When I moved to Japan, aside from being able to count from 1-10, I really didn’t know any Japanese. Suddenly, situations that were a no brainer in my home country became stressful and challenging. There’s one experience in particular that sticks in my mind, because it happened soon after I arrived in Japan. I had just gotten to Kobe a few weeks prior and I wanted to send some postcards out that I had picked up in Kyoto. I wanted to let everyone know that I was doing ok. So I wrote all my postcards, giving updates on my apartment, my town and how the cafe owner had two chubby corgis that hung out behind the store. I just needed stamps to send them out. So I gathered up my courage and walked down to the convenience store to see if they sold stamps. I looked up the word for “stamp” on my phone earlier and practiced it so that I could ask the staff. But when I got there, the staff had no idea what I was saying. They tried to ask clarifying questions to figure out what I needed, but with my limited language skills, I was lost. I couldn’t understand what they were asking me. I held my hands up in a rectangle shape to show I needed to send postcards and repeated the word I had practiced. The guy look confused and held up his rubber stamp on the counter, I shook my head. It was a pretty humbling moment. I mean, here I was, an adult who couldn’t even figure out how to buy stamps. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Our game of charades was drawing attention and the manager came over and just put his fingers up in an X shape at me and ushered me out of the store like I was a lunatic. I remember feeling so embarrassed and defeated.
I did eventually learn how to ask for stamps and sent many a postcard, but being in those kinds of situations day in and day out really brought to light the privilege that I had enjoyed in my home country because I was fluent in the dominant language. It also really showed me the importance of resources, staff people, and materials in other languages. When I was living in Japan, and struggling, any bit of English translation felt like someone threw me a life preserver. Every time I had a nurse or doctor who knew a little bit of English or if the form I was filling out had translations above the fill in boxes, I felt a rush of relief and gratitude. Now that I’m back in America, I always smile to myself when I see a menu or a document or a sign in another language, because I know that could be someone’s life preserver.