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  • Yuki Tejima

But Are You Fluent?

When my husband and I first met, we understood each other in our shared language - Japanese - but we were hardly fluent. What I mean is, I understood the meaning of the words exiting his mouth, and he understood my sometimes-jumbled Japanese. But we didn’t have a language of our own.

That’s nothing to write home about - so I didn’t, not right away, as my mom will tell you - as every friendship, relationship, family, workplace has its own language.

Like Penny and Sam in Mary H. K. Choi’s beautiful Emergency Contact, my husband and I would not have found each other if we didn’t communicate for the first two years of our long-distance relationship (New York and Tokyo) almost entirely via text and email. Our relationship never would have happened IRL only.

My husband is a deeply sensitive, feeling human, who doesn’t let on in person, in any capacity. It’s not because he’s Japanese, it’s because he’s him. He sees everything, I see nothing.

I’m the human who wears every emotion I’ve ever had on my sleeve, presenting each emotion as it happens on my very Japanese face. (Whoever said Asians are expressionless…)

We are complete opposites, my husband and I, when it comes to self-expression. Yet somehow, through our digital communications, we became gradually fluent in each other’s language.

Which has me thinking about fluency. Fluency is often discussed in terms of language - I’m fluent in Spanish, how fluent are you in French, I wish I was fluent in Korean. (I do wish.)

But how often do you speak with someone in your own language and feel that person is speaking a whole new level of gibberish? Tsuujitenai. 通じてない。You’re not getting through to one another.

Real fluency happens, I’ve come to believe after reading Emergency Contact, when there can be a natural unleashing. When you are able to unleash your real quirky, weird self, the way Penny and Sam find they are able to do with each other.

It’s about words, yes. But it’s also about tempo. And pace. And now it’s about emojis. Their texts to each other are thrilling-and-a-half, and don’t fill enough of the book. (There’s plenty, I just want more.) The author is tuned in at astounding frequencies, not just to digital-speak but to human emotion and the physical condition.

Unleashing isn’t about pounding the other with your thoughts, or hurling word bullets at their head. It’s the emptying of your soul into the other person’s open arms (eyes?) using a voice that is undeniably you.

The longer I live in Japan, the more ‘fluent’ I become, obviously. But it’s not because I’m learning more words or understand the language structure better. In fact, it’s the opposite.

I had no Japanese voice at first. After moving to Tokyo as an adult married person, I put my expressive American persona aside for a minute, and listened. At the workplace, yoga studio, on the train, with my friends, I listened.

After five years of listening and watching and reading, I feel myself speaking in Japanese with increasingly appropriate degrees of unleash in the moment.

I can now connect with a chatty Japanese friend, chiming in when it feels right. I know how to share a comfortable lunch with a non-chatty friend. I’ve learned how to speak to a client over an invoice issue. (Try not to unleash too much there.) Which is different from chatting with the taxi driver in Kyoto about how the city is becoming too touristy. Which is different from connecting with students in a university classroom to whom I am supposed to lecture without them texting their Sam or Penny.

Fluency, I’m learning, is not about how many vocabulary words you know, as much as it’s about how perceptive you’re willing to be. Perceptive of your surroundings, of when and how to speak up, and when to shut it down. Of how open to be, how animated, how subdued, how nonchalant, how serious.

It’s noticing the quirks.

In the novel, the first time Penny and Sam send texts to each other, he starts out texting ‘2’ and ‘u’, which Penny hates. When Penny texts back, “I hope you feel better,” Sam immediately responds, “Did you get any sleep?”

Penny smiled. Then she bit her lower lip. She noticed him noticing the “to/you” thing. (p 116)

This sentence made me swoon, because yes. He noticed.

That’s the beginning of true fluency, which might be another word for true love, but really, what do I know? I was not a fluent teen, if you know what I mean.

Thanks again for reading!


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