Learning the hard way

Growing up, I had a lot of exposure to foreigners. My family consists of refugees, my community full of immigrants and my schools had their fair share of international students.

Despite all that and living in Melbourne, a fairly multicultural city, I didn’t have a clue on how to talk to or interact with foreigners. I didn’t know what they wanted or needed, and I definitely didn’t know how to make them feel more at home. Most of all, despite my best intentions, I didn’t appreciate how difficult it could be for them.

Here are 5 things being an expat has taught me about talking to foreigners.

1. Awkward silences aren’t awkward.

Last year in summer, before I could competently read phonetic Japanese, I went with some friends to Osaka. One of them, Toki, decided to help speed my learning along by teaching me useful phrases every now and then.

“Ok so to ask where something is, you say ‘Bla bla bla はどこですか? (… wa doko desuka)'”

I repeated after her and then muttered it a few more times to myself to let it sink in. She nodded approvingly.

“So now we’re trying to find the train station,” she continued. “Train station is 駅 (eki).”

After a few practices, I had the phrase down nice and smooth. As soon as I found someone to say it to, however, I felt the panic set in.

“駅は…umm…ど-? (eki wa…do-)” I stuttered.

Before I could finish, she was already directing me on how to get there. In fact, I couldn’t get out that whole sentence without interruption until the end of the week. It’s not that people were impatient. I was just that slow.

In any given conversation that involves Japanese, there are many silences. It takes at least a full moment for me to process what I hear. When constructing full sentences, I feel like I’m going on a timed treasure hunt to find the correct words, grammar points and particles. I’ll often spout out a jumble of clauses before wrestling them into the right order. I always hope the listener is good at playing Taboo because it’s not uncommon for me to start listing out any word that slightly resembles what I want to say semantically.

I am so, so grateful that I work in a language school where the people who teach me Japanese – either actively or just through exposure – understand. They understand that silences aren’t awkward. They’re terrifying. No one is more impatient with me than myself.

So now, when I’m waiting for someone to figure out how to say what they want to say, I fight the urge to fill the silence. I take a deep breath. I know they’re doing to same.

2. Take initiative.

I wanted to talk to the Timothy Fellowship, the young adults group of international students at my home church in Melbourne, long before I ever joined them. I was just so scared that I wouldn’t know what to talk about. I was worried that they would laugh at my Chinese or that they wouldn’t be able to understand my English. I was worried that they would have a lot of inside/cultural jokes that I wouldn’t be able to follow. I was worried that I would be a burden, constantly asking them to explain things to me.

Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I have the exact same worries.

But as a local, I didn’t mind talking to anyone who took a long time stringing a sentence together (see? Not awkward). As a foreigner, I’m just happy when any local puts in the effort to talk to me.

I get the feeling that no one really likes talking to strangers, particularly those who don’t speak the same language as you. Most people here expect Westerners to be a wonderful mix of confident and charismatic.

Truth is, I’m neither and even less so as a foreigner than I was as a local.

I finally joined the Timothy Fellowship about a year before I left for Japan. And surprise, surprise, it was completely painless. I get the feeling that I wouldn’t have needed to learn all five of these lessons the hard way if I had just picked up the courage to talk to them earlier.

3. It’s ok to look ridiculous.

Fun fact: most teenagers I meet here hate speaking English.

Fun fact #2: most of them try a lot harder when they realise that I suck at Japanese.

Fun fact #3: most of them actually enjoy trying to speak English after they’ve laughed at said sucky Japanese.

It’s no surprise that I’ve never been a social superhero. I trip over words and physical objects alike. Other than when I’m being professional, it shows when I’m feeling insecure and awkward (almost always). Overall, I’m not too keen on the idea of adding “intentionally making a show of how weird I am” to the list.

On the other hand, it’s been the easiest way to get those around me to ease up. In conversations where I stumble and fail and laugh at my own mistakes, the listener will suddenly start making gestures and strange sound effects as well.

Some teachers here have told me, “when I’m in the classroom, I am God. I do no wrong,” and it works out for them. But I feel isolated enough already without making an effort to set myself apart even more.

My favourite moments in this entire experience has been when I’m talking to someone and we’re hit by that age-old cliché: we’re not so different after all.

4. There’s no place like home.

Disclaimer: I love Japan. I love living in Japan. I love working in Japan. I don’t regret coming to Japan.

But I get homesick.

It usually takes me by surprise. It will rain and I won’t smell trees. Christmas is in winter. I’ll see something that I know a friend would love. A book that would take me a day to read in Australia takes me months to read here. I’ll find a recipe that requires an oven. I’ll get a craving for steak or a decent brunch.

The thing is, people warned me that I would get homesick. It was inevitable. The Timothy Fellowship told me to watch out for the six month mark (which, if you’re wondering, was incredibly accurate).

Whenever anyone told me that they were homesick, I never quite knew what to do or say because I had never really been homesick before. Knowing that, when I start to feel it creeping up, I try not to mention it.

But I’m lucky. I work in a company that’s no stranger to foreigners. Even the Japanese staff have lived overseas before. They expect homesickness, even if we don’t show it.

Last weekend, I went toアメ横 (Ameyoko Market) by Ueno station and saw, for the first time since leaving Australia, lychees. And cherries. And mangoes. And durian! Of course, they were pricier than they would be back home but I had to buy some.

On the train home, I remembered that I live alone. I’ve never eaten this kind of fruit alone. I always had them with together with family and friends. These were sharing fruits.

Thankfully, my coworkers are willing in indulge me on these things. Even after a long day at work. Even when they don’t quite understand why I won’t just eat alone.

When I’m homesick, I’m scared to call home. When I’m homesick, I want familiarity. I want reassurance. When I’m homesick, I need to know that I haven’t lost touch. When I’m homesick, I want to know that I made the right call to leave Australia, even if that means missing out on a lot. When I’m homesick, I want to know that the ache will pass.

Doing something with me that I miss, like eating cherries and mangoes together, essentially covers all bases.

5. Let them help.

In Australia, I was quite self-sufficient. My parents made sure we were taken care of but made it clear that they valued independence. It was perfect because as a media and communications graduate, my bosses valued the same thing.

In Japan, especially before I started learning Japanese, I suddenly found myself back in my childhood shoes. I had to relearn how to count to ten and order food and greet people. I need someone to come with me to the doctors. I’m excited when I can read a full sentence on labels and street signs, even if I don’t fully understand what it means.

I’m more dependent and lost than I have been in years.

And that’s ok. I’ve learnt that it’s fine to be wrong. It’s just nice to remember that I’m not completely helpless and that I’m moving forwards rather than back.

Being a teacher gives me a huge reassurance on a daily basis. Having coworkers who will take the time to teach me how to help so I can do it again without assistance is another. Knowing that the people around me aren’t getting impatient even though they could do it so much faster is reassuring.

Being asked to do a favour for a friend is downright comforting.

Thoughts?