The first time I visited Japan was in 2015. Taking along with me only 2 years of Japanese language study, which was nothing. Japan was my first real language barrier country. I’ve visted Hong Kong and Fuzhou once, where my family was from, but I had years of practice speaking Cantonese and Fuzhounese. Also minoring in Mandarin in College. Still…even then…I can only get by with commonly used, everyday phrases as my recall rate was really poor from not practicing enough. Needless to say, I was real nervous about Japan.
For the most part, we got by without a problem in Tokyo. Street signs were in English. Our Google Maps worked. Most restaurant have English menus. We had my handy Japanese phrase book and Google Translate app.
It was on our first real ride on the shinkansen to Kyoto that I had a real experience talking to a local. I was the odd one out of our group sitting by myself by the window. The shinkansen was amazingly fast and was built on the most scenic route through Japan. The view of Mt Fuji was breathtaking. It looked exactly like the ones in the Japanese paintings.
After a few stops, a Japanese girl sat down next to me and I smiled and bowed my head slightly. She saw my DSLR camera on the table and my L.L.Bean day pack stuffed with I don’t know what. I looked like a traveler. She asked where I was from in Japanese. I was so excited!! This my chance to practice. I told her I was from America in Japanese. I could see the excitement in her eyes. She told me she studied English for 10 years in school in Japan. We then proceeded to make a conversation with my broken Japanese and her broken English. We both needed practice. It was obvious. It was my most memorable experience in Japan. It was so much fun. We doodled in my notebook. Drawing things we didn’t know the words for. In the end, we made it work. We understood each other.
This continued for about 2 hours before her stop arrived. When she got up to leave, she told me it was very fun and interesting in Japanese. She gave me her cute Japanese eraser as a parting gift. I realized then, I had nothing American to give her, but I desparately wanted to give her something in return. So I gave her my mochi that I bought earlier. I felt like I failed. I didn’t bring anything from America to offer back.
In Chinese, it is customary to give small gifts when visiting someone’s house. Why didn’t I think of that. After all, I’m a guest in Japan. Since then every country I visit I would get a big bag of candy from Costco filled with snickers, sour patch kids, twizzlers, baby ruths, milky way, skittles, twix, etc. All very American candies. I would make dozens of goodie bags to bring along on my trips and give away to people who were nice to us.
It was my way of showing appreciation…to pay it forward. To spread more kindness in this world. Us Americans get such a bad rep in other countries. Who knows …maybe the next traveler will get extra special hospitality…you’re welcome.