There they go, gliding through conversations in flawless Japanese with ease, catching the locals' jokes, even making their own. It all seemed so effortless for them and there I was, struggling away trying to string together a semi-coherent sentence. Just as I had aligned all that tricky grammar into some semblance of order, and was about to unleash it on the world, the entire conversation topic had moved on. I was again frustrated with not being able to express myself at all, let alone fully.

I met many of my fellow international university students through the Oceania Student's Association. We were a motley collection of Australians, New Zealanders and various Pacific Islanders. They were all undergraduates at various Japanese universities, and their Japanese language skills were annoyingly good. Like me, they were mostly here in Japan, at the Japanese tax payer's expense, as students on scholarships from the education ministry.

I was a late starter to Japanese, not taking it up until I was 25. On the other hand, many of the other students had been fully immersed in the language since their junior high school days. We are talking about the late 1970s now — this was before Japan used the yen's massive appreciation, to purchase most of the known world, post-Plaza Accord in 1985.