I've been in Japan for almost twenty years and have not only passed the first level of the Nihongo Nôryoku Shiken and a host of other proficiency tests, I also have a masters in the bloody language. Nevertheless, I still have trouble making myself understood from time to time.
This morning's visit to Starbucks is a case in point.
I had about ten minutes before I had to head out to work, so I popped into the neighborhood Starbuck's and ordered a "Tall white mocha to go." (O-mochi-kaeri-de, toru howaito mokka)
The girl turned around and started to reach for a mug cup.
"It's to go," I reminded her.
But then, she grabbed a paper cup and filled it with the the house blend.
"Um, I wanted a white mocha," I said, stressing the "ho" in "howaito", which begs the question of why the Japanese insist on pronouncing "white" with a ho. They don't pronounce "what" "howatto", "why" "howai", or "water" "howattah".
"I beg your pardon, sir."
But it wasn't really. Every time these incidences of gross miscommunication happen to me, my confidence in the language takes a hit.
"That'll be four-hundred and twenty yen," she said. "Your drink will be waiting for you at the red lamp."
And so I waited by the red lamp.
In the meantime two more customers had come in, ordered their drinks and were now waiting with me.
Before long, the barista placed a drink on the counter and said, "Starbucks latte."
There were no takers.
"Starbucks latte," he said again.
I looked at the other customers. They looked at me and shrugged. The Starbucks latte remained unclaimed.
The barista then went about making two more drinks which the other two customers took, leaving me and the unclaimed Starbucks latte both feeling stupid.
I asked the latte if this happened to him a lot. "Every now and then," he replied. What do they do with you, I asked. "Sometimes the staff drinks me, but usually they just toss me out. It's awfully humialting." I bet it is, I replied.
After a minute or so, it finally dawned on the barista that something might be wrong. When he looked at me, I suggested, "Ho-white mocha?"
He looked towards the girl who confirmed my order, and with a heavy sigh removed the unclaimed Starbucks latte and busied himself with making my drink.