Sep 28, 2017

The Awkward Way to Learn Startling New Vocabulary

    My most awkward gaijin moment came just a few weeks into an exciting adult relationship in Japan. The man was cute and strange, dark and funny. I had developed a huge crush on him in the six months we worked together (and apart, and together, and apart) before I awkwardly asked him to go on a trip with me for my birthday. It came together quickly after that, him practically moving into my place days after our status as boyfriend and girlfriend was confirmed.

    One evening, as we were hanging around after dinner at my apartment I grabbed a couple of cups of yogurt from the fridge and brought them with spoons to my guy, deciding to offer the tasty treat with a cute, silly nonsense word I had heard on some cartoon long ago.

    The cartoon had been Southpark, and the episode ( Season 3, episode 11 "Chinpokomon") mocked the then semi-nascent Pokemon craze, copying it both as a tactless money-grab and militaristic propaganda. The Chinpokomon media wound up being a way to subvert US children by subliminal messages and any adult calling attention to the messages was met by a slew of Japanese characters deferring to impressive American genitalia size. This should have been a clue to my younger viewing self, and I missed it, assuming the Japanese in the episode was just gibberish. It wasn't. The only thing my adolescent mind retained was one word from the title.
    So I walked over to my fancy Japanese boyfriend and, handing him a yogurt cup and spoon, say "Chinpoko?"

    He looks at me, baffled at first, then curious, then cackling with mad glee. "Why did you just offer me penis?"

This? This is not chinpoko.

    The redness of my face seemed to take hours to cool down. It turns out that chinpoko, along with some other words including "chin", are slang for male genitalia. Much like the English terms for dick, a lot have similar sounds to each other but won't be found in your average language learner's textbook. The only word I had learned for this specific anatomical item had been inkei, the medical term listed in my Japanese-English dictionary. Lucky for me, I had never had any reason to use the term, so no one had a chance to laugh at my clumsy word choice in the context of attempted romance.

Look it up in English and you get more formal terms. It turns out...

If I'd just looked up my "nonsense word" I could have saved myself some embarrassment.

Instead, my attempt to speak relaxed nonsense in an amusing way begat a whole new level of weirdness. My then-boyfriend was still chuckling days later, and brought it up from time to time months on. Actually, we still laugh about it now, almost nine years into our relationship.

That's right. I offered him yogurt while using a word for penis, and he still married me a few years later.

The most surprising bonus to this event came years later, when I was teaching a small eikaiwa class. One of my three students was a five year old boy, half-Caucasian and desperate to prove his Japanese-ness publicly, most notably by talking incessantly in Japanese during English class and usually about his chinpoko.

Without my yogurt-related embarrassment, I would not have had the vocabulary skills to know what the kid was talking about and deal with him accordingly, which in this case meant having a male teacher discuss appropriate classroom topics with both the student and his parents.

Moral of the story: Do not use words you don't know the meaning to.



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.