Every Tuesday 6-7:30pm, I (along with Nick Rasetti) have been playing tennis at Saiin Park. The group is an eclectic mix of people; there are both old and young, experts and beginners, regulars and newcomers, etc. Tennis is something that I have enjoyed since childhood, so it has been a special opportunity for me to be able to continue doing something I enjoy while practicing my Japanese. Every practice usually consists of a warmup, followed by a series of successive drills, each focusing on a different aspect of our playing. While waiting my turn between each drill, I am afforded the opportunity to share small talk with the other players and learn some playing tips.
One aspect I have come to really appreciate is just how accommodating the people at tennis can be to new learners. When you don’t understand something, they explain it slowly and as best as they can. I can think of countless times where it was clear I was not understanding a particular skill and the coaches pulled me aside to personally explain the misunderstanding one-on-one. I think there is a shared enjoyment between the coaches and myself when they see something they have explained previously in Japanese to me click during actual play. I also noticed that the coaches adjust their playing to accommodate the skill level of whoever they are hitting with. General encouragement from the coaches has also been incredibly helpful. One thing that really surprised me is the casual friendships I see on the tennis courts across all age gaps. I expected that large age gaps would prevent closer friendships, but that does not seem to be the case. Everyone is offering a helping hand to everyone else.
Coming to tennis and being greeted by people who care enough to remember my name has been a blessing every week. In many contexts, speaking Japanese can feel stiff. Getting to practice speaking while doing something I enjoy has given me a new perspective on the language. I have learned to take some of the pressure off of myself to “speak-well” and, instead, just enjoy speaking and the relationships that form from it.