“The line is so long.”
This didn’t faze me. After years of living in the country of unrivaled line waiting patience, I’ve started considering less than a one hour wait to be reasonable. Japanese people can wait without complaining for hours. In the rain. Before sunrise. I know, I’ve done it too.
So waiting for less than half an hour indoors for the best – bar none, the best – egg tarts I’ve ever tasted? Piece of …tart.
“You get a table and I’ll bring them over, ok?” my dad said.
I nodded and headed into the cramped seating area. Every seat and substitute had been filled so with no existing line in sight, I stood to the side, making my own. In Hong Kong, I had a relative’s pocket wifi. In Macau, I relied on the free wifi that shopping centres doled out so I was perfectly content to catch up on my social media while waiting.
When a seat opened up a minute later, I pocketed my phone and headed over. Before I could reach the table, a woman flanked by bags swooped in and buried the table with her shopping. I looked around to find no one reacting to the table thief and decided that she hadn’t seen me.
It took another two times, once when I was already reaching for the seat, before I finally caught on to the rules of the line waiting: there are none.
This time, the phone stayed pocketed and I was on alert. At the next opportunity, I moved in too close too soon for normal social convention, almost hovering over the finishing occupants and sliding into the chair before they could push it back in.
Immediately, a woman came over and began berating me in Mandarin. People speaking in foreign languages at breakneck speeds have lost the fear inducing panic in me thanks to a long period of exposure, but at the volume and belligerence that she was going, I have to admit, I was a little stunned. I caught on to enough of the words to understand the general message but I decided to use the golden go-to I use for these situations in Japan… in Australia too come to think of it.
“我聽不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng: I don’t understand).”
Later that week, safe in Japan from screaming Chinese people, my housemates shook their heads at me as I told them the story over egg rolls.
“日本人になったね (nihonjin ni natta ne: You’ve become Japanese),” they laughed.
I’ve written before about being mistaken as Japanese and how I had started to change within my first year of arriving. But to live in a country long term, almost exclusively in the company of locals, means to change in more than just habits and quirks. The experience is starting to change my identity in a way that is becoming increasingly internalised; more obvious to me but invisible to anyone I don’t speak to regularly.
“People should have a firm foundation in their own language before learning another” is a sentiment I hear very often as a foreign language teacher.
When they ask for my opinion, I find it difficult to answer. I grew up in an immigrant family. We didn’t have the luxury of choosing when we would learn a second language. The oldest generation in our family made it to Australia around the time I was born and never really picked English up. Although my parents’ generation arrived earlier, language acquisition remains a continual process thirty, almost forty years after moving to Australia. For our generation, it was around the time we started school and the issue became how to keep up with our first language.
As a young child, I communicated primarily in Chinese. I remember wondering what it’d be like if the whole world was in English, which is odd because it kind of was for me; Australia operates entirely in English. Once I joined school and for the majority of my life, I’ve been thinking in English instead. The only memory I’ve kept from the transition is the discomfort of deciding how to address my parents; “媽媽 (Mama)” and “爸爸 (Baba),” which I’d used in early childhood, didn’t feel right anymore as my English proficiency started to overtake that of my Chinese, but “Mum” and “Dad,” which I eventually settled on, also felt awkward at the time. Too distant.
But this transition happened through my early schooling days. My father had accepted that we kids would need to speak English at school but wanted us to speak our family’s native Cantonese at home. Mum, on the other hand, was already influenced by her background in psychology; she just wanted us to express ourselves and feel comfortable enough to do so openly at home, whatever tongue we chose.
We often chose both. The beauty of bilingual communities is that you can mix and match. Some things are easier in one language than another.From around high school, long after I switched to English as my preferred language, I began to regret my lack of upkeep in using and learning Chinese, but also struggled to appreciate my less-than-fluent family members. This feeling only amplified upon moving to Japan.
My maternal grandmother couldn’t speak English beyond a few words but she always seemed to catch the gist of the after school conversations between my brother and I.
One day, she asked Aaron to fix her TV. Even at a young age, Aaron was quite intuitive with electronics but that day, he huffed in frustration.
