Nihongo Ga DekImasu Ka?
This question does not mean what you think it means. It’s true, hidden meaning is “Are you fluent?” You can see the look of sympathetic shame on other people’s faces when you answer “sukoshi…” before they do their best impersonation of English and you realize that you will both have to briefly take up the art of miming to get your points across.
A lot of foreigners living here who have either a.) moved here solely for work or b.) given up on their Japanese classes early on will know the struggle. It’s not that you’re bad at Japanese, but if you don’t have to learn it, the pressure is completely off, and if you’re a student, depending on your ability for a grade that will reflect in your GPA is not appealing. In fact, it takes a lot of fun out of the learning and is stressful enough to make you cry into your textbook when your teacher announces a pop quiz that, while you studied all night for, you’re suddenly blanking on everything as soon as you hear the word test.
So, no, I do not speak Japanese. At least, not at the level you’d expect of someone who has been here as long as I have. Damn, I should be at least beyond conversational by now. But I’m not. And there’s always that one person in the room asking. “Why don’t you speak Japanese? You live in Japan. If you move to a country, you need to learn the language.” And they’re right, to some extent. It’s not like I can’t speak a lick of it. I can get around my daily life, communicate basic thoughts, and nod along like I understand until I realize that I was not asked a “Yes/No” question. Then I proceed to stare at them like Bambi’s mom in headlights until they repeat the question more slowly or, god forbid, I have to ask them to repeat it. At least I know that phrase. And I use it for everything, including getting more of the free side dishes at restaurants.