Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Most Important Thing I've Learned by Living Abroad

I read this blog calling for submissions to answer "What have you learned by living abroad?" via twitter, and thought it'd be fun to respond. Afterwards, you should put a link to your post in that site's comments section. Okay, soooo......

Have you ever wondered about the phrase, "You are your own worst enemy"? Whenever I deeply think about about some catchphrase or overly used English idiom, my thoughts naturally cross the bridge of wondering how to say it in Japanese.

But think about it for a moment,"your own worst enemy". Hmmmm.....

Do you ever sabotage yourself into producing less, having less fun, being unsuccessful at various challenges, by using the incredible power of self-doubt?

When you move to a foreign land, where you don't speak the language well, or know the usual way of doing things, you spend a large percent of your waking life in varying states of confusion. I find it funny that even when I dream in Japanese, I don't know what's being said to me.

[Aren't you hilarious, Ms. Subconscious?]

In the beginning, many tasks such as signing up for a cell phone or bank account appear impossible if you don't have a translator with you. In these certain cases, even a dictionary won't do you much good. After some time, to everyone's relief, these types of tasks become easier.

However, many people, myself included, fall into the "I can't speak [insert the language of where you live here]" trap. Despite studying, and seeing benchmarks that their level is improving, people often shrug off some annoying task like calling the post office to re-deliver their package because of the fear that their Japanese wouldn't be understood over the telephone.
Actually, I'm talking about myself, in this case. I was notorious for asking for favors of my coworkers during my first couple of years in Japan.

Now, these fears aren't in any way irrational. I had plenty of experiences where a Japanese service employee becomes frustrated by a language barrier and stops trying to explain, only to tell me to bring an interpreter next time. After enough of those experiences, it feels safer and more comfortable to just ask a Japanese friend, co-worker, or partner to call for you, as if you were a child who's too young and inexperienced to use the phone or discuss adult matters.

So here's where I get to the point. [Oh look at you, ガマンさん] The most important thing that I've learned to do is slap myself in the face whenever I say the words "I don't read, speak, understand Japanese well enough to _________" Now, I won't usually do the slapping of my face if I'm in public, but I do put it on the list of things to do later. Because, there's no excuse....absolutely no excuse to limit the things you can do just because of a language barrier.

There was a point in time when I found myself saying that for everything. When it was time to research a travel destination, book a hotel, train tickets, rent a car, call the post office, return the phone messages I'd get on my cell phone answering service. The list goes on and on. Then, I started realizing that I had gradually stopped asking for help, and just started doing without these things. I would just decide that it was too difficult to get tickets to some event using the Konbini machines, so I wouldn't go.

I didn't realize how terrible this behaviour had become until I met *Yinsan. I was instantly interested in this girl because she was interviewing Japanese women politicians and filming a documentary about it. I was fascinated to hear more about her project, so I volunteered to help her with whatever she needed. It wasn't until I met up with her at her Sakura apartment, a short-term housing facility for foreigners that I realized, she's just a short-time visitor here from Malaysia. I had lived in Japan for far longer than she, and despite her having a very basic command of the Japanese language, she had ventured on this monumental task of making a bilingual documentary in Japanese and English.

When I first realized the fact that she wasn't so familiar with the workings of Japan, I tried to bind her with the same invisible restraints that I do to unconsciously limit myself. I asked her, "How on earth are you able to know what direction your interviews are going in when you're without an interpreter." How are you going to complete this film with so little budget when you have so much translating that needs to be done?" How annoying was I, right?!?!?!

She then just flat out told me that somehow, in some way, she'll do it. She's got to, she's already been given the budget for the film, and has no other choice but to make it to the end.

And this is when I realized how important it is to have this type of mentality when you're living abroad, because life is naturally going to be harder to tackle. The thing is, that this is the quality that most interviewers for overseas jobs are searching for in a person, and a lot of us are easily able to give the correct answers. But when it comes to doing this day-by-day, even after a succession of failures, the challenge becomes more daunting.

Since making this discovery, almost everyone I meet is either someone who's still using the language excuse as a crutch, or someone awesome who's grabbing life in Japan by the 金玉, and finding solutions to whatever challenge they're faced with.

Whenever I feel a challenge coming on, I now always look for alternatives for ways of solving the problem that I may not have thought of before. Only after that, will I revert to asking for help.

Just don't forget the face-slapping. That's crucial.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:17 PM

    EXCELLENT post. I have a friend living in China teaching English and she doesn't do ANYTHING because of the language barrier. I've never studied Chinese, but I studied Arabic and I know it's freaking hard to study a language so different from your own. But you still have to go out there and do stuff.