English Language Teaching On-Line

Drowning on Dry Land

An ESL Professor's Adventure as a Non-Native Speaker

Robert F. Tambini
Centenary College, NJ, USA

A nice weekend getaway - that's all it was supposed to be. The reality? Quite different than what I had anticipated. You see, it all started when my wife, Mitsuko, and I got on that bus heading for Washington, D.C. We were going down for the Cherry Blossom festival, held each year in late April, when the hundreds of trees surrounding the tidal basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial are in bloom - trees donated to the U.S. by the government of Japan as gesture of friendship prior to World War II. The cherry blossom is a very important symbol to the Japanese, signifying spring and rebirth, and during the festival Japanese from all over the U.S. and the world flock to Washington to see the lovely display that these trees put on.

So what was I doing, sitting in a bus for six hours traveling 400 miles to look at a bunch of trees? That's a good question - You see, I'm third generation Italian-American, and I've never given a thought to anything even remotely connected to cherry blossoms before in my life. But now, things have changed. You might have noticed my wife's name is Mitsuko; she is Japanese and, ever since I met her, a large part of my life has been given over to learning about her culture. Ironically enough, as an ESL teacher I've come into contact with students from various cultural backgrounds, though this experience has managed to leave my life relatively unchanged. With Mitsuko, on the other hand, it's a different story. Every day in every way my life is intimately affected by a culture that is not my own.

And this was exactly the case that weekend in Washington. We weren't only going for the festival, but to visit some friends of ours as well. Now, Mitsuko and I are lucky, because we have good friends who let us share their home when we come to Washington. Actually, these were my wife's friends before we were married and I am only now, having known them for about the last three years, beginning to feel at all close to them. Kumi was Mitsuko's maid of honor, and Tom (who is a travel agent) helped us out by taking care of the arrangements for our honeymoon at Disney World - but, because they live so far away, we just don't get to see them all that much. Since our wedding, we have been able to get together with them only twice for longer than a couple of hours, both times at their place in Virginia.

Needless to say, Tom (whose real name is Tsuguo, though he uses "Tom" because most Americans have difficulty pronouncing the sound "Tsu") and Kumi (short for Fukumi) are Japanese. From the outside, their house looks like any other suburban townhome, but inside it's an eclectic mix of traditional Japanese style and American practicality... and Disney! Everywhere you look, Mickey Mouse - living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom - it's like being in the Disney Store, only nothing is for sale.

Believe it or not, this fascination with all things Mickey is very Japanese. Cuteness is a very important quality in Japanese culture, especially for women. As a relatively young person (she's twenty-eight), Kumi places a high value on maintaining the appearance of youth and femininity. However, once she has a child, all that will change. Kumi will then assume her role as "okaasan" (mother), just as Tom has already taken on his responsibilities as a Japanese husband - he works till 11:00 every night, and spends his weekends on the golf course. Tom and Kumi's relationship would seem strange to an American, but really they are not unusual; theirs is simply a typical Japanese marriage.

In fact, when Mitsuko and I arrived in Washington that weekend, the first thing we did was go to the offices of Go! Japan Travel to see Tom and drop off our bags. Then, we took the Metro over to the National Press Building to have lunch with Kumi, who is a receptionist for Yomiuri News Corporation. (You guessed it - both Tom and Kumi have jobs where they speak and read Japanese almost exclusively.) Following lunch, I went with Mitsuko to do a little sightseeing before we had to come back at 5:00 p.m. and meet Kumi, who was going to drive us out to her house. Naturally, Tom wouldn't be home until quite a bit later.

After we got back to the house, Kumi and Mitsuko went to the store to buy some things for dinner (I really wanted to take a shower after the bus trip, so I stayed behind). Before they left, Kumi told me that a friend of hers and Tom's would be coming over for dinner, and that I should be on the look-out in case he came while she and Mitsuko were out. Now, I was nervous at the prospect of meeting this friend without Kumi and Mitsuko, as my Japanese is wanting at best and some of Kumi's friends don't speak very much English. Imagine my shock when I came downstairs to answer the door and found, standing there at the top of the stairs, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American!

