As I write this, my husband and our oldest who is nine, are on a flight to Japan. It is the first time one of our children has flown without me and I’m sitting here thinking of them both, my heart swelling with pride.
Last year, he was having a rough time with kids at school and was feeling really down about life. It was difficult going through the experience with him. Thankfully, we are long out the other side of that now but one of the things which really helped turn the tide was him starting to take karate lessons. His interest in Japanese began with the simple counting and commands from his sensei. He asked us if he could learn Japanese, so we purchased a subscription to the language app Rosetta Stone (later switching to free Duolingo when they brought out Japanese on their app). My rusty three years of Japanese lessons have been dredged up in my brain to lend him a hand and surprisingly, I remember more than I thought I would.
It’s now exactly a year since he began karate and Japanese lessons and there he is, in Japan, experiencing the language and culture first-hand. My husband and I have often talked about wanting our kids to know that there is more than one way to do life, and this week in Japan will be a huge lesson in this. He is going to homestay with a Japanese family, with kids his own age, and go to their school. Complete immersion. My husband will be staying with his very close friend who lives nearby — the trip is really meaningful for him too. When our friends moved from New Zealand to Japan, we said that if we saw a very inexpensive flight over there, we would find a way for him to go visit.
We have had an alert set up for flights to Japan for years, but it was only a few weeks ago that a very special deal came up which was a tiny fraction of the normal price to go and so we went for it. The timing felt so right — and what a way to cap off my son’s first year learning Japanese.
There is something about going to a country which doesn’t speak your native language which is an incredible experience — it teaches you how to really communicate without words when needed, how to notice body language, and of course you learn some phrases and words by osmosis, by repetition, by patterns or pictures. You learn new skills and have a whole lot of laughs along the way.
When we were camping in rural Québec, our washing line broke so my father sent my sister and me down to the campground store to purchase some more string. He could speak French but had forgotten the word for “string”. He told us to say “Avez-vous du petit ‘rope’?” and hope they could understand the English word ‘rope’. My sister and I nervously repeated the phrase over and over on the walk across the campground. We said it clearly, but the owner had no idea what on earth ‘rope’ meant (and there was no Google Translate to assist back then) and nor could he speak any English. We did what one does of course, and repeated the phrase more slowly and loudly over and over without success. The storekeeper disappeared out the back and came back to hand me over a piece of paper and a pen. I drew a wiggly line on the paper and then laughed at how silly it looked. (Why I didn’t draw pegs and clothing hanging off of it, I do not know. I used to be quite good at Pictionary, but this didn’t feel like a game.) Eventually, I saw a piece of string out the back of the store and pointed to it, miming pegging clothing onto it. He was smiling and laughing by this point too, two young girls trying to buy something they couldn’t see for sale in the store. He disappeared again out the back and returned with an old piece of string and refused to take the money we held out. Mission accomplished! We were feeling embarrassed and awkward that our father had put us in that position, and laughing at our silly drawing and miming. I think my father knew exactly was he was doing, and I can still remember the experience today.
After a month of living in Poland, and knowing no Polish words prior to the trip, going back to an English-speaking country felt overwhelming: suddenly at the American airport I could understand everything everyone was saying around me and it did my head in. I felt like I was eavesdropping and shouldn’t be hearing other people’s private conversations around me — I had lived in a tiny bubble of language in Poland and all the talking around me was just filtered out white noise. Hearing all those words I could understand all of a sudden was tiring.
Then there are all the cliché things people will tell you about — silly signs and clothing that are written in English but do not make much sense to English-speakers, the people who will beam at you for trying when you work hard to mutter a few words in their language then they reply fluently in English and so on.
Ultimately there is the joy of realizing we are all human and feel the same things, even if our words and culture express them a little differently. We see this when little toddlers play together — they don’t need to have many (or any) words to figure out how to get along.
Many years ago, before we had children, we went to a storytelling night at a pub. A father of grown children, who also knew my parents, shared travel stories. He mentioned that New Zealanders do not have positive rites of passage for their children like many cultures do, so he and his wife created some. At a certain age, possibly ten, each of the children would go away camping and hiking for a weekend with one of the parents. At another age, possibly fourteen, they would go overseas with a parent to a third world country to see real poverty and volunteer on an ongoing project to help contribute to positive change. Something about this really resonated with us and we had thought about doing something similar with our children. This trip feels like the first one for our oldest.
I cannot wait to hear all about my husband and son’s week away together.