Tourists and Travelers

I hate American Tourists. Taking pictures of anything and everything — showing off their fanny packs and over-sized cameras while speaking loudly in English. Implementing the “speak louder and slower” approach when encountering non-English speakers, assuming that this strategy will bridge the language gap.

The problem is — I am both “American” and while I am working and living here in Tokyo for two months my inability to speak in Japanese often leaves me feeling more like a “tourist” than a traveler.

For me, I have never lived in a country where I could not speak the local language or at least was in the process of learning it. Having now learned three different languages in three completely different ways, I know that I neither have the time nor the means to learn Japanese well while I am here — so I often end up feeling stuck in a limbo. Stuck between being satisfied with the extent to which I am experiencing Japan — working, commuting and exploring Tokyo — and dissatisfied by how my inadequate knowledge of the language blocks me from fully experiencing Japanese culture in the way I have in other places.

Having visited countries where I can speak the local language (at some level) and having been to many where I can not — I have found my experiences to be much richer when I am comfortable conversing in the local language. There is something beautiful about being able to decode little children joking with each other while playing games in a language foreign to you, to be able to eavesdrop on the market bartering and understand advertisements directed at you. Additionally, there is an equally empowering feeling when you can order your own food at a restaurant, ask for directions or even simply just understand what people are saying when they speak to you.

In terms of length, 2 months is an awkward period of time to live somewhere. I mean 2 months isn’t necessarily a long amount of time, but it definitely surpasses the tourist threshold of 1 or 2 weeks. 2 months means that you will spend a significant amount of time in a place, you will go above and beyond the tourist attractions and begin establishing a rhythm… but just when you have carved a rhythm for yourself in the hustle and bustle of Japan — it will be time to take off. While it may be a significant amount of time for traveling, in terms of language learning it is such a short amount of time, “a drop of water in the bucket” as we say in the US.

I believe there is a lesson to be learned from everything in life — but in this situation I have yet to determine exactly what this “lesson” is.

Maybe this is a challenge for me to learn to communicate without depending on language; an exercise in fine-tuning my ability to communicate through gestures and hand signals. This is not a far cry from my current lunchtime grocery store ritual — which involves acting out using chopsticks as a way to communicate “I would prefer chopsticks to go with my lunch” (rather than the fork I am often handed), while smiling and shaking my head communicates “no thank you, I do not need my lunch to be placed in a plastic bag”.

Perhaps this is teaching me the importance of truly studying before being dropped in a foreign country for 2 months. Or maybe this is an exercise in humility — to realize it’s okay to be an “American tourist” at times; to let myself soak in the scenery and capture some memories of my time in Japan with my clunky “touristy” camera.

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