I’ve been there.
We had been living in Japan for over six months, and the language was hard. Hearing it, studying it, and trying to learn it wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be when we made plans to move to Okinawa. More times than we could count, we relied on friends to help us do even the most basic of things, especially as it involved getting Ana’s immunizations taken care of and all that went with registering our pregnancy with Emma. When friends couldn’t be there to speak the Japanese words for us every moment of every day, we did what we could with what little we knew, getting by in spurts and stops, oftentimes helplessly shrugging when we had reached our limit.
I remember one time tearing up as I stood in line with nine month old Ana, waiting to get her polio immunization, watching the Japanese mothers talk with one another and answer the doctors’ and nurses’ questions as we took our babies through the different health screening stations. They had one simple question for me to answer in order to get the vaccine, but they didn’t know the English words to ask it. And I certainly didn’t know the Japanese words to understand it. It was bad enough that every sign posted all around us was in a language (even an alphabet!) I couldn’t comprehend, but being completely unable to speak coherent thoughts? Devastating.
(In a funny twist of circumstances, it turns out that the word they were attempting to communicate to me was diarrhea. Oh, yeah. They were making sure that Ana hadn’t had any, ahem, bathroom issues before she got the immunization, and this was the first time they had ever had occasion to use that English word. They finally got their point across by showing me a picture of a strained face and miming stomach cramps along with the word “toilet.” We all had a real good laugh once we were understanding one another. A few months later, however, I wasn’t laughing at all when my completely accurate self-diagnosis of mastitis wasn’t translating to any of the OB nurses at the hospital. They all gave a collective, “OOOOOHHHH!” and practically shouted the Japanese word for mastitis when, not in my right mind thanks to the 103 degree fever, I opened up my shirt right there in the lobby to show them just exactly what was going on. No need for a translation after that, y’all.)
Yesterday I registered Emma for kindergarten. I stood in line with many other mothers, filling out paperwork, reading information, and answering questions. And while there were quite a few Spanish-speaking school officials there to help, more than once I saw the same devastated look on several mothers’ faces as they tried to understand everything that was being said and asked. At one point, a school official went through a lengthy explanation in English of why it was necessary to check a box for the child’s ethnicity (federal regulations, school policy, yada, yada, yada), the conclusion of which was the poor mother, who had gone white as a sheet, whispering, “Que?”
Yeah. I’ve been there.
I felt so bad for these mothers that I nearly resorted to using what little Spanish I remember from college (which amounts to caveman Spanish — lots of grunts with a few, probably wrong, words thrown in), but like those Japanese mothers I stood in line with so many years ago, I was helpless to help at all.
Or am I?
This is a pretty common situation here. And I would venture to guess that closing the gap between the two cultures and the two languages that make life more difficult for those who are new to the US wouldn’t be as hard to cross as we would imagine. I’ve heard so many people say that when you move to the US, you should be expected to learn English… which is good and well, I guess. But I remember what it felt like to be dropped into the big middle of Japanese-speaking society and almost feeling shell-shocked for so long that learning anything was nearly impossible. And that was Japanese, which as hard as it is, is NOTHING compared to English with all of its rules and exceptions. Is there a way to make this easier for people? Is there a way to help these mothers that I saw today? I think of how easy everything yesterday was for me, about how little effort I spent doing what I did… and I wonder what I could’ve done, what I could do, to help mothers like these. Is this a place and a situation where we as the body of Christ could help meet a real, tangible need in our community? What could we do? Where would we even begin?
Praying over these things today…