On The Vulnerability of Not Understanding

On the way to our last game of the season the baby, Lindsay and I were in a “car accident.” I use quotations because although we were in a car and there was an accident, it was basically the most benign thing that can happen in a moving vehicle. Had I not been in a car covered with team sponsor stickers I’d have considered just leaving with a wave and a wag of the finger. But alas, we’re like celebrities that people mostly point at but never speak to.

Brief explanation: In Japan backing into parking spaces is a national pastime. Back home I consider consistent back-ins as the territory of my dad and other older men who like to put their arm over the passenger headrest while reversing. But here EVERYONE backs in. And honestly no matter what continent we are on I do not see the logic in such an act as a matter of routine. Any time I spend carefully backing in is canceled out by the time it would take me to reverse out of the spot if I just pulled in forward in the first place…right? Often we’re the only people in the parking lot who didn’t back in but I stick out already so I see no real point in bothering myself with this issue.

Anyway, as I pulled up to the 7-11 door so that Lindsay could use the ATM, a woman in a parked car (facing forward, naturally) drove out of her spot into the back tire of our car. Our car was nearly by and yet she just accelerated into us. Lindsay saw it all coming And our hubcap was scraped up. And we were all basically really confused for the next 1.5 hours while the police ‘investigated’ this situation.

I didn’t do anything wrong and our car was barely scathed, so it all turned out fine. But this situation was just a rather mild reminder of how easy it can be to be exploited when you don’t speak the language of where you live. As they asked this woman to describe what had happened (with her mother, who had not been there at the time, chiming in) she went on and on and on. And I felt compelled to use my assertive-American trait and interupt to say ‘I’m not sure what she is saying, but it’s too long. Not that much happened. Too many words.’ And why was her mom talking at all? And what are they saying about me? It’s more that a little concerning when you are so helpless to speak for yourself, even on such a tiny matter. 

The police were friendly-ish. They did their best to speak to me in a slower form of Japanese, possibly hoping that I’d pick up on it right then and there? They called the rink and one of the team staff members showed up at the station to help translate (though I have to say it did feel a bit like my dad had been called) and besides missing virtually all of the first period, life went on as normal. Until the next day when they called my dad ie: this poor guy who is now dealing with this ridiculous situation and told him they want my passport to see when I arrived in Japan. Depsite having seeing my residency card, which clearly states when I arrived and how long I am allowed to be here. Despite that matter really having no bearing here since my international driver’s license is in order. But what can I do? How could I say no? It’s a scary feeling to feel so out of the loop. My instinct was to check and see if that is even WITHIN their rights to do. But I can’t read Japanese. And asking a Japanese person to do that for me would be fruitless, because they haven’t shown themselves to really be envelope pushers when it comes to rules. I handed over my passport and they photocopied it. Probably to steal my identity or something.

Sometimes in the U.S. (and other places, certainly) you hear the sentiment (stereotypically in a Texas accent) ‘When yur in ‘Merica, speak English.’ People get outraged when they come across a resident who struggles with the language. I have to assume that this anger comes from either a) never having been immersed in a place where you are unable to speak/understand/read anything yourself or b) a severe lack of compassion or c) a serious lack of common sense. Perhaps some combination of the above three factors.

The fact of the matter is that while you could certainly find a case where someone put zero effort into learing the language of their adopted country, that is almost certainly the exception not the rule. Even if you have a community of people who speak your native tongue (or people who are being paid to translate for you, like we do) it DOES NOT feel good to be unable to understand the world around you. It is NOT ENJOYABLE to feel vulnerable or confused when you need assistance. To feel socially isolated while sitting at table full of women who are your age, have kids, seem friendly and funny but who simply can’t understand you and you them. To feel culturally disconnected when you show up to the store but it’s closed because it’s a holiday and you had no idea because you can’t read the signs they had up all week and what holiday is this anyway? Oh right, you can’t read that either.

The truth is that I could have put more effort into learning Japanese. I can say some phrases and exchange greetings, but life gets in the way of intensive study that would have (though likely not after only 8 months) allowed me to advocate for myself at the police station. I am making efforts, but for me to be able to be fully competent would take time even under the most ideal circumstances. And I am privileged in so many ways.

