To Understand What You Wish To Understand - In Japan And Elsewhere

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After several years of ‘Japanese culture’-absorption, two years of studying the language in weekly classes, months of destination-lust, multiple conversations about all these things with everyone-I-knew, there was no doubt in my mind (or anyone else’s, apparently)  that I would love every moment of traveling in Japan.

Even my essential-travel-checklists had been edited down to daily activities right out of conversation practice sessions from my text book, like going along to a convenience store and trying to locate the ‘chiri-sauce’ (chili sauce) in Japanese.

I had practised my conversation to perfection. I would find an old oba-san (aunty/older woman) in the ‘convenee’ (convenience store) and say to her in Japanese:

‘Excuse me, do you have any chiri sauce?’
Then I would wait for the ‘heeeee, you speak some Japanese? That’s nice, isn’t it? You are SO good’
At this point I would pretend I didn’t hear the compliment, completely profess my eternal modesty and gratitude and say, ‘oh no no, not at all. I have such a long way to go’ and then continue my quest for the chirri sauce.
‘You have some chiri sauce? That’s great, thank you very much! Please can you tell me where it is?’
‘Oh straight ahead, on the counter on the right?’
‘Oh, thank you ever so much for your assistance. Thank you. Goodbye.’

Of course when I actually went to a store in Japan, I figured out conversations didn't quite happen this way in real-life and I didn't actually need any chili sauce any way. So I just replaced the ‘chiri sauce’ in the above conversation for ‘inari-zushi’ (yummy sushi made out of tofu - the one cheap thing I discovered I could eat as a vegetarian without a worry) and ticked that ‘experience’ off my checklist.

After a few conversations along these lines, my concern was that if there was an opportunity to communicate at a more sophisticated level, my Japanese would fail me.

One morning, in an island half an hour away from Hiroshima, called Miyajima, I went on a hike by myself. I met an old oji-san (uncle/older man). He reminded me of my grandpa and I stopped to chat with him. He told me he was eighty years old. When I told him I was an Indian living and working in London, he talked about his travels to Europe and about how there had been more Indians visiting Japan twenty years ago but not anymore, that I was the first Indian he had seen in Miyajima in months. If only they made it a bit more convenient for old people to travel in India, he would love to visit.

By the way, why hadn't I taken the other trails that tourists normally took? I told him I wanted to walk by myself for a bit in this beautiful place. He nodded along. He told me how Miyajima had changed over the last few decades. 

He wished he could speak in English. He had learnt it at school, but had forgotten everything.

There were three stray deer ahead, munching on some grass without a sound, pine trees on one side, the view of the floating orange-red ‘Itsukushima’ Shrine behind, the sound of the sea all around. We stood by the rails of the hiking trail, and looked down at the roof of an old house where three, very fat cats, lay on their backs in the sun.

‘Those three cats are cats-without-owners, you know?’, said Oji-san.
‘Ah, I see. Just like these deer?’ I asked.
‘Yes, exactly, just like these deer.’ He presented me with a semi-toothless grin. ‘ You know, traveller-san, I am surprised you understood me.’ 

And so was I.  I think I missed several elements of the entire conversation and mostly I was watching out for words I knew so I could construct the meaning I wanted to, in order to understand what I wished to. The conversation I narrated above could be completely made up from my imagination.

But, I understood what the grandpa told me about the stray cats and he acknowledged my understanding.

His words set the tone of my trip and gave me the confidence to put myself into such situations more.

Over the course of two and a half weeks in Japan, I met some very wonderful people, had some fantastic encounters, explored some beautiful nature, went to some very modern and traditional places and generally felt like I was experiencing something amazing/new every half an hour.

I knew I would love to be fluent in Japanese (and many other languages) one day, but I was nowhere near that stage yet. So in every moment, I tried my hardest to make the effort to at least understand what I wished to understand from a situation, irrespective of whether it was in English or Japanese or some other language.

Many times, in the way that you can feel just at the edge of intimacy as a traveller somewhere new, a foreigner living in a different country, an outsider in your place of birth, or even as yourself with your closest friends, it can be daunting to feel misunderstood and misinformed.

But then, sometimes you can just get lucky, and the one thing you wish to understand, could be the one thing that the other person or situation is trying to communicate. A moment like that is worth treasuring not only in Japan but elsewhere too. 

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