Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

My knowledge of the Japanese language is entirely functional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m functionally fluent. If I need to find a bathroom, I can do that. If I need to make special adjustments to a restaurant order, I can do that. If I need to tell my kids to stop chewing on each others’ arms, I can do that, too. I can converse in a rather verbose, if boring and stilted, manner. I cannot, however, write a story. I cannot string together a poem or express complex emotional ideas. I cannot weave a tapestry of words to evoke emotions, to encourage empathy, to fundamentally move a person and leave my mark on them.

And it’s frustrating when I’m in a situation where I have to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, struggling to find a voice in a language I have yet to master, overflowing with emotions to relate but unable to relate them in the right way.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding, they had a slideshow of pictures from the lives of the bride and groom. The first picture of the bride’s life was her as a baby in the smiling arms of my mother-in-law. As related in an earlier post, she died before I ever met her. My first trip to Japan was for her funeral.

All I could think when I saw that picture was how she’d never been able to hold any of her grandchildren like that. How my kids will grow up without their Japanese “ba-san”. How she will never be able to pass on to her daughters that special kind of motherly advice that can only come from one’s own mother.

The next pictures were of my wife and her sister growing up, going through all the various milestones kids go through, with their smiling mother by their side. All these things she’ll never see for her own grandkids, never be able to do with them. I was touched, but at the same time I was standing in the back of the reception hall holding my one-year-old son. I couldn’t break down–it was my job to keep him from breaking down.

But then the last picture came up in the slideshow. The family all stood together, smiling, with a caption whose beauty I can’t exactly translate but is best rendered as: “Her mother watches over her from Heaven.” And that’s when I lost control. I excused myself and walked out of the reception hall and over to the large windows overlooking the city of Nagoya.

It helped that my son chose that moment to go a little nuts, so I had some cover, but that’s not exactly why I left. I’m no stranger to embarrassment–you get used to that marrying into a foreign culture. No, I had to leave because I knew that if anyone asked me what was wrong, why I looked like I’d been chopping onions, I wouldn’t be able to express exactly how I felt. “I’m sad” and “I was moved” are functional phrases. They’re all that came to mind. They’re all I knew how to say in my functional Japanese voice. And they weren’t sufficient. They wouldn’t do the moment justice. So I hid away by the windows, watching the traffic in the streets below for a while to gather my thoughts and let the baby settle down.

As authors, sometimes we struggle to find our own voice. I’m discovering the same is also true when learning a foreign language. It’s my goal to someday be able to tell my Japanese family exactly how I feel in my very own Japanese Ben voice. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s for a good cause.

Family at the Wedding

Actually, five good causes.

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4 thoughts on “Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

  1. Your story is really touching. I struggle through the same language barriers… it has kept me from meeting my boyfriend’s family and friends. I am so incredibly shy when I try to express myself in Japanese that I turn bright red and my voice is very soft. I hope one day you’re able to express yourself to your family and friends. がんばって!

  2. I’m not married into a foreign culture, but as a non-fluent halfie, I understand the language barrier that you’er describing. It’s plagued my my whole life. Especially since I’m not even functionally fluent… I speak probably-could-survive Mandarin, at best.

    Anyway, this was a very moving post, thank you for sharing.

    I’ll add, though, that what you were feeling probably isn’t that easy to describe in your native English either…

  3. Catherine – I know exactly what you mean with the whole “bright red/soft voice” comment. I’ve considered trying to translate some of these posts into Japanese for practice. We’ll see.

    Kristan – Yes, it’s definitely not easy in English, but I feel like I’ve got a tremendous head start and could do it if I had to. In Japanese I’d seriously be limited to “I’m sad” or “I’m moved” and that would be the end of it. I could go into explanations of why, but they’d come out very mechanical and functional. As a writer this makes me doubly frustrated =)

  4. Pingback: Well Hello There, 2013 « Ben L. J. Brooks

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