How I learned English (and so much more) from watching 'Friends'
A few weeks ago, I was organizing the boxes that I’d abandoned at my parents’ house since I moved out at 18. I found a box dedicated to Arashi merchandise, a ’90s Japanese boy band sensation still dominating the pop charts today. Another box was filled with photo albums from when I used to hang out at local karaoke booths in Shizuoka. A third box labeled “middle school high school” held a sea of dusty Friends articles, cut-outs, and other paraphernalia carefully piled on top of one another.
In 2000, when I was a pimply-faced 12-year-old immigrant from Japan, Friends delivered on its promise: it was there for me. In the 7th grade, I moved from Shizuoka to New York City, where my father grew up, because the Japanese educational system was becoming far too strict; my dad didn’t want my school to dictate my hair color or the length of my socks. Although I was half-white and didn’t look “stereotypically” Asian, I didn’t speak any English, which confused my new classmates. Either people couldn’t talk to me, or they didn’t know I existed.
I was so alone. I came home from school sobbing on most days, and I couldn’t even do homework to distract myself, because I couldn’t read English, either.
My mom often rented DVDs of Japanese television shows to comfort me. One day, when she couldn’t find the DVD I wanted, I glumly inched over to the TV remote to find solace in any sort of distraction. Friends was on. I had heard Megan and Christina, two of the nicer girls at school, talk about it; about a group of young New Yorkers’ trials and tribulations; but I didn’t know what it was really. (Nor could I contribute to the conversation, either way.)
The show was in its sixth year on air, at the height of popularity. Right before moving to New York, my young, naïve mind imagined a group of new, tight-knit friends—just like Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Joey and Chandler—that I might have. Although this was still wishful thinking, it felt within reach, and my journey to learn American culture and language with my new “friends” began.
When Ross’ ex-wife, Carol, turned out to be a lesbian, I looked up “ex” in the dictionary. Former. It was also the first time I saw a gay character on TV. In Japan, as far as I knew as a pre-teen, homosexuality didn’t exist. When Monica got her head stuck in a Turkey during a Thanksgiving flashback, I Googled the origins of Thanksgiving, and why Americans eat turkey. When Rachel was tormented between two lovers, Ross and Joey, I learned that it is socially acceptable to date several people simultaneously in the United States. In Japan, dating is a monogamous activity, whether you’re young or old. I had so much to learn, and I was captivated.
On May 6, 2004, my eyes were glued to the TV all night. By the time “The Last One” was finished, I couldn’t breathe through my tears. My best friends who taught me English were gone. Friends was like a dog I had raised since she was a puppy—we grew up together. By ninth grade, I had learned to speak English fluently thanks to the show. I even had my own real friends by then, and while they were taking down Backstreet Boys posters, my bedroom walls continued to be dedicated to Friends magazine cutouts well through high school.
In 10 weeks, on January 1st, you may or may not be one of the thousands of Americans indulging in final holiday bliss by curling up on the couch, binge-watching Friends on Netflix. A rehash, yes, but for some of us, it’s the nostalgic, coming-of-age kind, and something so much more.