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Searching for Self Through Immersion

May 31, 2016

By Elizabeth Yamamoto

Elizabeth Yamamoto is a recent graduate of a four year college in the U.S. Born into an international family, she was raised in Japan by her American mother, Japanese father and Japanese grandparents. After high school, she made the decision to go abroad for college. En route to attaining her degree in Human Ecology, Elizabeth found that learning languages through immersion was a way of confronting her own identity. In addition to Japanese and English, she now speaks fluent Spanish as well as basic Maya and Chinese. In this essay, she reflects on her life as a “hafu” in Japan, and on her summer abroad in Taiwan, when she struggled to reject the identity imposed on her as an English speaker and to nurture her Chinese language learner self.

Growing up as “hafu” in Japan

After high school, I worked for a short while in a resort hotel in the countryside of Japan. Though I preferred staying back in the kitchen, the busy winter skiing season forced me to go out and serve people instead. Many customers, as I put their rice bowls and miso soup down in front of them, commented on my appearance—mostly positively, such as “kawaii (cute)” “oningyousan mitai” (like a doll), often combined with the word “gaijin (foreigner).” After a week of this had passed, I broke down in tears and wished for the job to end so I’d never have to go out and face the world again.

Some still do not understand this, and continue to ask why I feel uncomfortable being complimented. I feel uncomfortable because it’s been part of my life for many years. The giver of the compliment remarks once and can promptly forget it. I don’t get to forget. My appearance has been cause for comment, marking me over and over as an outsider, since childhood. My closest friends learned never to comment on the foreignness of my appearance, sensing somehow that it did not make me happy. Whenever they did mention it, I felt betrayed. I could only confide in my mother, for in the ocean of people who didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy to be complimented, only she understood. I am a peaceful person, and especially when I was small, I was not good at getting angry. Unable to put my frustration into words, I just swallowed it and pretended to smile and be happy, trying to convince myself to feel proud and flattered when I was called “cute”. Yet I did everything to avoid attracting attention to myself and in particular to my appearance, which was the strongest giveaway of my foreignness. I dressed simply in dull colors and never wore make up as I grew older.

After the job in the restaurant, I finally attempted to put my long-repressed frustration into words and release my anger towards constant labeling as a foreigner in a place that was my home. Yet instead of being understood, I was told off by my own brother, someone who had accompanied me in this journey of growing up in-between worlds. He told me to be proud of being different. According to him, I was too sensitive and always trying to “fit in”. He said I was being brain-washed by the pressure of a society that values homogeneity instead of diversity. Reflecting on this incident now, I realize that here must have also been a gender-based difference in our experiences. As a female, I was more exposed to social scrutiny and commentary than what my brother would have experienced. At the time, I was unable to be objective: his logic sounded right, yet did nothing to soothe my pain. In fact, it made me even angrier. I do not believe in homogeneity or exclusiveness of cultures, and I do believe that being different is something to be proud of rather than a source of shame. At that time, though, I was seeking connection rather than understanding. I was seeking acceptance as an insider, and not the special treatment of a visitor or guest.

In Japan, language has been an advantage for me in terms of connection. Though my appearance singles me out, once I start speaking there is no question that I am native, an insider. I have always found comfort and a stable identity through my language ability; it has always been something that offers me the authentic connection that I so long for. I can trust my native language ability to verify my identity. Though I do speak in English with my mother and her multicultural friends and have worked as an English tutor in Japan, when my Japanese friends beg to practice their English with me, I refuse. This does not mean that I don’t value the American side of me; it simply feels out of place and out of context for me. It makes me feel like I do not belong. With my Japanese friends, I want the connection of friend to friend on equal footing, not the connection of teacher to student.

While at college in America I could give myself a rest from being scrutinized as an outsider. I could blend in and I can breathe freely, indulging in the comfort of being unnoticed. In fact, during my first year in college I let myself fully indulge in the comfort of anonymity, conveniently forgetting to mention to people that I had never actually lived in the States before. Almost unaccented English enables me to pass for a native in the U.S., yet every time I travel, I am once more painfully aware of my difference. Sometimes I question why I voluntarily travel, reliving the pain of exclusion again and again, just to reach that final endpoint of connection.

Summer Chinese language course in Taiwan

This dilemma was most clearly felt during my time in Taiwan. Though there are language and cultural differences between Taiwan and Japan, the two countries are certainly closer in both language and culture than Japan and America. I could sometimes almost feel at home upon finding elements of my native Japan in Taiwan, whether in similar words or expressions, in the way people talked with each other, in the similar tastes and smells of food, or in the scenery of ever-extending rice paddies surrounded by lush green mountains. These things produced the illusion that I was at home there and on the inside, able to relax and be connected and to belong. It almost felt as if I could lay down the emotional load I eternally carry while traveling. Then, inevitably, I would be jolted awake from this illusion by people talking to me in English.

I do acknowledge that most people who spoke to me in English did so out of the kindness of their hearts, to make me feel welcome in their land on my own, and not their, terms. Or perhaps they did so because they were motivated to practice and improve their English skills. In retrospect, I should have felt grateful and happy about their motivation to act as global citizens. Instead, I was indignant.