His name was Allen. I was curious as to how he came to be friends with Tom and Kumi, but not surprised to learn that his wife, like mine, was Japanese. Now, being half of an intercultural and interlingual marriage affects people in different ways. Allen's approach to dealing with the situation in which he found himself was to concede to his wife's culture and language at every turn. Although his Japanese wasn't very good (one or two levels below mine, in fact), he attempted to speak it as much as he possibly could. Allen's American accent was overwhelming when he spoke and, to be honest, I thought he sounded ridiculous. Listening to him talk made me feel even more nervous than I usually do about my own ability - After all, nobody wants to put out his best effort and end up looking (or sounding) like an idiot.

Well, dinner was fine, and Allen was very nice. He explained that his wife hadn't joined us because she was in Japan visiting her parents for two months. Of course, to an American the idea of a husband and wife being separated for two months, except in a time of war, seems weird - but in Japanese culture it's not an unusual occurrence at all. Everyday in Japan, husbands get transferred by their companies and their wives stay behind to take care of the house and kids (the husbands living in dormitories provided by their companies). Or, as was the case with Allen, young mothers return to their parents' homes for the first couple of months after giving birth. So Allen wasn't just missing his wife, but his new baby as well.

My last thoughts before going to sleep that night were about Allen. I understood his feelings completely - early in our relationship, Mitsuko and I were separated for three months when she went back to Japan to visit her parents (no baby, just a visit!). While Mitsuko was gone, I realized exactly how much she really meant to me. Just to give you an idea: during those three months I lost twenty pounds and ran up a three thousand dollar phone bill, calling her every day. (Not only does absence make the heart grow fonder; it also makes you obsessed and stupid.)

The next morning, Mitsuko and I got up early and took the Metro into Washington. We were hoping to visit the Mint but, just as it happened the last time we were in D.C., we got there within minutes of the doors being closed for the day. So, having been disappointed again, we decided to head over to the Mall to see the White House (Was that Hillary Clinton under the front portico, among a group of very well-dressed people who seemed to be waiting for - what?) and, after that, to go to the tidal basin and view the cherry blossoms. While we were riding the train on our way back to Kumi and Tom's for dinner that evening, I found myself thinking about what a wonderful afternoon we had spent - Mitsuko and I so seldom have time to spend alone together that every minute of that day had been precious to me.

We arrived back at Kumi's sometime around six o'clock. She told us that we would not be eating dinner at home because Tom's boss, Mr. Obe (pronounced oh-bay), had invited us to join him and a group of Tom's co-workers at a Japanese-style karaoke restaurant that evening. Of course, I knew that karaoke was popular in Japan, especially as a way for people to get together outside the stress-filled office environment and have some fun. Since I had never done it before, I was actually quite nervous about going. Every one of the agents and secretaries in Tom's office is a native Japanese, and none of them speak very much English. Fact is, they really don't need to - at their jobs, in their homes, among their friends, these people move in a closed circle; they have formed a community in the middle of an alien culture where they feel comfortable and accepted. That night, in the middle of our nation's capital, I was destined to play the part of the "foreigner."

Besides Mitsuko and I, Tom and Kumi, and Mr. Obe, the group I found myself in the middle of at the restaurant consisted of: Mr. Obe's wife; a black man who had been born and raised in Japan (and who could speak perfect English, though he refused to do so); three men and one woman, all Japanese, that worked in Tom's office; and two other Japanese girls who were just along for the ride. From the moment I walked into the private room in which our little party was to take place, I knew I was in trouble. First of all, the menu was written solely in Japanese, and was limited to snacks and appetizers. Now, as I mentioned before, we hadn't had supper yet - it was now getting close to 10:00 p.m. and hunger was fast becoming one more factor adding to my anxiety.

I could sense my wife's discomfort when we went in. She understands first hand what it means to be the only non-native speaker in the room (this has been her situation 99.9% of the time since our marriage), and I could feel quite strongly that she was worried about me. Although she speaks English relatively well at this point - and continues to improve every day - my Japanese remains extremely limited. I can usually get my point across using a series of disconnected words or very simple sentences combined with lots of gestures (I am Italian, after all). But when it comes to conversing with a native speaker, I'm at a loss. On a good day, I'm able to catch about one word in twenty, maybe a sentence or two here and there; occasionally I can figure out what a person is talking about, but there's no way in hell for me to grasp what is actually being said.

