Once upon a time, I was a language teacher in Japan. I studied hard and got my Japanese to a level that allowed me to hike, ski, surf and sushi taste my way across Japan. I had the time of my life and wouldn’t trade it for anything else in my life. But it was not always that way. When I first touched down as a fresh-faced youngster, I had the benefit of being placed in a great school with ample holidays and I told myself I would make the most of them. So every chance I got, I jumped on the train and explored the country with my new teacher friends; it was a breeze with them leading the way. But as my new friends started to move back home, I had to rely on my broken Japanese to get me around the country. I was content to just point and mime my way through most situations, but this severely limited the amount of things I could do. I was stuck in a rut and contemplating going home until I had an epiphany brought on by two life-changing moments: one embarrassing and one terrifying.
My embarrassing epiphany moment happened at a school function. Hundreds of children piled on to five replica London double-decker buses and drove around Tokyo with us playing games and singing songs in English. It was a great day and afterwards my head teacher took me around to meet some of the students’ parents. One proud father shook my hand and asked me in Japanese, “Ureshikatta?” which means “Did you enjoy the day?” I thought I’d take a crack at answering in Japanese, but instead of saying “Sou, Ureshii,” which means, “I did enjoy it?” I jumbled up my phonics and blurted out “Urusai,” or, “Shut up.”
Egg, meet my face.
However, that was nothing compared to my first health scare. After suffering through terrible pains in my side, my friend kindly took me to the hospital. After the doctor examined me, he had a chat with my friend. Now, because Japanese uses lots of English loan words (gum = gamu, soccer = sakka) I thought I’d be able to follow the conversation. To my horror, I kept hearing them say “kensa, kensa” – or in my mind, “cancer, cancer.” You can imagine what horrible ideas were floating through my head. As we left the office, me white as a ghost, I grabbed my friend and asked what all that cancer business was about. “What are you talking about?” she said. “You kept saying cancer, am I okay? What’s wrong with me?” I asked. “Oh, kensa: that means blood test!” My sigh of relief and subsequent collapse onto a couch in the waiting room was so loud it brought some nurses into the hall and I had to relive my horror and embarrassment as I composed myself.
After that, I put my shoulder to the grindstone, studied Japanese every chance I got and was rewarded ten times over. I learned that being able to communicate in the local language not only saved me from embarrassing situations or frightening misunderstandings, but it opened my eyes to a whole new side of Japan. Now instead of heading to Tokyo every weekend to hang out with other expatriates, I started exploring smaller towns and more rural areas where, with my newfound language skills, I gained a new perspective on Japanese culture. Instead of eating at restaurants where you buy tickets from a machine and eat in silence, I started to frequent local mom-and-pop places and made a lot of new friends. Instead of only hanging out with fellow teachers, I was able to make more Japanese friends, see what Japanese family life is like, and gain a better perspective on everything Japanese. See a pattern yet?
When people talk about the benefits of travel, the number one reason stated is usually “broadening horizons.” Well, walking through a foreign city and seeing a culture’s monuments is all good fun, but I’ve found that these types of activities only let us see a culture on the surface. But by learning the local language, we can open up an almost infinite amount of doors that lead to greater understanding of a culture, and, in turn, a more enjoyable and rewarding time abroad. As teachers living overseas, we are afforded an opportunity most travellers aren’t. Don’t make the same mistake I did – take the time to learn the local language from the beginning.
By Nicholas Crowe