I did a lot of writing on this trip. From journaling, to poetry, from character sketches, to prose, I filled several pages in two different notebooks with my scribbles. As my writing often does, I did not simply write about the experiences of the day, but found connections between those experiences and my understanding of the world. I found myself flashing back to other travel experiences, especially my time in Japan, even though the cultures were completely different. Through those memories, I was able to begin processing and learning from this particular adventure. This has brought me new understanding of myself, my journey, and my own perspective of what it means to be human. I thought I would share some of this writing with you. The first piece I am ready to share I called “Cross-Cultural Communication.”
An older Slovak woman stands at the bus stop watching the approach of a crowd of loud foreigners bundled up in the cold carrying heavy backpacks .
“Who are they and where are they heading?” she wonders, but maintains her silent watching.
“Ah, clearly American,” she realizes as she hears their high-speed chatter and loud laughter. Perhaps she picks up a word or two, but she mostly recognizes the behavior of a group who don’t seem to care about the general silence surrounding them.
She watches as one American woman breaks away to take a picture of a poster hanging on the wall–a poster about a bridal shop. “Now why would she want a picture of that?” the woman wonders, “there is no beauty there.”
The Slovakian woman decides to watch the American woman more closely. The American woman wanders over to a young Slovak male and starts asking how to say words and phrases in Slovakian. She giggles and laughs as she tries to twist her tongue around the complex, guttural Slovak words. The Slovak woman watches, a smile on her face. At several moments, as the american continues to struggle with the language, their eyes meet, and they achieve a silent moment of understanding. The Slovak woman recognizes a spirit who is trying (although failing) to learn out of respect.
The part as friends.
Japan, many years ago
A giant room at an onsen resort in Kyushu, Japan, tables laid out in low, cafeteria-like rows but with the added comfort and flair of Japanese style. A young gaijin sits with a Japanese family, chattering as much as she can in broken Japanese, while they learned from each other. Luckily, one of the daughters of the family speaks fluent English (and the father spoke some as well) so the conversation can go beyond trivial things. The young American woman still tries to absorb the language, speaking phrases whenever she can, and listening, listening, always listening. She has only been in the country for a a few months, but has still come a long way and craves to know and understand more.
An old Japanese man approaches the table, a determined look on his face. While it was not unusual for the Japanese to approach the gaijin looking to bravely say “Hello. How are you?” in their grade school English, it was usually people from younger generations. But this man was clearly approaching 70 or more. His rich, thick Japanese hair speckled with more gray than black, and his face wrinkled with sadness, care and anger. Yes, clearly anger.
His approach differed from ones she had become accustomed to. Rather than shy smiles and hesitant steps, this man strode forward with purpose and intent, to speak in angry, aggressive tones. She could not follow his high speed Japanese.
The American woman did not know where to look or what to do. His rapid fire Japanese was heavily accented, and she could only understand a few words here and there, including “war.” The father of the family she was with finally stepped in and explained: “Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima,” he said. “This man is angry and says it is your fault.”
The American woman sat shocked for a moment, as the angry tirade continued. How could she respond? She asked the father to translate.
“I’m very sorry we dropped the bomb,” she said with a bow, “but it is not my fault. I was not alive then. My parents were only children during that war. And if they had lived in Europe they would be dead because we are Jews.”
That statement slowed the tirade briefly enough for her host father to steer the still angry older man away from the table.
They parted, but not as friends.
The American woman sat in thought for a moment trying to process what had happened. Only a short time earlier, she had taken a trip to Hiroshima where she had gotten a very different response from a very different Japanese man. “I am sorry,” he said, “That we made America drop the bomb on us. We were wrong.” That man, too, was of a generation to remember.
The apology had been uncomfortable to take, but they parted as friends.
Cultural communication is not just about learning each other’s languages, but about learning to respect each other’s differences. It is about recognizing that we each have our own definitions of personal space, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. It is about realizing that we all have suffered from hate, injustice, sadness, fear and pain, but we also all have celebrated the joys of love, laughter, and friendship. Cultural communication is not about impressing others because you are able to rapidly acquire language, but about learning to communicate with others even when language becomes a barrier. Cultural communication is about respect, understand and sharing–not about trying to top each other’s stories. Cultural communication is ultimately about the giving and receiving of small gifts, not ones that take money, but the gifts of each other’s stories. In the stories we share, we can find and create community–even if we disagree.
That is the reason to travel, to share, to write, to take pictures, and to connect with the world around us.