I’ve been a foreigner for a long time. Soon after graduating from Penn, I moved to Cairo to teach English, study Arabic, and, well, have an adventure. While there, I dressed up like Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo and luckily enough made a strong (I don’t mean in the fragrant sense) impression on my future husband. He was rather charmed that I had the nerve to march around dressed like a giant lump of stool. Stool with Christmas spirit no less.
From the moment I boarded the plane in Philadelphia to “get into the world” until today has been seven years of culture shock, culture learning, culture leaving, and couture …yeah, no. No high fashion (that would be entirely out of my comfort zone).
Now, we live in Japan. A country and a culture that is pretty much just as mysterious to me today as it was when we landed in Tokyo four years ago. I’ve been a terrible student. Sometimes, actually, oftentimes, being a foreigner is really isolating, exhausting, and simply overwhelming. It’s really easy to NOT learn the language because it is SO HARD to LEARN the language–any new language. It is so easy to NOT mingle with people who don’t look, talk, and act like you…because the potential for miscommunication is so vast. Though, the truth is, the broader that distance the sweeter the exchange when two people from two very different places try to make contact.
Last week I decided to brood over my reading assignments while testing a recipe that my virtual roommate had kindly transcribed from one of her cookbooks and into a word document: Zucchini bread (yes!). Pre-heat the oven to 350. Righto. And so, I put together the dry ingredients in one bowl while thinking about the chapters on globalization and educational change, and mixed the wet ingredients in another bowl, while mulling over possible methods for promoting intercultural exchange between students from different geographic and cultural backgrounds, and I folded one into the other. I greased the pan, poured in the batter, and let the cake bake.
It was huge. Ah, let me divide it in three, I thought. I knew that sharing the cake with my neighbors would instigate a ring of gift giving, back and forth, and we’d never know when to stop saying thank you but I couldn’t resist. The cake was so good.
My first neighbor returned to my door less than five minutes after I presented them with the cake. They brought three mini-bottles of sake and a piece of the zucchini bread nicely wrapped and asked, “please tell me the ingredients.” And so, I copied the recipe in my chicken scratch, in English, for the sake neighbor. (Her husband speaks English so it is much easier to communicate and socialize with them…of course, my Japanese is pathetic).
One week later, my other neighbor rang our doorbell and presented me with a gift-bag with four giant grapefruits and the most beautiful note. I almost cried when I read it! (That’s it above) She must have spent so much time and effort to compose this note and I understand so completely the frustration and regret that she is expressing because in the past seven years most of my time has been spent in environments in which I struggle with language to communicate and connect: in Egypt, Latvia, Slovakia, India, Japan and so on. I have already learned that it is simply not possible for me to achieve my preferred superpower: instant fluency in any language I ever encounter. However, I have learned that language is not the only way to connect, communicate, or build bonds. It takes time, openness, courage, and bread…but it’s so worth it!
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