I’m sure we’ve all experienced it – a moment when you’re speaking to someone and you just can’t seem to communicate. For most of us, that would read: “you just can’t seem to communicate clearly“. In the case of this expat living overseas, the sentence will literally read “you just can’t seem to communicate”. Like at all.
We’ve been living in Japan over four months, and although I’m pleased to see my Japanese progressing, I still struggle with moments of deep frustration. To be honest, I give myself grace. A lot of grace. But there are moments every day where I am reminded of–let me be brutally honest–how stupid I feel.
Learning a new language while living in a new country is a very humbling experience.
I meet with someone to help alleviate my neck pain – Japan’s amazing answer to something similar to chiropractic care and physical therapy. I spend one hour with this gentleman and we discuss very basic things between his English and my small Japanese vocabulary. I’m always excited to “try out” my new grammar & vocab with him that I’ve been learning in class. Most days are very exciting because I can instantly apply what I’ve been spending hours studying.
But then, there are days like today, where my attempts at optimism in the midst of feeling like an idiot, just get the best of me. We were discussing something he did yesterday and I could not get my point across. The words I tried did not make sense and caused a lot of confusion. I felt so bad for him!
The mystery of not knowing one specific word had the power to instantly deflate me.
I laid there, unable to make chit chat. I wanted to ugly cry in the dressing room but instead I mentally sulked in silence.
You see, as stupid as I feel every single moment of every day that I’m out in public trying to communicate – I can handle that. It’s humbling, but I can deal with it. What discourages me is the broken communication: the inability to express what I want to say – not because I want to be heard, but because with broken communication I am making it difficult for the other person to hear me. I don’t want to inconvenience them. I don’t want to be a bother. My inner dialogue was saying “I care about you as a person, and I want to communicate clearly with you.”
I can’t do this. I can’t let this cripple me.
So, I mentally picked myself up and tackled round two of awkward broken Japanese, and a beautiful thing happened. Little did I know that the patient next to me could speak English – and he translated something I said to my physical therapist. I was overjoyed! I immediately said “Please! Please tell them I am sorry to be a bother and trying to learn Japanese.” I immediately felt encouraged that I could have this communicated. What a relief! I’m at the stage of language learning where I can’t do this alone.
While I was writing this, my oldest daughter came downstairs and wanted to “help me work”. So I asked her what the #1 reason was she wanted to learn Japanese, and she instantly responded: “so I can make friends”. Just like my child, I, too, want so desperately to communicate with those around me.
It dawned on me today that learning a language is like trying to ride a broken bicycle.
My Japanese is missing a wheel, friends. I cannot ride this bike with one wheel. I need to have someone carry me while I wait for the second wheel to be put on. We’ll fumble down the street together. It’ll be awkward. We’ll probably make fun of it. But the one thing I know is that I can’t do this alone. I need the cashiers at the grocery store to be patient with me while I struggle. Just like the barista today, I may need you to gesture or act things out because I can’t yet understand you. I am studying so hard for you, but I still need you to help me.
And you know what I’m learning through this? This “broken bicycle” that symbolizes my “broken Japanese?” This is a good place to be. I wouldn’t change it! It’s hard, it’s humbling, I am a dependent hot mess, but it’s beautiful. It reminds me how much I need others and most importantly, the Lord.
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9