a picture. I'll fill in the blanks where appropriate, but keep in mind that it was all still gurble flum to me.
Her: "Take [the money I just gave you] and go downstairs to [the ATM]. Then take out [the rest of the money you need]—in cash—and go to [Toshiba's bank] next door. We can gungle fem here, but it's cheaper if you do it there."
I was starting to get it. But what would I do when I got to the other bank?
Me: "Okay. So, um... other bank... what is good to do?"
She wrote a word on my notepad in English and Japanese: "Furikomi."
Her: "Go to the other bank with this money and the cash you gurble fum from the machine downstairs. Then go to the bank next door and biggle fum FURIKOMI. We can febble here, but there will be a bibbly weg, so it's cheaper to do it there."
I had an epiphany: I could do the transfer at this bank, but in order to avoid a service charge I could simply go to Toshiba's bank, which was next door. I would go there, say "furikomi"—which must have been the word for what I wanted to do—and the teller would take care of everything.
My flash of inspiration came out something like this:
Me: "Aah! I am understanding! So, um, this money... downstairs, cash... other bank... "furikomi"... doing that is good?"
Me: "I see!"
I felt like I'd just won the world charades championship... only to realize a moment later that my partner had been whispering the answer in my ear all along. It had taken me about twenty minutes to understand three sentences.
I thanked her profusely, commenting that it must have been difficult for her, and headed downstairs to take out a large wad of cash. By the time I left the bank, I had nearly a month's pay in an envelope in the top pocket of my backpack. I walked thirty paces to the other bank—which, incidentally, I'd passed on the way to my bank—took a number and sat down. A man in a bellhop-style uniform was bustling around in front of the counter, telling people where to go and what to do. I could read the Japanese word for "directions" written on the orange sash around his arm.
I took a moment to relax. All I had to do was show the teller my notepad, hand her my money, say "furikomi", and the humiliation would end.
Or so I thought.
When my number was called, I followed the plan. But when I told the teller "furikomi" she called Directions Man over and he led me to the bank machines instead. He tried to get me instructions in English, but, as I well knew, the option I needed didn't exist in the limited translated menu, so he had to walk me through the Japanese instructions. I filled in things like my name and phone number, which was a little strange, and fumbled at a few points when he asked me questions about account details I didn't understand or know the answer to. We got booted off the ATM at one point because I was taking too long, but I finally got to the point where two slots opened up and I had to put my money into the machine. A million questions went through my mind: was I supposed to take the money out of the envelope? Would the machine give me change if I gave it too much cash? Would it take coins?
I got stuck on the first question because I didn't know the word for envelope, and in retrospect I know I could have said, "Should I put the money into the machine while it's still inside this thing?" but complex multi-verb sentences weren't really coming to mind while I was worrying about getting booted off the system again. I asked him what would be good to do, but he didn't seem to have an answer, so I just handed him the envelope like a hot potato. He took the money out, stuck it into one of the slots, and hurriedly indicated that there was some amount of change still lacking. I rifled through my wallet, blessed my luck that I had exact change, and tossed it into the second slot as its plastic mouth nearly clamped down on my hand.
I tried to ease my embarrassment by commenting, "Dangerous, isn't it?" but Directions Man had already left to tend to another customer. So I was left alone, standing there while the machine slowly printed out a little sheet of paper with the details of my transaction, wondering if I'd put in the right amount of money and unsure of whether the machine would tell me if I hadn't. Perhaps it was best that Directions Man had already gone; I didn't know how to ask my questions anyway. So I just slinked out of the bank and shuffled my way home, hoping that a laptop would find its way to my door in a few weeks.
I felt pretty lousy for the next few days. I didn't want to try to speak Japanese to anybody. Normally, my problem is that I can't understand people's answers to my questions, but this time I hadn't even been able to formulate the questions I'd wanted to ask. It was pretty demoralizing. To top things off, the other day when I tried to write this e-mail the first time, I got booted off the server and lost everything right as I finished, and I couldn't even complain to anybody to get it off my chest. I just fumed silently to myself for a few hours.
But the other night, despite my trepidations, I went back to kendo, where I found that my sensei's son had managed to amass a nearly complete suit of armour for me. He taught me how to put it all on and gave me some pointers during the lesson. I've determined that I like talking to him. At one point when he was searching for the words to explain something to me, other people at the dojo laughed at him for being unable to speak Japanese himself. It really lightened the mood. I guess it's also nice to be able to speak Japanese to someone who isn't going to judge my ability based on a single encounter, and with whom I have no choice but to use the language if I want to be understood. He invited me to go out with him, his wife, and some of the guys from kendo this Saturday. After a week of repeatedly bashing my head against the language barrier, I'm happy to say I'm looking forward to it. I think It'll be a good time.