Saturday, February 27, 2010

On being a stranger in a strange land.

So Eddie and I were out and about today, venturing to the south end of the island to do a little shopping. Pictures to come as soon as I finish sorting them. Until then, I did some thinking while I was out (scary, I know).

With the massive influx of immigrants in the U.S., I've always been of the belief that if you come to my country, it's up to you to learn to speak my damned language. And I do stand by that. When you move to a foreign country, the burden of knocking down the language barrier should fall mostly on your shoulders.

That said, I am now the stranger in a strange land with little to no grasp on the language. I'm trying. Believe me, I'm trying. Three combined years of studying Spanish and Russian didn't do a damned thing to help me learn Japanese, let me tell you. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet was a snap...learning Kanji? Not so simple.

In fact, just trying to understand a few signs can be intimidating as hell:
Even something as simple as a ticket for the Expressway toll has us scratching our heads:
Learning the spoken language? Same deal.

We're trying. We have guidebooks. Eddie has picked a few things up from working with some of the locals. Still, many conversations involve a lot of gesturing, pointing, drawing pictures on notepads, and confused looks from both parties. Most people here speak at least a little English, but in some of the outlying towns and smaller villages, there are those who don't, particularly the older people.

However, with some patience on their part and ours, we usually manage to figure out what's going on. We aren't going to engage in any deep philosophical debates, but we can at least figure out where the nearest gas station is, how much the Buddha statue is, and if the Katsudon is spicy or mild.

The thing is, the locals here never get impatient with us. They never shout, or roll their eyes, or make snide comments in their native tongue to someone else with the assumption we won't figure it out from their expressions/tone/body language. Before I came here, I'd heard that politeness was of the utmost importance in Japanese culture, and this is absolutely true. They might call us stupid, ignorant Americans after we're out of earshot, but they never ever treat us badly when we struggle with their language. Never.

While I still believe people have a responsibility to learn the local language (and we are trying!), I have a greater understanding of how difficult that is. Japanese is a complex language...and so is English. I don't believe the people here are obligated to post bilingual signs or communicate with us in English, but I appreciate it when they do. I don't believe it's anyone's responsibility but my own to get the hang of the local language, but I sure appreciate it when my stumbling, struggling, and stupidity are met with patience, graciousness, and even some humor. I haven't gained enough sympathy to say immigrants are off the hook for learning the language, but I can empathize now.

Things I've learned: Shouting at me does not improve my ability to understand you. Speaking slowly and enunciating helps, but bear with me. Patience goes a long, long way. While you might be thinking "learn my damned language, you moron," it's entirely possible that's what I'm doing...and trying to communicate with you is part of that process. Languages are not learned crawled before you walked too.

Just a few things to keep in mind.

1 comment:

  1. I think that's a great way to look at it. Languages are hard, and I don't mind helping people who are sincerely trying. It's only the ones who clearly aren't trying who I object to.