“Come on, you stupid thing!” he said, slapping the side of the box and pressing the plastic-wrapped remote control buttons with a little more force than necessary.
My grandmother appeared at the door, having only caught one word of his outburst. “You no call me stupid!” she yelled in English.
I remembered this abruptly one day while working at my last job. This was before I’d learnt much Japanese and for months, I would memorise the most commonly used words in the office; “英語 (eigo: English),” “本 (hon: book),” “文法 (bunpou: grammar).” I was desperately hoping that if I caught the words in meetings, I would be able to piece together the overall meaning. But deep down, I knew that I was probably misunderstanding everything.
A few months later, I was reminded of my grandmother again.
Once we were old enough, Aaron and I started helping my mother shuttle our increasingly frail grandmother to and from the doctors’ between jobs and university. Translation was part of the service but one that I, with my increasingly limited Chinese, always did clumsily and carelessly, never with context.
“Last time, we used this anesthetic and we’re thinking of using it again,” explained the doctor who was to perform her cataracts surgery. I nodded. “Did your grandmother experience any discomfort from it? Pain or nausea?”
I nodded again to show that I understood the question and turned to my grandmother.
“Grandma, last time you came here, did your eyes hurt? Did you want to throw up?” I asked in Cantonese.
“Of course not!” she half yelled; I wondered if she wanted to be heard or if her own hearing was diminishing. “If it had hurt then, I would’ve said so! Are you kidding?”
I turned back to the slightly bewildered doctor and smiled brightly, hoping to balance out his experience with my family. “No, it was fine.”
Years later, over a course of a few months in Japan, my coworkers took it in turns to chaperone me to two separate hospitals for a series of tests and scans. The patience and consideration they had while interpreting back and forth comforted me and shamed me in equal amounts. I realised that I had only ever translated literally for my grandmother.
While my eyes flickered between the doctor and my interpreter, I realised that I had never clarified procedures or expectations for my grandmother, or asked the doctor follow up questions she might think of on the way home. While I picked at my nails listening to the Japanese explanation of what might be wrong with me, I realised that I had never considered that my grandmother was probably afraid as well, listening to her granddaughter and a stranger discuss her declining health in a series of murmurs. It never even occurred to me.
I’m starting to realise how many things never occurred to me when it comes to my immigrant family. The embarrassment of needing the children to correct your speech. The pressure of second guessing everything you say and write. The exhaustion that comes with using every opportunity to learn. The frustration of not being able to learn faster. The rush of gratitude for any encouragement. The nostalgia of your home culture. The comfort of a friend who shares it, who understands.Beyond language, I wrote last year about coming to Japan to see the world from a new perspective. In a culture as new and as different as Japan’s, it’s natural to question everything. The longer I do so and the more aspects I accept and integrate into my own life, the more I question Chinese and western culture, trying to look at them the way the Japanese do. With every different person I meet, and sometimes teach, I think about my own personality traits.
But as I’m losing myself to the experience, I’m also discovering the things I’m unwilling to change. I’m happier to live in tight quarters now and having constant company doesn’t make me as grumpy as it used to but I relish in the hours when the lounge room and kitchen is empty. I’ve curbed my book buying habits but still spend money, preferring food and travel to things that I can’t fit in my shoe box room. I try to be less confrontational – communication is rough enough here without adding emotions to the mix – but believe now more than ever that convictions are worth fighting for. I appreciate equality but I still think that competition and innovation are worth the risk of failure. I value family, the spirit of endeavouring and consideration more and more.
In the process of reflecting what matters to me and how much they do, I’ve come to see how much I’m influenced by both my Chinese family and my Australian upbringing.
Working by day (and some nights) whilst moonlighting in my chosen field, all the while avoiding the potholes of the starving artist stereotype, isn’t ideal. It isn’t easy. A lot of impatience and insecurities bubble beneath the surface. I watched La La Land and heard my own doubts echo in Emma Stone’s dejected outcry. I hear myself telling kids that they can do anything, be anything, and wonder if it’s really true after all.
Regardless, being in a foreign culture is giving me a greater sense of self awareness: my family background fuels my motivation and work ethic. My education informs my ambition and the chase. And now my time in Japan is developing my attitude and empathy.