On the humid evening of August 20, 2007, Paul Knieser drove a minivan while his five children rode in the back seats. He drove slowly searching and praying for a gravelly gray opening between two painted lines: a parking spot in Walt Disney World, Florida.
In the back left seat, sat a young man of fourteen who wore comfortably an average height and weight for his age. His noticeable blue eyes were pacing back and forth, reading and re-reading notes on his iPod. This young man was me, Nigel Knieser. After scanning the information, I switched to the main screen which read “Beginner Lesson # 86 — Rough Weekend.” The lesson title refers to a Japanese language course which I have been studying independently for the past year.
Already late for our dinner reservation. we finally pulled into a newly vacated space as the sound of unbuckling seatbelts quickly filled the van. “Everyone watch for cars, ” Dad cautioned as usual, “and hurry.” “Alright, stay with me, hold hands,'” Dad told the two youngest. They each grabbed a hand while my two other siblings engaged in a quiet, happy conversation.
Suddenly, across an empty section of the parking lot, I spotted a large unknown object in the distance. The streetlight above it made its appearance dark and shadowy. A large piece broke off of it, and then a smaller one. After the last piece broke away, I could tell from the shapes that the figures were human. One of them was pushing an empty stroller. Another was apparently a child and the last, a woman maybe, was cradling a moving object.
They cautiously approached. The figure pushing the stroller looked to his left, then to his right. Seeing my father, the tallest in our group, the man’s eyes became fixed on him. “Excuse me.” I could see clearly now an Asian man, a boy and a woman holding a baby girl. The man was clutching a glossy catalogue covered with colorful photographs. “We…find,” he stammered, “Umm you where is”
As he approached, I noticed that he was holding a Disney brochure printed with Katakana, Japanese writing! I announced “I speak Japanese!”
The man looked at me, not understanding. I said it again in Japanese. “Nihongo wo hanashimasu yo.” The man’s eyes suddenly lit up. ‘Wow!” he said in English, amazed.
“What’s wrong?'” I asked in Japanese. He paused. “Where is the entrance to the Magic Kingdom?” he said slowly, hoping I would be able to understand. I knew exactly what he was talking about. “Follow us,” I told him in his own language.
They were appreciative and overwhelmed. The boy walking alongside asked, “Mommy, he speaks Japanese?'” We eagerly began to converse in the man’s native language. “Who taught you Japanese?” “Actually, I taught myself. There are no Japanese classes in my school.” “Really? That’s amazing. Why did you want to learn Japanese in the first place?” “Well, I’ve always found Japanese culture very interesting.'”
The father continued. “Where are you from?” “New York state” I replied, distinguishing our home from the city of New York. We conversed as we walked, until we reached a gate that housed a vast area of well-lit ground. He asked, “Is this it?” “Almost. First we must board the monorail.” We led them to an empty compartment, jumping on with only seconds to spare. “The view is so pretty,'” the father said looking through the monorail window. Cinderella’s Castle was in plain view, lit up in all its magnificence.
Soon, we reached the point at which we would go our separate ways. “Well, we’re here!” I said in Japanese.”Yes,” the man said. “What’s your name?” I realized I hadn’t shared my name with them. “It’s Nigel,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Nigel. Thank you,” he said in English. He put his hand out for me to shake, which most Japanese natives are not comfortable doing.
“Thank you,'”I said, grateful for an experience no Japanese lesson could ever teach me. My hard work, invested in what started as simple curiosity, could lead to an opportunity to help other people traveling far away from their homes.
Afterward, as I ate dinner, I happily replayed the evening’s events in my mind. Most people, I realized, wouldn’t hold so much to a chance encounter like this, but I had a feeling that this would be the first of many Japanese conversations I would have in my lifetime.
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