I am on a journey for the next seven months. A journey of personal discovery, physical rest as well as challenge, internal reflection, and spiritual renewal.
I begin this journey with a vacation trip to Japan with my beloved Russ, and our son, Davin and his wife, Rachel. I have great anxiety about going to places where I do not speak or understand the language; I’ve had lots of time to build up anxiety about this trip!
In 1991 I joined Russ in Geneva, Switzerland. He had been there several weeks on company business for Telecom ’91. My arrival overlapped a couple of days with his work days before we could enjoy vacation time together, so I was on my own for two days in a place in which fewer people spoke English than I had hoped, and I spoke absolutely no French.
I ventured out to eat lunch and buy some postcards. I was so stressed after these brief engagements in this world that seemed so strange to me that I returned to the room, had a long hot bath, a short nap, and then ventured out once again to navigate buying sunglasses and mailing the postcards back to people in the U.S. Again, I returned for another hot bath to relieve the stress! I recognize the courage it took for me to push through my anxiety, but I never enjoyed any sense of accomplishment. My anxiety prevented me from connecting at a heart level with the people I engaged with, even though they were all very kind and accepting.
My next encounter with attempts to tackle my language anxiety was during my undergraduate studies at Northern Virginia Community College where I took four semesters of ASL (American Sign Language). We were required to attend several “Silent Suppers” hosted by people in the Deaf community. I sweated through each supper, feeling completely inadequate in my language skills. The people were friendly, accommodating, and grateful for students to join them; yet, I never did move past my anxiety. I had high hopes of using ASL in my ministry, but I did not sufficiently immerse myself in the Deaf community to engage with the cultural differences and truly learn the language.
In 2008, during my Clinical Pastoral Education, I struggled with language barriers as well. I served as a chaplain in a hospital in downtown Miami. Many of the patients and their families only spoke Spanish. The only Spanish I retained from my 8th grade Spanish class were the pronunciation rules…I retained very little of the vocabulary. I thought perhaps if I prayed with people in English, God would translate. But after a couple of weeks that felt inadequate. I used an on-line translation application to translate the prayers I had written, and one of the other chaplains proofed them and cleaned them up a bit. This made a huge difference in relating with the people I was there to serve … I so wanted the compassion I had to offer to be felt< understood and received. I only engaged with most of these patients and their families for that one pre-op prayer, and when they could understand the prayer, it made a huge difference.
Something seems to have shifted for me here in Japan. Russ and I did study with some Japanese language and cultural programs before we left (Russ more so than me). Davin and Rachel navigate the customs and language well, and have offered much support. Maybe their presence and the little preparation I had helped. I don’t feel that familiar anxiety this time. I feel a sense of confidence in my ability to navigate through relationship and connection. I have ventured out on my own for meals and shopping with a curious approach. I watch how other people do things, I observe the customs, and I allow myself to be imperfect. Oh, and knowing one very important word allows me to be humble: sumimesan! Excuse me, I’m sorry!
Curiosity, courage, and compassion have come together to allow me to navigate cultural differences and overcome language barriers a little better. It helps me to remember that even when we speak the same language, we often don’t understand each other.