Even though the Japanese are polite and want to help you, it can be hard to communicate with them because their English is quite bad. Now, I don’t expect the entire country to be fluent in a foreign language. But, for example, Yodobashi Camera is a gigantic Japanese electronics store that makes Fry’s Electronics look like Radio Shack. They have announcements in English and Spanish, so they know they attract visitors from all over. But we were hard pressed to find one service person who could speak decent English in a store with six floors.
Taiwan isn’t that great either, but my Mandarin helped me out, so I didn’t notice it as much. In Hong Kong, you can get by in English without much problem — I consider it the world’s largest “Chinatown.”
By the way, before the trip, I thought I would be most comfortable in Japan and least comfortable in Taiwan, from a language standpoint, because I’m not “supposed to know” Japanese and I’m “supposed to know” Chinese. But it didn’t end up that way. I had failed to learn even the simplest words in Japanese, like “sorry,” “excuse me,” and “where is the…?” And since I am Asian, the Japanese would expect me to be able to say something, not my white friend Matt, who did more of the talking.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, my Mandarin helped me out greatly, even though it’s very rudimentary and rusty. In fact, I was praised twice on the same day for my Chinese. It must have been my pronunciation, because they complemented me after they saw me forget very simple words (like “pork”). And I could finally communicate somewhat with my uncles and aunts, most of whom can’t speak English well. They all said how my Chinese had improved over the last time I was there (in 1997), and even my dad said it was better. If I were there for a few months, I’m sure it would get that much better. But I’d still watch CNN or the Discovery Channel in Taiwan anyway…