The Power of meetup.com in Japan
When I first started work in countryside Saitama, the biggest thing I struggled with was being the only Native English Speaker at my workplaces. Although I explained many times in Japanese and English, that even though I look Asian, my first language is English and English is the main language used in my country, even after finishing my 1 year contract, this fact never pierced through their stereotypical views. And despite speaking to my colleagues in Japanese 99% of the time, their view of me remained as a gaijin (foreigner) who could not speak, write or read Japanese. Because I had a really hard time putting in 200% to fit in, when I discovered www.meetup.com and meetups near my area, meetups really became my saviour.
When the job gets lonely and you have almost no chance to hold a conversation in the languages you speak, why not hop along to a meetup near your area? In Japan, and particularly popular in the Tokyo area, meetups are normally a gathering of like-minded people who want to learn or speak the language you do, make new friends or take part in other activities like sports and culture. There are meetup groups that specialise in Outdoor Activities, Sports, Japanese Culture, Anime, Cosplay, Language Exchange, English, JLPT, Mandarin, French, and other things.
Type a keyword (or select a category) into the search box, set the distance and area you live in and existing groups will turn up in the search result. The wider you set the parameters, the more search results you will get. Check the group’s events page to see if they are still active, find an event you want to go to, RSVP, and go for the meetup! It’s as simple as that.
Some language exchanges took place in busy smoky and noisy pubs, which for me, was an interestingly difficult place to hold a decent conversation. Other language exchanges took place in cafés, share houses, language centres or less dingy pubs, which for me, were more conducive in learning, teaching and exchanging languages. I strongly believe that it depends on how serious one is regarding language learning—being able to hear what the person next to you is saying while both of you remain relatively sober seems a good start. Some groups teach from real textbooks, while others ask you to bring your own homework, topic or textbook and native speakers just help you from there. And there are groups which just chat about anything to encourage more natural acquisition of conversational language skills and vocabulary. Aside from chatting and textbooks, there are groups which do activities like dancing, sports, eating or board games and encourage people to speak in targeted languages during those activities—a slightly more fun way to learn a language.
The downside of meetups is the fee that each group might impose. The participation fee might range from 100yen to 2000yen (around $1 to $20) in addition to the food/drink you purchase. Sometimes these fees are justified by the booking cost of the venue, the provision of some snacks and drinks, or the activity you are doing. However, there are also groups that don’t charge a fee and may just require you to buy something (a drink or something) from the establishment which hosts the group’s activity.
The members of any group may change constantly, although regular members may turn up all the time without even RSVPing on the site. (You have to create a free account to RSVP). Some turn up to their first meetup alone, while others attend with a friend or two. Making friends at a meetup and going to a meetup with them can also be an option. While networking and having the security of seeing the same people at a meetup can be a draw, for me it was being able to speak English, Mandarin and Japanese (and some Korean) all I wanted without having to deal with much stigma or discrimination. For a meetup that may last 1 to 3 hours, strangers (and potential people you may meet again. Note the ‘may’) possibly couldn’t care less about your proficiency in any language as long as you can get your point across (or they did their best to understand it and guessed correctly) and carry a decent conversation albeit with gestures and drawings and mistakes. Of course, it isn’t always rosy: I’ve met some really nice people at different meetups, but I’ve also met my fair share of not-so-nice people who were always amazed at me being able to speak Japanese despite not being Japanese or me being able to speak perfect English (and English slang) despite looking Asian/Japanese or... yeah. It really depends on your luck.
Language Exchanges or meeting fellow internationals aren’t the only thing you can do with meetup. You can also join like-minded people in hobbies or interests like basketball, volleyball, table tennis, long distance running, rock climbing and bouldering, Japanese Culture (tea ceremony, origami etc), hot spring hopping (onsen), travelling, day-trips and so on. I myself subscribe to about 30 groups that range from various sports, travelling, eating and language exchange. A lot of the time, their events don’t match up with my schedule, but I just bookmark these places as future spots to visit when I have the time.
And finally, the last good thing about meetup is that you can start your own group. If there are hardly any groups in your area or even prefecture, you can just create your own! Think of your own activities, settle on a venue and date to meet and hope people turn up! While it may take a while for your group to kick off, don’t be discouraged. If there is enough interest, your group might even last a long time. I know of some groups which have remained active for many years.
Do check out meetup.com! I might even see you at one! (: