In Japan, I know how to se débrouiller. I’m in a rush to get the airport, but the bus that I had planned to take is full? No problem–I can figure out how to take the train. The taxi driver can’t read my carefully laminated map? No problem–I know how to pronounce the English hotel name with a Japanese accent. The barber doesn’t speak English, and he wants to know how long I want my hair, and I don’t know how to say “really, really short” in Japanese? Not an issue, ’cause I do know how to say “for judo,” and in Japanese that’s just another way to say “really short hair.”
My general ability to se débrouiller (mostly) in Japan is actually quite surprising, because I’ve only spent maybe 10 weeks of my life here, and because I’ve spent much more time than that in France, where I do not know how to se débrouiller in the least. In what kind of Parisian store does one buy flash cards? I haven’t a clue. How do I find the door to the post office? It’s a mystery. Is that woman flirting with me? Honestly, I have no idea.
The anthropologist Raymonde Carroll maintains that the reason that the French and Americans have so much trouble understanding each other is that we, and our countries, look so much alike. You go to Japan, and you expect things to be different and to work differently–everything (and everyone) looks different. To the American in France or the Frenchman in America, everything (and everyone) looks the same, and we expect everything to be the same and to work the same. Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised that I’m basically incompetent in France, and why I feel so capable when I manage to pull off the simplest interaction in Japan–my expectations of the place, and of myself, are very different in the two cases.
I decided to stick with the “for judo” length–I’m old and fat, so why try to pretend that I have hair? In France, I settle for whatever length the hairdresser decides to give me, ’cause I still haven’t figured out how to explain what I want.
- Se débrouiller: to figure things out for oneself, figure out how to make things work, be resourceful. (Translation by me.)
- Se débrouiller pour faire qqch: to manage to do something. (Collins French-English Dictionary)