The Hazards of Speaking a Little Japanese, Or That Time That I Told Two Strangers That I Wasn’t Wearing Any Underwear

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! A little background on my Mad Japanese Skillz….

Upon arriving in Japan two and a half years ago, I immediately set out to find Japanese language classes. I quickly found one class on Mondays and another on Thursdays, and I still attend both every week. If you asked me at that point how fluent I would expect myself to be in, say, two and a half years time, I would probably answer fluent enough to at least understand basic questions.

I cannot understand basic questions.

IMG_0545I’m a fairly diligent student. I complete any homework assigned, and I open my book to review at least once before every lesson. So at least four times a week I study grammar, and learn new vocabulary, and write out my homework in hiragana and katakana, the two phonetic scripts for writing Japanese. The part that continues to stump me? Comprehension. If I’m in a very controlled setting where I’m always asked the same questions, I do fine. Such as the grocery store. I’m always asked if I have a point card, and if I need a shopping bag. After hearing these questions over a hundred times I’m pretty comfortable with the different variations. No, I don’t have a point card. No thank you, I have my own bags.

The hospital is not the grocery store.

As diligent martayaki readers may recall, last fall I had an MRI at a local hospital. It was a smooth experience, and so cheap! While MRIs in the U.S. cost thousands of dollars, my MRI last fall only cost around $240 USD at the full price. After submitting the claim to my insurance company my out-of-pocket expense ended up at $35 USD. So of course I decided to get pretty much any part of my body MRI’ed as needed, starting with my ever-troublesome left knee.

I have had a bad left knee ever since my lacrosse career in high school. For 30 years it has hurt pretty much non-stop, and every few years I go through physical therapy, orthopedists, MRIs, chiropractors, you name it–generally without relief. It’s been a while since my last MRI so I decided to try again. So I went to the local medical clinic and asked for a referral to an orthopedist.

And that’s how I found myself at Keiyu Hospital last Friday. I’m not sure why I didn’t end up at Red Cross Hospital as for my last MRI. Perhaps Red Cross doesn’t have a large ortho clinic, since another friend with Red Cross experience also went to Keiyu for an ortho issue. Since my Red Cross MRI experience was pretty painless, I expected the same from my second MRI at Keiyu. Because how different could it be?

I think you see where this is going.

Before Friday’s appointment I received a questionnaire with lots of metal related questions. No jewelry, piercings, implants, pacemakers–the M in MRI stands for Magnetic, so metal is a big deal with MRIs. I remembered the many metal warnings before last year’s MRI at Red Cross, so I prepared accordingly. I left all jewelry at home, and I looked up the Japanese word for metal, which is kinzoku. Then I immediately forgot the Japanese word for metal (still kinzoku).

I arrived at the MRI clinic at Keiyu Hospital and heard that first question: Nihongo daijobu desu-ka, or Is Japanese OK? I answered with my standard Sukkoshi wakarimasu, or I understand a little. Generally this means as many instructions in Japanese as I can handle, followed by an eventual transition to broken English or translated cue cards. And so it went. The MRI tech with decent English directed me to the changing room and told me in English to change out of my clothes, put on this gown, only underwear and no other clothes, here’s where to put my clothes and bag, here’s the key to lock the changing room, come out when ready. So I did.

The other MRI tech with no English asked me if [something] arimasu ka, or did I have [something]. In a split second I decided that I vaguely recognized the word, but it had no k’s in it, but I’m sure that he’s asking about metal since that’s such a big deal with MRIs. So I declared loud and proud, Arimasen. I have none. And I showed my bare arms with no watch. And bare earlobes and neck with no earrings or necklace. No metal!

Then the English speaker piped up and clarified, No underwear? Shitagi. That was the word that I sort-of recognized but couldn’t place, because I learned and immediately forgot it in Lesson 17 of Japanese for Everyone, because when would I need to say underwear in Japanese, anyway?

So then the MRI techs called for a crash cart because I literally died of shame on the spot.

Kidding! Actually all three of us pretended that the No Underwear declaration never happened. They were incredibly polite and professional. And they were about 15 years younger than me, and male, and cute, because of course they were.

So the rest of the MRI proceeded fairly uneventfully, until the amazing part. The English speaker asked how long I’ve been in Japan, and I answered in Japanese, two and a half years. He enthusiastically responded Jozu!, which means to be good at something; it’s a compliment Japanese people say whenever I utter anything in Japanese. Which given the No Underwear fiasco of a few minutes earlier, seemed like a stretch. Can you imagine the same scenario in a U.S. hospital? Somehow I don’t picture a U.S. hospital worker praising the incredibly broken English of a patient who has lived in the U.S. for over two years and doesn’t recognize a basic underwear-related question. Yet I’m pretty sure that he meant it, even if he and the other guy likely laughed about it over beers later that day.

I await my results of the scan, returning to the hospital for a consultation with the doctor later this week. He speaks English. But if he asks anything about the presence of my shitagi, I will be ready to answer.

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