Speechless in Japan

Matsushima, Miyagi

Speechless in Japan

By Lauren Power

Global Living Magazine – Issue 19 | July/August 2015

Mr. Jefferson pointed to a newspaper on the coffee table. ‘Asahi Shimbun’ was printed in bold letters at the top of the page. Neat vertical rows of Japanese characters covered everything else.

“Can you read that?”

“No, I can’t,” I said.

“Doesn’t it worry you that you can’t read or speak Japanese?” Jefferson asked. The panel of four men in black suits stared at me. Judging, evaluating.

“Yes, of course it worries me. But I feel confident that I can adapt. I’ve done it before.”

“We can see from your application that you have had lots of experience abroad, but you have never been completely on your own before. How do you plan to deal with it?”

“I’m good with people. I’ve found that people are very much the same, although their cultures are different.”

“And what about men?” croaked a grey-haired Mr. Okada, who had remained silent until then.

“Well,” I said, trying to suppress my feeling of surprise, “I guess men are people too. I can just deal with them as I would in any other country.”

Was that the right answer? My interviewers smiled and laughed, so maybe I did okay. And on that confusing note my interview at the Japanese Consulate in Houston, Texas concluded.

Friends Yuka and Ayaka in Towa, IwateSeveral weeks later, I received my assignment to Kitakami-shi, Iwate Prefecture, which is located in northeastern Japan. I accepted the position, ushering in a new stage of my life – a stage characterized by perpetual confusion, astonishing connections, and self-discovery. In Japan, I found a sense of home for the third time in my life, but it was the first time my feelings were so strongly tied to a place rather than just the people there. Japan has its own voice. It continues to whisper to me, but I had to learn how to listen before I could understand.

In June 2010, the Yamabiko Shinkansen sped me north out of the Tokyo metropolis, over the soft green quilts of summer rice blanketing the countryside, and into the Ōu Mountains. It deposited me at Kitakami Station, where I met Mrs. Takahashi, one of my new colleagues. Impossibly thin with eyes magnified by large spectacles, she blinked laboriously as she explained in deliberate but broken English what my responsibilities would be. After completing three hours of ceremonial introductions, meetings and paperwork in Japanese at my office, during most of which I sat frozen and bewildered with my hands in my lap, I felt that I knew less about what to expect than when I had arrived.

For the term of one year, it was my responsibility to teach English to high school students at two high schools and to provide cultural diversity and exposure to the people in my city, most of whom had little-to-no experience with foreigners. That is a very ambitious and ambiguous charge, especially in a town where people only come by birth and leave by death.

I could count on my fingers the number of non-Japanese people living in my city, and I never saw them unless I scheduled a meeting. Everyone only spoke Japanese. The train and bus announcements were only in Japanese. All my home appliances were in Japanese. Everything at every place I needed or wanted to go was only in Japanese. Everyone at my schools and office only spoke Japanese, with the exception of a few Japanese English teachers, and all information was only in Japanese. I was the diversity in my town. It became clear that I was exposing people to new culture just by being present.

I was illiterate, mute and deaf. My environment was a straightjacket. I felt crushed by my utter isolation. Within the first few weeks, I was exhausted from battling against my own needs, expectations and anxieties. My sense of adventure and self-assurance weakened under a chain of urgent questions. I asked myself, not for the last time: What are you doing here? How can you possibly succeed when you know nothing and no one to help you? Do you even know what you are going to do tomorrow?

The truth is that I never really found the answers to those questions. Every tomorrow always brought something unanticipated. In winter, my toothpaste and olive oil froze. During two afternoons a month, everyone in my office stood up and left at 4pm without telling me why. There were earthquakes. There were floods. There were blizzards. My 90-minute commute (each way) grew longer and more unpredictable as the snow piled deeper. I found through trial and error that on certain public holidays, I was expected to come to work, but on some school holidays I wasn’t. I ate all manner of seafood dishes, many of which simply do not have an English translation. I had to learn to wash and sort my trash, and carry it to various collection points on different days between 5-7am. I became very ill and had to be admitted for an IV treatment, and was never told what was wrong. And there was always tomorrow.

Cherry blossoms in Ueno, TokyoI am the sort of person who likes to be pleasant and prepared. I like to be right, in control. I am a perfectionist. In Kitakami, I was wrong all the time. Everything was new, so I was never prepared or in control. Every mistake felt like a slap in the face because I so wanted to succeed. Rather than continue to struggle, I chose to surrender. In time, I was able to take down my walls of fear and make peace with making mistakes. I found that when my illusion of control was peeled away I could become the most calm, resourceful and resilient.

The language barrier never went away. I took Japanese lessons to survive, but I could never carry on an eloquent conversation. I love meeting new people and socializing. I’m an extrovert. But I had to learn how to make friends without words. It is a strange thing to reflect on, but I know now that some of my most unshakable friendships were made in Kitakami, without language, across cultures. To connect with others, I had to be unreservedly open and curious. The Japanese people were so happy to share their culture and history with me. I acquired sensitivity to deeper levels of expression and began to recognize the feeling of tranquility that makes Japanese society so unique. I discovered that when the power of verbal communication is taken away, the truest form of self can shine through.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

I began to feel self-assured and successful in my job and community, and I looked forward to the adventures of tomorrow. On March 11, 2011, I took an early bus to Tokyo to meet my boyfriend, who had flown in from the USA to visit. That day, he proposed, and I said yes! I was so excited to take him back to Iwate, to introduce him to my friends, and to share with him my connection to that beautiful place. But that day changed everything for Japan and for me.

View of the Sumida-gawa, TokyoThe Great Tohoku Earthquake was the largest recorded in Japanese history. We felt it even in Tokyo. Its terrible shocks collapsed buildings, set fires, and tore holes in the earth. It also unleashed a devastating tsunami. More than 15,000 people died. Iwate Prefecture, my home, suffered most. And I was not there.

Once again, I felt like I was in a straight jacket, frozen, and helpless. All roads and rails were either broken or reserved for aid. The airports in Iwate were either flooded or set aside for the Red Cross. I could not get back home, and the images of destruction on my hotel television tortured me. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began to fail, my fiancé and our families in the USA insisted that we evacuate Japan.

The next few weeks were surreal, as I sunned by a pool in Texas, feeling ghost tremors and replaying images of the earthquake and tsunami in my mind. I realized how much of myself I had left in Kitakami. That place will always be my home.

When I could return, I found devastation. Grief was written onto every face. I volunteered along the coast, where the damage was worst, but I could not shake my feeling of guilt. Iwate had finally accepted me, and I had not been there when catastrophe struck. I still feel an ache in my heart and hot tears in my eyes when I think about it.

I moved to Tokyo with my fiancé some months later, returning to Iwate often. Every time I visit Kitakami, I am greeted by gatherings more filled with laughter and happy tears than with words. We share a special bond that words can’t express and a memory of a time before 3/11 when destruction redefined our lives. I taught the Japanese about diversity, but I’m no longer just a foreigner. I learned to be myself through creating and embracing a home in Kitakami, Iwate.

Photography courtesy of Lauren Power. 

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