Communicating effectively is never easy, and this challenge is compounded when you are attempting to speak in another language.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Japan, where my good friend Carrie is currently teaching English. Although I attempted to learn Japanese from language tapes on the plane ride across the sea, I arrived in the country knowing little more than "do you speak English," "excuse me," and "thank you very much." Ultimately, I was surprised at the mileage I got out of these few polite stock phrases.
After my experiences studying abroad in college, it was refreshing to visit a country where I wasn't disliked simply because of my American nationality. In fact, the majority of people with whom we interacted seemed as enamored with the U.S. as many of us are with Japan, although it was fascinating to observe their perceptions of our culture. A student in Carrie's class gave a presentation about our country, and his poster simply contained images of giant hamburgers, basketball jerseys, and hip hop music.
I was scared at first to attempt to say anything in Japanese, fearing that I would insult everyone or be laughed at. People often keep to themselves out of shyness or insecurity, but unfortunately this can be mistaken for arrogance. I remember in grade school I was quiet, thinking I was the weird awkward kid no one wanted to talk to, and later was shocked to learn that people thought I was stuck up. While shopping in Tokyo, a very beautiful and sophisticated Japanese woman was assisting me, and I felt intimidated; a goofy American tourist. At one point she asked me if I spoke Japanese, and I said "skoche" (a little) and I asked her if she spoke English, she hesitated and said "little bit" in English and we both burst into giggles, and the barrier was broken.
Luckily, Carrie speaks Japanese, and when we would visit a restaurant or bar, the owners would often take the opportunity to chat with her, an exotic American. At first it was uncomfortable for me to sit there, silent and smiling, not understanding a word, but soon almost every conversation would reach this point:
Restaurant Owner: (in Japanese) Where are you from?
After that there was much cheering, clinking of glasses, and then everyone was friends.
Learning a language is a very humbling experience, and yet just attempting it shows the country you visit that you are interested in them and their culture. I felt like a toddler when I talked, and often resorted to grunts and hand gestures, but it was rewarding if I actually ended up getting my point across. After all, true communication isn't about finding the exact word, but the meaning behind the words, and realizing this fact will go a long way for cross-cultural understanding.
Maybe the reason Americans get such a bad reputation when traveling abroad is that we are afraid we won't be liked or accepted, so we fail to immerse ourselves in a culture and really make a connection. My best travel advice would be to simply don the humility of a child, and smile freely. And if you are traveling to Japan, make sure to mention Ichiro.[[In-content Ad]]