Guest Post: Stranger in a Strange Land

One year living and working in Japan, that was my task. I thought to myself, I can do anything for a year, “It’s easy!” However, as I wandered around Tokyo not understanding a single thing I felt like an infant. Everything was new to me, the sounds, the language, the people, even the smells. My eyes grew wider in amazement as I attempted to take it all in. Flashing lights, random bits of conversation as people brushed past me, it was all new and strange to me. I was in a fog and kind of stumbled around looking for something, anything that was familiar to me and finally it hit me…a familiar green and white sign. It spoke to me like a beacon in the night, it spoke a language I understood, and it said “S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S.” Yes, I know, did I really come all the way to Japan just to sit in a Starbucks, the most American coffee shop in America, and the answer at this very moment was a resounding YES! A smile quickly took over as I rushed inside only to be met with more strange symbols and less English than I had hoped for. I gathered myself together and tried to make sense of the menu. I looked for a picture to guide me, but only found strange symbols that I didn’t recognize. After a moment of confusion; I suppose the bewildered look on my face gave me away, the girl behind the counter slid me a menu with pictures.

She smiled and said, “Yookoso!” Er, um… I panicked as I tried to understand what she had said to me. I felt my temperature rise and my face turn red. I could feel droplets of sweat beading on my forehead. I looked to her again with a pleading look and another girl said, “Welcome!” Ahh, a word I understood. They both stood back and smiled with their hands neatly clasped as they waited for me to respond. I ran my finger up and down the menu trying to decide. The question wasn’t difficult, I was at Starbucks, what did I want to drink? Why was this so difficult suddenly? Umm, I quickly scrolled through the rolodex in my mind searching for a word, any word that would make sense. Suddenly, it came to me, and I smiled weakly as I stammered out, “Konichiwa.” I spoke this lonely word, the sound of it escaping my lips sounded strange even to me. I wondered how it sounded to them. Again, the girls smiled with their hands still clasped and bowed politely to me. They responded with “Konichiwa” and again it was my turn. “Oh no, not again!” This time I scrolled quickly through my rolodex much quicker until something popped out at me, “A- HA got it!” My confidence grew as I proudly announced, “Yo quiero café por favor.” The puzzled looks told me I had chosen the wrong language, wrong country. My rolodex had failed me this time. “Oh boy, my default language was Spanish!” Where was the reset button? I’d like to return to the factory settings and choose a new language. Unfortunately, at Starbucks, as in life, things are not always so simple.

All in all, this Starbucks scenario only took about 3 minutes to play out, but in reality it felt like an eternity. I was eventually able to get my iced coffee. The irony of the situation is that in Japanese iced coffee is simply “aisu kohii.” Hmmmph! All of that for a Starbucks, was it worth it? Absolutely! The experience alone of the struggle to communicate immediately gave me the empathy of my students’ struggles. This would be my challenge, could I teach my students to communicate effectively in English? I hope so! The bits of knowledge and the humorous anecdotes I create along the way will be my motivation. I will use this foundation to become a better teacher, because no matter where we find ourselves in the world, when learning a new language we are all strangers in a strange land.

Audrey Morelli is a California native currently living and working in Kobe Japan. She travels in search of culture and adventure and has found it this time in hanayamahigashi. Prior to her adventures in Japan she was a primary school teacher in the Los Angeles area. Aside from traveling she enjoys spending time with her family of 9 and collecting Elvis memorabilia. Please help me to convince her to start a blog!

© Connie Hum 2010

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