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Essay

From friend to family

By Samantha Loong

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"Is that your sister?" the okonomiyaki shop owner asked. Without really thinking, I replied, "Oh. That's my friend."

What I really wanted to say was "She's more like my Japanese sister," but that would've confused the shop owner. Our exchange made me think about the people who have made my life in Japan something truly special.

My parents had been visiting me in Japan, and one of my dear friends managed to join us on two separate occasions. My parents don't speak Japanese, and my friend's Cantonese is better than her English. My Japanese, on the other hand, is better than my Cantonese. In order for everyone to understand each other, I had to dig deep into my brain to see what Cantonese was left in there. As the night progressed, a surprising amount started coming back to me.

We ended up using a mix of Cantonese, English, Japanese and Mandarin to communicate. I'm sure we confused everyone, but we were having too good a time to even notice. Although I speak to my parents in English, I managed to tell them the story of how my friend and I met in Cantonese.

Years ago, when I worked at a Japanese trading company, our department employed a temp worker. Her work wasn't related to mine so we didn't really get a chance to talk. I was also too busy stressing out over how to answer the phones using the correct form of Japanese, so I didn't pay much attention to this temp worker. But then, one day she made a call to the Shanghai office. I don't speak Mandarin, but until that day, I'd never met a Japanese person who spoke Mandarin as fluently as she did. Then, she made another call. And switched effortlessly into Cantonese. The only Cantonese I usually hear in Japan is from tourists, but here it was, coming out of this smiling, unassuming Japanese woman.

It was during that phone call that I decided I needed to befriend this multilingual lady. So I did the only thing I could think of in an office situation where my work didn't overlap with hers — I followed her to the coffee machine when she went to get a drink. I didn't know how to best start a conversation, so I opened with: "I really like your skirt."

After that, we became fast friends. And now, our friendship has gone into its tenth year. Her Cantonese continues to be effortless — just like our friendship. I don't usually remember how I first met my friends, but with this particular one, I remember making a particular effort to get to know her — and I'm so glad I did.

友達から家族に

ニュージーランドから来日していた両親、親しい日本人の友人、そして筆者。この4人がある晩、会話を楽しんだが、その際の使用言語は広東語、英語、日本語、そして標準中国語のミックスだった。

The Japan Times ST: August 5, 2016

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