My Experience as an Outsider

I’m very used to being self-reliant, a trait that does not match well with my life in Japan. In America, I believed I was capable of accomplishing whatever I needed to get done, all on my own, safely wrapped in the security of my own ego. Here, I know absolutely nothing. I can’t read the scrawls of kanji (Chinese characters) that notate everything occurring around me—including what I order off of a menu, what I fill out on a form at the doctor’s office, and how I should follow the instructions on my homework. The conversation that surrounds me at all times, at a dizzyingly fast pace, is comprised of grammar and vocabulary that I struggle to understand. And, even at times when I am capable of understanding, I use my below-kindergarten level of speaking to spit out disconnected words and pray that someone can, somehow, muddle through my mess of the Japanese language and make out the meaning.

In America, I’ve grown accustomed to success: I flourish in school, work jobs that I’m comfortable in, and navigate life in a language I can actually speak without mentally straining myself. This is not to say that I believe I’m the most successful person in the world or that I’m invincible compared to the general public, but rather that, in my own life, I’ve felt constantly in control and proud of my accomplishments and the way that I present myself. Meanwhile in Japan, the self-perceived safety net I had once cultivated is now gone.

This year I’ve grown accustomed to being treated as either the burdensome foreigner or the adorable pet. If I’m lucky enough to engage people in conversation, the individuals I converse with are almost never searching for my friendship; rather, our conversation is an indulgence or fascination to them. Their reactions range from “She’s trying so hard. How cute!” to “You can give a basic introduction about yourself? Your Japanese is so amazing!”—neither of which are particularly good for boosting my confidence, to say the least. I’ve learned to recognize the glossy eyes and brief, apprehensive look that precedes someone telling me they have no idea what I just said. Or the sinking feeling of dread I experience as I try to navigate a store on my own; when the clerk comes over to assist me and ends up politely saying “Sumimasen, please come back with a Japanese speaker.” As an English major at Georgetown, I’ve learned to support myself with language, as it is my tool to navigate the world. Yet currently, I’m adrift without an oar or a sail, hopelessly waiting to fall beneath the tsunami’s waves at any second.

Although the language barrier disrupts my lifestyle, it has also humbled me and made me far more empathetic to other people struggling to make themselves understood. America, as secluded as it is, lacks contact with other languages and suffers from the frequent use of English across the globe. While America is filled with a number of different languages, they’re spoken like secrets, at home among families or in schools where students attempt to study them and then, for the most part, forget them. Though we are forgiving, more often than not, I feel we often misunderstand the difficulties others experience while speaking English, simply because many Americans do not have extensive experience with non-English speakers.

I am now painfully aware of how frustrating it can be when a non-native speaker knows precisely how to say the perfect thing in her mother language, yet finds herself gasping for air while other people curiously watch her. Or the personal battering and belittlement that follows after you curse yourself for forgetting the vocabulary words you had literally just been studying on the train several hours prior. But I also now know the pride that comes with taking baby steps; one of my happiest days occurred when I arrived to a tutoring lesson and discovered that my student’s English skills were nearly nonexistent, as he communicated to me in a patchwork mix of Japanese. I learned how to reach out to strangers for help out of pure desperation and have been surprised by the kindness exhibited by people who have no personal connection to me whatsoever. For instance, after I asked a conductor about which train I should take, he guided me to the correct one, came back after a few minutes to try and tell me the instructions, and then once it was my stop, he exited the cockpit to make sure that I was ready to leave. I have learned to become a more compassionate person towards those struggling with the language barrier; I’ve also strengthened my own social stamina. By accepting my status as a non-fluent Japanese speaker during my year abroad, I hope that I will return to America as a more mature and capable person.  

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