Three days before my plane to Tokyo was scheduled to leave, I decided I no longer wanted to leave home. I realized that I had put off studying Japanese phrases; that I had little understanding of Japanese culture; that I had no idea how I would be able to afford this trip; that I was thinking of every possible excuse that could prevent me from leaving. Three days later I boarded a plane from the Des Moines Airport to Chicago O’Hare, followed by an excruciatingly long flight to Tokyo, and instantly I knew I was out of my element.
I live in a suburban town near Des Moines, Iowa: land of the white collar, white American. We don’t have diversity. There is no minority, just an endless sea of white. Suddenly I became the minority. It wasn’t that the Japanese people were disrespectful; they were quite the opposite. Every person I met was kind and courteous. It was the feeling of alienation that disturbed me. I was literally one of a kind: a tall and relatively tan girl with brown hair, stumbling through the crowded streets of Japan, where nearly everyone is short and pale with dark hair.
I went to Japan accompanied by my aunt, who is even more of a rarity than myself. My aunt Trish is blond, of average height, and also speaks Japanese fluently. No one takes her seriously at first. Trish has lived in Japan for a total of two years and eight months at various points throughout her life, and during these times, she built up strong connections with various families. Four of these families graciously let us stay at their houses during our trip and also chauffeured us around to all of the sites they considered best. While I deeply appreciated everything these host families did for us, my biggest regret of the trip was my inability to fully express my gratitude.
You don’t realize how big of a barrier language is until you’re in a different country. Poorly cultured as I was before I went to Japan, I assumed most people there would be able to speak English; that they would cater to me. And while to an extent it was true, nearly everyone I met knew how to say “My name is…” and “What is your favorite color?” but it really wasn’t enough to communicate.
The second family we stayed with was my favorite. The mother, Akio Koichi, left a strong impression on me. A busy mother of four children and wife of a newspaper editor, Akio made sure that we had a good stay. She went to the extent of contacting her daughter’s elementary school to grant us permission to observe one of her classes. Few other tourists can boast about that opportunity.
When I was scheduled for an early morning tour of the Zenkoji Temple, Akio woke up at four thirty to meet me at the entrance of the shrine so I wouldn’t be alone. I would never ask that of anyone, and while she couldn’t speak English, she knew that I could use a familiar face.
Through my trip to Japan, I learned the importance of communication; communication that goes beyond verbal exchanges. Sometimes the simple act of being wholeheartedly present says more than a million words because words often fail, especially when being translated from different languages. It’s through translation that clothes pins transform into Shiny Happy Laundry Time, and the sign in America that indicates “okay” becomes a sexual symbol.
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