In the course of my studies in Taiwan, it became apparent that I would NEED to come home for a period of time to see family and recharge my batteries a bit. I found a travel agent, and three days later was in possession of a ticket not only to travel home for the winter break but also to spend five days in Japan on the way. I told my mom about this, and she, having always wanted to go to Japan, contrived to come out and visit me for a few days, accompany me to Japan, and then make the trip back home.
Unfortunately, she came down with a pretty serious head cold as we were wandering around Tokyo and taking tours to see attractions like Mt. Fuji. The third night we were there, she was feeling pretty lousy, so it became a mission of mine to find her some medicine.
Problem: the Japanese I know is impractical, and by impractical, I mean I can say silly things like “I see a bird,” “Have you tied your shoes?”, and “I would like a bridge, please,” all very grammatically. I don’t really know any vocabulary, and the only reason I can say anything at all is due to a college linguistics project in which I was analyzing the language as a last resort when I could find no native speakers of the languages I was interested in at the time. While the language proved interesting enough from a typological/morpho-syntax perspective, my motivation or will for learning it is at best minimal.
Now we were in Japan, and I needed to do something complicated: buy medicine. One mistake and I could kill my mother. Ok, I would probably have just given her stomach medication instead of aspirin, but it was still a little daunting. I do, however, know Chinese, and like any good super-power, it is only useful if you find all the random ways you never expected to use it and do so. Fortunately too, Kanji in Japan are in fact the Chinese characters. The meanings can be a little skewed from the Chinese to say nothing of the pronunciation, but words don’t tend to change so radically as to make “headache” into something like “tuna-fish”.
I prepared a piece of folded up paper with a few sentences in Chinese such as “My mother’s head hurts”, and “I am looking for cold medicine.” Then, I bundled up and wandered into the streets of Tokyo. I had originally planned to simply find a convenience store alla Seven-Eleven since those have absolutely everything you might need in a situation such as this plus the ability to pay bills, buy tickets, prepare a tasty soup, and print a few papers if needed; however, I lucked out in actually finding a pharmacy first.
I walked in, asked about English, and then handed over my paper when the negative response came. There was a lot of wide eyes and chatter in Japanese and a vague question about whether or not I really wrote the Chinese message. Then there was a lot of half bowing and “wait a moment” gesturing. I waited feeling accomplished when they brought me the phone. The last time this happened, I was informed that I was wandering around the Italian congressional grounds and would have to leave, so there was no small amount of trepidation as I took the phone.
Fortunately, it was the token friend-that-speaks-English that many people rely on in these sorts of situations. She asked me what exactly what was happening to clarify, what I wanted, remarked that my writing of Chinese characters was very impressive, and asked to be passed back to the clerks. They set me up with the medicine I needed, and I was soon on my way back to nurse my mom to health. Chinese For The Win!
She ran out of the medicine a few days later. She was certainly on the mend, but not there yet, and we still had almost two days in Japan. Plus, no one wants to fly while ill for the obvious reasons of pressure changes and fear of detainment in quarantine.
This necessitated adventure number two in obtaining medicine in a country where you don’t speak the language. In this case though, we were in a posh hot spring hotel that is staffed by only the best and most multi-lingual of people for just such occasions. My mom actually had the conversation with the clerk, and we were directed to an actual Family Mart down the road where we got assortments of vitamin C and the medicines from before based on the empty packages that she had kept. We returned to the hotel again triumphant and she decided to thank the clerk.
She came back with a mystery bottle of medication. Apparently, the clerks had taken it upon themselves to raid the stores and provide some sort of remedy of their own. They produced this and assured us it is what they used to get over colds. It is filled with pills that look like advil, has a picture on the front with spots on the nose, sinus, and throat, and works amazingly. I can read a few things like how many to take (1-3) and that it is “The second type of medicinal product” (whatever that means). It could have literally anything in it and neither my mom nor I would know.
She did recover quickly, managed to get me on a plane (we were flying separately), go on a shopping spree in the airport (we had been squabbling over money and souvenirs), and returned to the states victorious from her trip to Japan. I hope it was a great time. It was certainly an adventure.