‘Kao’ versus ‘Cow’ and Other Misunderstandings

My second semester has officially started, and with it has come many new trials and tribulations relating to both my school life and my life in the dorms. Aside from needing to take Intermediate Japanese, I am now taking Accounting, Marketing, Economics, and plenty of other classes that are all attempting (quite successfully I might add) to completely take over my life. In theory, this would mean that I would be spending significantly less time working on my Japanese, but there is one more factor that has not only kept me learning Japanese at a steady pace, but actually accelerated my retention of the language: the new Japanese students who have moved into my floor.

At APU, the vast majority of the Japanese students start their school year in April, which is when the Japanese school year officially starts. This means that halfway through the international students’ first semester, all of the Japanese students who were living in the dorms before move out, and at the beginning of the spring semester, new Japanese students move in. I happen to live on a mostly Japanese floor, which meant that at the end of March around 35 Japanese students moved in. And unlike the Japanese students who lived here before, these new Japanese students are either not used to speaking in English, or have not yet learned enough to be able to say anything beyond ‘hello’ or ‘I don’t speak English.

I have, of course, taken full advantage of this. Last semester, I found it somewhat difficult to talk in Japanese with my Japanese friends, because they had all been learning English for a whole semester, and therefore were itching to talk to a real native speaker such as myself. This meant that even when I would speak in Japanese, a lot of the time I would still get a reply in English. While this was frustrating, I will admit that at that point my Japanese was probably not good enough to understand the answer to the question I was asking, so it may not have been the worst thing in the world. Now, however, the positions have switched. I now know more Japanese than most of my Japanese friends know English, or at least I am more willing to embarrass myself by speaking incorrectly then they are.

However, embarrass myself I have, and that is what this post is all about: all of the awkward, funny, and embarrassing situations that my lack of knowledge in Japanese language and culture has led to. A significant amount of the time, the Japanese that I speak is an educated guess based on what I learn in class, things I have overheard talking with my Japanese friends, and logic. Unfortunately, logic works differently in Japanese than in English. You may have heard that Japanese people do not like to say things directly, and while that is not true 100% of the time, the claim is not without a solid basis. Unfortunately, being the blunt American that I am, my mind tends to lead to the most direct way of saying whatever I have in mind. The problem is, whatever I say tends to be a little too right, in that it says exactly what I wanted to say with no sugarcoating whatsoever. Japanese is a very polite language, and even in English I tend to veer a little to the blunt side, which means that randomly throughout the day I will say something that I thought to be perfectly normal, but everyone around me will suddenly be overcome in a fit of laughter. But once they have wiped the tears of mirth from their eyes and I demand to know why what I said was so funny, the response is almost always “don’t worry, it was nothing.” This reaction is currently my greatest source of stress as of late since I never know when it will happen and I can rarely get an explanation as to why they find me asking what they will eat for dinner, for example, so riotously funny.

Clearly, beyond just the language I have a lot to learn about Japanese culture as well. Recently, when I was feeling slightly peckish but not willing to break out a knife and cutting board, I came out into the kitchen eating a whole cucumber for breakfast. And yes, I am aware that this is probably not a normal occurrence, but I did not believe it was so out of the ordinary that it would cause quite the reaction that I received. But as soon as I walked into the kitchen, I was greeted by around ten of my Japanese floormates simultaneously bursting into laughter and asking if I was a kappa. For reference, a kappa is a creature from Japanese mythology that is basically their equivalent of the troll under the bridge, and looks something like this:


my hair may not look the best in this humidity, but it’s certainly not this bad


For obvious reasons, I was less than thrilled with this comparison, but as usual, I had to wait until their laughter at my expense died before I was rewarded with an explanation. Apparently, when they cannot get their hands on human flesh, their favorite food is cucumber, which they eat in exactly the same fashion that I did, all at once. The tie between kappa and cucumber must be quite strong in the Japanese mind, and since then the comparison between a kappa and myself has become a regular occurrence, much to my chagrin.

This brings me to another misunderstanding, which stems from both my inability to keep my emotions off my face, and the similarity between the Japanese word ‘kao,’ meaning face, and the English word ‘cow.’ I seem to have no filter preventing what goes on in my head from being written plainly across my face, so whether I am having trouble with my accounting homework (which is always) or trying to understand a particularly rapid conversation in Japanese, my face will show the whole world exactly what I am thinking. Obviously, at the thought of being compared to a water troll, I was both disgusted and horrified, and both these emotions were clearly displayed on my face. This spawned another bout of laughter from the peanut gallery, but this time I thought they were yelling “cow.” In actuality, they were saying “kao,” in reference to the horrified face I was making, but after being called a water troll mere seconds before, being called a cow did not seem too far off.

Luckily, I have gotten myself into enough of these situations to have learned to let them explain their reasoning before going completely ballistic, so they were able to explain that neither were meant as insults and soothe my injured pride. And this is just a sample of the many, many situations I get into every day. This has also been happening more frequently of late, although I do not believe this is due to any decrease in understanding on my part. On the contrary, I have seen a rapid increase in my daily comprehension, but the closer I get with my Japanese friends, the more willing, and dare I say eager, they are to point out and laugh at my every mistake. However, for all my complaining, I would take this nitpicking over them ignoring all my mistakes and never making any improvement.

But despite these misunderstandings, or perhaps because of them, my day-to-day life has definitely gotten more exciting. I am sure that there will soon be more stories of me embarrassing my self, but for now, these are just the highlights.


3 thoughts on “‘Kao’ versus ‘Cow’ and Other Misunderstandings

  1. Hi Grace!

    I was just reading about Japan and thought of you. How are you? I hope all is well! Weston is basically quarantined at the moment, but we’re able to go out for groceries and walks whenever. I assume you’re in Japan though? Lmk how you are! Tyler and Tate say hi. They are now 11 and 9! They’re into fencing and (still very much into) video games 🙂

    Can’t wait to hear your update! I hope your family here is all well too.




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