As the last of the term wears on, I continue slowly unpicking myself from the city into which I have grown these thin, tentative roots, hoping that not all of them will wither entirely in the process.
On Monday I had my last meeting with M-san, my conversation partner, and one of the first people I met in Fukuoka. Of the six people I was initially paired with, I only met a couple more than once. M-san has been a constant in my life here; we met for about four hours almost every week, which means I've spent about 100 hours chatting with her.
M-san introduced me to Fukuoka castle, amongst other pleasant places to wander. She showed me around interesting back streets, classy department stores, and second-hand manga shops. We have watched turtles and herons in Ohori Park, browsed Y100 goods, eaten doughnuts and tempura (not at the same time, I hasten to add), and sipped an awful lot of coffee in an array of cafés. She was an invaluable source of information on everyday life in Japan, cheerfully helping me track down household essentials and presents.
More than this, M-san has probably been the single greatest thing for my Japanese. My teachers have worked hard to instil me with grammar, pronunciation, situation-appropriate styles of conversation, and all the other technical essentials - even keigo - but for building your confidence in a language, it's hard to beat spending four hours a week discussing a bewildering array of technical topics. Amongst things I can remember, we've discussed the demographic and political history of the UK, trends in gender roles, geek culture, food (quite a lot), opera and theatre, literary criticism, fashion, Lovecraftian fiction and horse-riding. Admittedly this was in a mixture of Japanese and English - it'd be a pretty lopsided language exchange otherwise - but it really forced me to up my game in terms of explaining concepts to someone without the technical terminology. It also meant I quite rapidly pushed past the troublesome 'bland' stage, where you can only have quite straightforward conversations about simple topics. It's very easy to sit there forever, because you don't feel comfortable with the frustration of trying to discuss complex things, and because other people realise you can't do so and avoid those topics. So I'm very grateful to M-san for hoisting me up beyond it.
All those conversations also did wonders for my confidence. By regularly speaking a lot of Japanese, in a natural setting, about quite unpredictable and complex topics, I got much more comfortable with the idea. Classroom practice is good, but typically restricted by focusing on particular topics, and often it's very scripted - sometimes literally. You're also competing for time with the other learners, all of us making mistakes. One interesting result of our conversations was that my performance in class improved a lot, which left me more comfortable and confident talking to the teachers, which led to me getting to know them much better, having more conversations, getting book and travel recommendations, and just generally improved my Japanese once again. It's the synergies, as the 90s would say.
I've also enjoyed our conversations for their own sake, as well as the challenge of trying to explain aspects of British culture that I don't fully understand or only vaguely remember. It's been good practice! Frequently I am grateful for my linguistics degree, as I try to tease out grammatical distinctions or implications from some phrase.
So it was with great reluctance and full of mourn that I finally left M-san on Monday. We stayed out a bit later than usual, chatting through all kinds of things, and exchanged some small gifts. I painstakingly wrote out a thank-you card, trying to strike that awkward goal of "heartfelt gratitude" between "politeness of princes" and Love Actually through the cultural barrier. And we got someone to take a photograph.
Yes, the contrast between perpetually-elegant M-san and my unshaven, scruffy self is a tad unedifying. Luckily I am largely obscured by the flash reflecting off this window. Maybe one day we'll meet again, and I'll get up in time to shave.