I’m just a few weeks into my “Let’s Learn Japanese!” adventure and I’ve already hit rock bottom. It happened last week when I went into a green tea store to buy Stacy some powdered green tea, or matcha. I wanted green tea. This store specialized in selling green tea. How hard could this be?
So I swung open the door, confidently strolled inside, smiled at the lady behind the counter, and said “Sumimasen… Matcha onegaishimas!” Excuse me, I would like some powdered green tea.
She gave me a somewhat puzzled look. “Matcha?”, she asked, curling her fingers like a matcha whisk and moving them in a circular motion.
“Hai, matcha.” Yes, matcha.
Looking back, I now understand where I went wrong. Walking into a green tea store and announcing that I want green tea is similar to walking into a snowboard store and announcing “I am here to buy a snowboard.” A snowboard shop has hundreds of snowboards, all distinct and specialized for different needs and riders. Without asking a few questions, there’s really no way they can just hand over a snowboard and be done with it. Turns out it’s the same with green tea.
So the lady began asking me questions. Questions that go way beyond my current Japanese repertoire (which includes such phrases as “I am pleased to meet you,” “where is the toilet,” and “two bottles of beer please”). I gave her a blank stare. She asked more questions. Eventually, she gave up with the questions and began using her hand to mimic what I can only guess was kinds of whisks. Maybe she was asking me “Will you be making this tea with an aged bamboo whisk, an aluminum whisk, or a hand woven straw whisk?” I smiled and said yes.
She looked concerned, decided to take a different approach, and guided me over to a large chart showing different kinds of matcha. I took a random guess, pointed at one, and said “this one please.” Again a concerned look.
She walked behind the counter, pulled back a curtain revealing a fridge holding all of the matcha, selected the kind I’d pointed to, and brought it out. She opened the top, showed me that it was, in fact matcha, and then quickly put it away, never to be seen again. She explained, in what I assume is great detail, why I was not allowed to buy that matcha. There are lots of rules in Japan that foreigners are unaware of. Maybe it’s only allowed to be made by women, or perhaps it’s special matcha only to be served to the dead on Tuesdays. Who knows.
She was frustrated. I was frustrated. But for all of the pointing, smiling, and saying “yes, that one please”, she absolutely would not sell it to me.
Her next tactic was to pull out a smaller, laminated chart. Again, I guessed and pointed. This chart had prices on it showing two rows of small identical cans ranging in price from ¥650 to ¥2700. I chose a mid priced can and said “this one please.” Again, a concerned look.
I think she was trying to explain that matcha, like a hot pepper, was something you had to work up to. You don’t start with a habañero, and you don’t start with the mid priced can of matcha I’d pointed to. My unrefined palate just couldn’t handle the stronger matcha. Gesturing to the sign and waving her hand back and forth, she lectured me about the different kinds of matcha and the proper way to work your way across the chart. In return, I tried, one by one, guessing at the different cans to see if there was one she would sell me. “This one… no? Okay, this one… no?”
After several minutes of this, a lightbulb when off in her head. She asked me for “one minute please”, and then ran off to get her co-worker to rescue us. The co-worker, it turned out, also wanted to lecture me about the finer points of the various matchas that they would not sell me.
I frantically flipped through my dictionary trying to build a path out of our language gridlock. I was in a green tea store and I was committed to buying some green tea! Finally, I was able to find the words for “you choose please” and while they did not seem to be happy about it, they selected a can of matcha they would sell me.
Customer service in Japan puts a very high emphasis on what’s right for the customer – a sales person sees it as their duty to you, the customer, to make sure they sell you the right thing. A few weeks ago, I had a cashier at an electronics store refuse to sell me a memory card because they had another one that was just as good but half the price (thanks for that, btw!). In my blind rush to “just buy some matcha”, I didn’t allow the shopkeeper to do her job and do the right thing for me. She was trying with all her might to help, yet I had put her in a very awkward and uncomfortable situation.
Of course, to put this all in perspective, our two year old son is already chatting up Japanese grandmas on the train and wooing packs of teenage girls from the comfort of his stroller, all while I grunt out my caveman talk. At least, if all else fails, our kids will be able to interpret for us.