For your consideration next time you feel a tad insensitive towards someone who can’t speak the common language of your country…

A non-comprehensive list of reasons an immigrant may struggle to learn a language:

  • lack of time due to work/family commitments
  • lack of resources to pay for lessons/classes/materials
  • blindness/deafness
  • age (as learning a language often becomes harder as we get older)
  • learning disability
  • illiteracy
  • lack of social contacts in the adopted culture with whom you can practice

A non-comprehensive list of situations in which you are more vulnerable if you cannot communicate in your adopted country:

  • reporting a crime (as a victim, advocate or witness)
  • when accused of a crime
  • when in need of medical attention, both emergency and non-urgent
  • during a natural disaster
  • to know when you are being scammed or cheated, whether intentionally (by someone who knows you are vulerable and insists you pay for something) or accidentally (like being charged too much for something but not being able to read your reciept)

A non-comprehensive list of services you may not be able to access if you cannot communicate in your adopted country:

  • community events that build social capital and foster connections with neighbors
  • mental health services
  • warnings about health, crime, weather or food safety
  • support groups (grief, health, substance abuse, etc.)

Tomorrow, I leave Japan. For…for I’m not sure how long. Somewhere between 5 months and forever. The world around me will suddenly become legible again and I’ll understand what I hear around me for the first time in months, but this lesson won’t be lost on me the next time I see someone struggling with English in my home country. I’ll step up, help out, charades the shit out of it to help if I can. And smile, smile, I always understand when they smile.

9 thoughts on “On The Vulnerability of Not Understanding

  1. Great post Lane. I relate so much to this from my experience living in China. I used to laugh to keep from crying as, trying to be helpful, Chinese people spoke louder and louder, or repeated the same phrase that I didn’t understand over and over more slowly. Nope, still don’t know what that means no matter how loud or how many times you say it. I have totally done that to non-English speaking people in Canada. What a humbling and valuable experience to be on the other side of it…

    Must really give you even more empathy for and perspective on the people you worked with in Bakersfield from Myanmar a couple years ago.

    1. Definitely Les! When we were in the police station Lindsay did a good job of keeping me from going bat shit on them, but mostly I wanted to scream so I didn’t cry! And yes, the Burmese people were amazing, it was honestly the first time I considered how illiteracy affects this…they were meant to take ESL classes as part of their package of benefits…but it was taught in English, to mostly Spanish speaking people, with all written-word based curriculum. For people who spoke Karen only and often couldn’t read or write in their native language this was a joke in terms of a teaching strategy.

  2. Riddle slid on ice into someone’s car and Steph had to borrow our car to take him his passport… It also took a very long time to get things sorted on site (from what I heard). So frustrating to not understand what’s happening to you. Enjoy every last minute of your favorite things there, when enveloped by home, they left my consciousness quickly. Safe travels, I am excited for you to see your fur loves!! xx

  3. First, so glad everyone’s OK! Next, thanks for another great post on a topic I don’t think about very much, but probably should consider more… Especially since my husband’s side of the family are non-native-English-speakers! (And when I go visit, I’ll be the foreigner who can’t communicate…)

    On a totally different subject, thanks so much for your responses on my blog – I loved reading your reasoning (and seeing how much thought you’d put into it!) and agreed with your points, despite choosing to do the polar opposite with my daughter! 🙂

    1. Glad this gave you food for thought! And you are so welcome for the comments on your blog, I am always happy to share (when asked) about my ‘philosophy’ (loosest form of the word) but basically stand by the idea that we are all doing our best with the information we have within the framework of our lives so…whatever works! I’m winging it when it comes to parenting!

  4. Isolated and vulnerable – you’re so right. When you don’t know the language, you become like a child… One of the scariest experiences of my life was getting a flat tire while driving alone in Italy. I had no idea what to do, who to call, what to say. It was such a minor problem, but because I was in a foreign country, with only an elementary understanding of the language, it became an epic adventure of stress, fear, and confusion. But you know… I survived. And I truly think I am a stronger, better person now because of that flat tire! As you wrote so well, I have such a greater compassion now for others who cannot communicate. The smallest gestures – a smile, a sincere attempt to understand – make the biggest differences for someone living abroad. Thanks for this post, it sparked some ideas…

  5. I fwd’d this to my friend Audrey who has recently become an ESL teacher in Egan, MN.. I know she’ll really appreciate reading this fien ‘epidosde’ of your wonderful blog, Lane..

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