Lost in Japan
I just remembered the first time I came to Japan.
I arrived with my suitcase at Ueno Station in Tokyo and felt totally lost. The city just overwhelmed me and Google Maps wasn’t around to help me. I asked an old man whether he could help me find my hotel. He obviously didn’t know where the hotel was, but he kept talking to me in Japanese trying to tell me something about how to find the hotel, or maybe he was just trying to tell me that he didn’t know where the hotel was and I should just leave him alone and ask a policeman at the police box around the corner. Or something else. I will never know.
I loved the adventure of being in Japan, but I didn’t like feeling lost: Not knowing where I was and not understanding what people were telling me. This feeling of unease never left me.
I learned enough Japanese during my time in Japan to go shopping on my own, ask for prices and introduce myself to people. I even learned how to ask for my way in Japanese, but I never understood the answers in Japanese. I would switch to English and hoped for the best.
The host family I was staying with? I never really understood what they were talking, but once I got to know them we could communicate rather well. When I left Japan, I actually felt as if I had just left a new-found family behind.
I could have learned the lesson that people could communicate without word, but I only saw how I failed to even understand the people I shared a home with.
When I left Japan, I told myself that I had to master the language before I could return. If I had just learned the language before I went there, everything would’ve been so much better.
This may have been true (as better language skills would never hurt), but what I missed was an essential fact about life: Life is about uncertainty. And my perfectionist drive to master the language indicated a strong fear of uncertainty.
Kind of ironic when I think about the things I love and the things I dislike.
I love foreign languages, writing, travelling, meeting new people: All activities that are strongly connected with uncertainty.
I dislike strict rules, formal education, office jobs: All three are associated with certainty and set procedures.
I often call myself a perfectionist with pride in my voice. People believe that I have enormous self-confidence because I always set out to excel at everything I start. But then, I seldom finish the things I start.
One time I called up my Korean friend in Korea. Her mother picked up the phone and spoke to me in Korean. I didn’t understand a single word she said. I had been studying some Korean, so I tried to tell her in Korean that I was a friend of her daughter.
She understood what I said, but I couldn’t understand the monologue that followed.
Would it be rude to just hang up the phone? Well, it would be if she was still speaking. So I waited for my chance to hang up, but she just kept on talking, trying to explain to me where my friend was and when she would come home. Besides my friend’s name, I didn’t understand a single word. Probably her first time with a non-Korean on the phone.
When I finally saw the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ in English and hang up, she handed the phone over to my friend’s sister and I had my ‘Groundhog Day Moment’. The few English words that her sister mixed into the conversation didn’t make her speech more comprehensible than her mother’s.
It took close to ten minutes before the phone call ended.
I hated the whole way the conversation was going and knew that everything would’ve been better, if I had just studied more Korean before calling her up in Korea. I could have expected her mother to pick up the phone, couldn’t I?
This humiliating experience propelled me to spend the following weeks to study Korean daily until I broke down and gave it up. Shouldn’t I master Japanese first before I embark on a more difficult language?
A few years later I fell in love with a Romanian girl and began to study Romanian…
The simple truth is that I live my life in fear. Fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of not being good enough.
This has been a curse and a blessing for me.
It helped me to reach a high level in Japanese.
Perfectionism has also been the reason for starting and abandoning languages like Korean, Cantonese, French, Romanian, Portuguese.
Perfectionism helped me to write thousands of pages to practice writing, but it has also kept me from moving further. I began a blog, but closed it down because two people told me that my grammar was horrible. I told myself that I first had to master the grammar and punctuation rules of the English language before I return to blogging.
It took me ten years to open an account on medium.
When I read James Altucher’s “Choose Yourself”, I made the choice to come to Japan, to learn Japanese, to become a writer, to live the life I wanted to live.
I’ve put myself into a situation where uncertainty becomes a part of my daily life. Taking the bus, going to the convenience store, riding my bicycle around my Kyoto neighborhood are all little acts of uncertainty and I’m loving it.
This is what I chose.
The host family I stayed with years ago: I sent them a postcard after I left Japan. They answered with a package of beautiful gifts and a letter in Japanese.
I told myself that I would have to study more Japanese before I could write a reply letter in Japanese. Anything else would just be inappropriate.
I didn’t master Japanese and therefore never wrote a reply.
Are they still living at their old address?
I’ve kept their address and hope that I have the chance to see them again.
Tomorrow, I will send them a postcard from Kyoto.