My indignation stemmed first of all from the fact that I did not want to identify with English while abroad. After having spent a month or so in Taiwan immersing myself in Chinese (and speaking occasional Japanese with some Japanese friends I made in Chinese classes), my American self was comfortably asleep and did not want to be disturbed. That sleeping self was very grumpy to be awakened and to suddenly find itself in a foreign land where it didn’t fit in. Meanwhile my Japanese self, more active and happy in this environment so close to its home, cried out in indignation at being ignored—rather like being ignored by somebody you thought of as a close friend. The sound of English, especially the sound of me speaking fluent and perfect English like an adult, made my Chinese self ( the self that I had nurtured and created over the course of the past 4 months, which was still very young and fragile ) scurry away to hide in the corner, scared of being judged for its imperfections and immaturity.

My unnaturally strong motivation to learn and polish my Chinese and to immerse myself in the culture came from my desperate need for acceptance. I needed to pass “pass the test”, not academically but socially. Yet in Taiwan I came to the realization of the fact that I could never really pass this test, no matter how hard I tried. Being treated as a foreigner in Taiwan hurt because it brought back the sensation of being singled out as different, as an outsider, in a place that I wanted to call home.

Belonging is a hard topic to discuss, because the layer between belonging and isolation or exclusion is very fragile. The scariest thing about belonging is that you never have 100 % control over it. However much you think you belong, if “others” do not also think so, your sense of belonging is nothing but an illusion. It’s a bit like the hurt caused by the childhood experience of thinking you belonged to a group, only to discover afterwards that the others didn’t consider you a member.

In Taiwan, I had the sense that foreigners were appreciated for their foreignness, the more exotic the better. When another volunteer worker arrived (an English teacher from Mainland China), everyone crowded around her because she spoke in English. I only heard her speak Chinese a couple times; her Chinese was very good, but she chose not to use it. Why would she, when everyone around her wanted to speak in English? Her way of travel seemed easier and more fun than my way. Yet I knew that I could not be her, even if I wanted to. English would not come out of my mouth even if I tried, not because of linguistic reasons but for emotional reasons. And so I was left in the uncomfortable limbo of speaking a still-undeveloped Chinese interlanguage, yet unwilling to use my near-perfect English.

Choosing immersion

Knowing that this was the only road I wanted to take and in fact the only road I could take, I made the conscious decision to continue my immersion learning of Chinese. Immersion is certainly not the only method of language acquisition; it has its pros and cons, but it is the only method that works for me, because of who I am and where I come from. And so I began my immersion game in Taiwan: whenever people spoke to me in English, I would reply in Chinese. Courteously, yet firmly, decidedly, and insistently. After a few days most people “got it” and started talking to me in Chinese. They didn’t care much either way. And once they switched, it quickly became apparent that English was not needed at all to communicate. We would talk exclusively in Chinese, which at last felt “right” in terms of place and context. Some still insisted on whipping out their Smartphones to look up phrases in English after every other sentence, but there were also people who just “got it” and talked to me in Chinese, naturally, slowly and clearly as though to a child. Though I felt like a kid, it was better than being treated like an adult and an intruder—after all, a kid is part of a family. At last I could feel like I was doing something right.

The downside of all this was that I constantly felt like a terrible person by denying others their right to practice English. I often hid away in my room, exhausted from the constant sensitivity required in learning a language and adapting to a new place and its culture, and also from pushing my introverted self to be social in order to do so. Sometimes I simply didn’t want to speak in either Chinese or English or in any language at all; I just wanted to enjoy the silence.

The upside was that I did end up making many good friends, including some friends that really didn’t speak much English. My Chinese improved in leaps and bounds. I found many ways of connecting with people beyond language—playing music and singing together, working together in silence, playing cards, making meals and eating together, and touring night markets together. Because I was motivated to learn, I pushed myself to talk more than I would normally, and ended up having many interesting conversations on a wide range of topics.

I still wonder how my experience would have panned out if I had not made the decision to talk with people only in Chinese. Some people that I talked with spoke better English than I spoke Chinese. If I had used English with them, we could have had richer, more sophisticated conversations about things I was interested in, such as historical relations between China, Taiwan, and Japan and current relations with the U.S. Also, when working in the rice field I sometimes repeatedly asked questions and misunderstood orders; I suspect that if I had been a little more easy-going and used English occasionally I would have been less of a nuisance to the farmers.

The answer is probably yes: I could have had deeper conversations and made myself more useful if I had used more English. Given that I had only 2 months to spend in Taiwan, there was not nearly enough time to build up the vocabulary and fluency necessary to have sophisticated, adult-like conversations, or to even understand everything that was said to me. Yet was that really my reason for going? Probably not. I gave up the enjoyment of deep conversation and the security of full comprehension for the sake of this experience: searching for connection through and beyond language. I tell people that my motivation for going to Taiwan was to learn about Japan-Taiwan relations and organic agriculture in Taiwan. Yet I could also say that those were excuses—excuses to embark on a journey to push myself out of my comfort zone. A journey to confront difficult themes such as identity, language, belonging and communication. An endless journey in search of connection.

 

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