Unsterilized needles

They say that traveling can teach you many things. I’ve learned a lot since leaving Cleveland Ohio so long ago. Before coming to Japan the farthest I had ever been away from home was Belize. Getting on an airplane for the first time made me appreciate the safety of solid ground. In Cleveland Ohio there has only been one earthquake. Before that, I had never felt the floor shaking beneath my feet. I was in physics class when it happened. The chemistry lab was below us, so I assumed someone’s experiment had gone wrong and something exploded. The quake wasn’t that strong, just a sudden rumble that lasted for a few seconds, but it was the first physical turbulence I had ever felt. On an airplane, high above the world, turbulence is normal, of course. The rattle and shake scared me half to death. However, by the time we had landed in Belize I was able to face my fear and not let it get the better of me. The second time I boarded a plane was to come to Japan.

Although Japan is my home now, I still consider myself a traveler. At present, I’m biding my time until my children graduate from college, which is 2022. With the money that I don’t have to spend on tuition, I plan to see more of the world. There are many places my camera and I can go. There is still much to learn about the world. As long as there’s no war, civil unrest, or a rampant plague of racism, I will be happy to visit.

Japan has taught me much over the years. The very first thing I learned from being here was the importance of language. It is much more than a collection of words and grammatical rules arranged in a way that allows us to communicate. Language is part of our heritage and our culture. It is the fabric with which we weave our individual identities. Stripping away our ability to speak also rips away a major source of power. Without language, we cannot express ourselves nor can we show our capability.

When I came to Japan, I had to be born again because I had no language to speak and no way to show how brilliant I was. The desire to show one’s brilliance is not completely narcissistic. It is a necessary mechanism for survival. By showing our brilliance to others, we can position ourselves to make advances in life and generate opportunities that may not come if we sit humbly on the sidelines. The irony is that Japanese culture prizes humility above boasting. I used to think it was because there was beauty in humility but I have come to suspect the real reason is to not make others feel uneasy about their own perceived lack of accomplishment.

I once wrote a poem called “I am” in which the last line of the opening stanza attempts to describe the brutality of losing one’s native words.

I am the boat that rocked

When the cargo was Jettisoned

After horizons were gone

And the traders could longer be seen

Silhouetted against the burning village

Counting Dutch and English gold

I am the foot that stomped in the mud of plantations

Where blistering death consumed the drum

And words were cut from their tongues

Then stitched back in

With unsterilized needles

A new language

The poem speaks of forced language and the time when my ancestors had been kidnapped and made to speak English. What I experienced by coming to Japan is quite different than involuntarily having the flesh of one’s speech cut away to have another surgically implanted. Despite the difference, the transformation is never easy, but, even in the brutality of having our psyches reformed, we learn, just as my ancestors had, to adapt, survive, and move on. That’s the other thing I learned from coming to Japan. I learned to adapt and develop my other senses. I gained a heightened empathy, greater access to emotion and imagination. I used it all to transmit my messages into something comprehensible to those who could not understand my native tongue. Eventually, I learned to speak Japanese, although not perfectly. I also learned humility, also not perfectly.

I remember being a child and making fun of people who spoke English in a foreign accent. My brothers, sister, and I used to run about the house pretending to be French, African, or Chinese. Like all Americans, my siblings and I knew Africa was a continent, but we thought of it as a country. We mimicked all foreign accents with comical exaggeration and were particularly mocking of Asian immigrants. Our caricatures were bigoted and cruel. Now, I feel ashamed of my juvenile ignorance. I know that anyone who speaks English with a heavy accent is someone who has learned a new language. They have expanded their understanding of the world and their ability to express themselves. Through the pain of transformation they have survived humiliation and self-doubt in order to wield their newly earn gift. They also have a richer experience because they know worlds beyond the limited scope of my own narrow space. I am not sure if I would have ever been able to understand this if I had not traveled to Japan.

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