But there I was, the only non-native speaker in a homogeneous group of language speakers. All of a sudden, I had a real sense of what life must be like for my wife, her friends, and my students. Nobody was talking to me, either because they couldn't or they were nervous about their English, and I wasn't exactly looking to strike up any conversations. So I just sat quietly, trying to fade into the background and get through the night, chain-smoking like a fiend and taking an occasional sip of my Coke.

In the meantime, everybody else seemed to be having a fantastic evening. Each person took their turn singing along with the videos playing on the screen at the front of the room. Of course, all the songs were Japanese; some were current popular hits, others were songs from T.V. shows or "golden oldies." I was really amazed at the quality of the performances - Later, Mitsuko explained to me that a lot of time and effort is expended practicing karaoke, because it is a very important part of business life in Japan. Fun is fun, but karaoke is also used a means to relieve stress and to establish networking relationships within a company. At one point, I decided to take a shot at singing a song from a Japanese pop group that I like. A polite (or curious?) silence fell over the room as I began, making me even more nervous than I was before. As the first kanji flashed in front of me, it became frighteningly clear that I was in over my head. Well, I did my best and managed to finish, mangling the lyrics horribly in the process. When it was over, nobody said anything - they just went back to their party and I resolved to shut up and stay out of sight.

The rest of the night continued along pretty much the same lines. By the time Mitsuko and I got back to Kumi's, I was spent from all the frustration that I had felt throughout the course of the evening (not to mention the sixty dollars it cost me to be there). Tom and Kumi went to bed as soon as we arrived home, but Mitsuko sat up with me for a few minutes to have a cup of tea. I was unusually quiet, feeling like a cultural island in the middle of an unfamiliar ocean. Sensing that I needed to be alone, Mitsuko headed upstairs to shower and go to bed. Tired as I was, I just couldn't sleep - so I stayed awake watching television until after 4:00 a.m., pitying myself and trying to make a plan that would get me through the rest of this trip.

Don't get me wrong; the cherry blossoms were truly beautiful, and the chance to be alone with my wife in a romantic setting was like the answer to a prayer. But Sunday was set to be the highlight of the weekend for me. You see, that afternoon there was going to be a softball game between Tom's company and another Japanese firm in Washington - and I was invited to play! I was so excited that, prior to leaving home, I had gone to the store and bought a baseball glove and a new pair of cleats. So, imagine my disappointment when I woke up that morning, padded down the stairs to get some coffee, gazed out the window and saw that it was pouring rain outside.

Now, it seemed to me that a baseball field was probably the one place where language and culture wouldn't be such big problems. Japanese and Americans alike share a love of baseball and, on the field, conversation is not much of an issue, primarily consisting of comments like, "Hey batter, batter" or "Go for it" (Yes, the Japanese use a lot of English when they play baseball) - but the game wasn't meant to be. The forecast said that the rain was going to continue all day, so Tom spoke to Mr. Obe on the phone and, in lieu of softball, they suggested that bowling might be a good idea. After a short round of calls, everybody agreed and it was decided that we would meet at the bowling alley around 4:00.

You've probably guessed that the bowling didn't go any better than the karaoke had - another evening of mounting frustration and me not having a clue what to do about it. On the way back to the house, I found myself alone in the front seat with Tom and asked him, "What can I do to make your friends more comfortable talking to me?" You see, I knew that everybody in Japan learns English for six years in school and surely, living and working in the U.S., these people must be able to speak it. I explained my feelings, especially that I lacked confidence in my Japanese ability and "froze up" when I tried to talk. Tom listened quietly and, when I had finished telling him how I felt, he very sympathetically offered, "I know. That's exactly the way it is for my friends and I when we try to talk to you."

Tom went on to say that, although it's true Japanese study English for a long time, they're mostly taught reading, writing, and translation - so their listening comprehension, when it exists at all, is extremely limited. They seldom have a chance to speak and the prospect of conversing with a native speaker scares them to death. His advice to me was simple: When meeting someone for the first time, I should introduce myself using Japanese. Something as simple as "Hajimemashite. Dozo Yoroshiku" ("How do you do? It's nice to meet you") or "Konnichiwa" ("Good day"), can go a long way toward placing a Japanese at ease and making him comfortable in trying out his English skills. Once it becomes clear that I understand what it means to be in the position of the second-language speaker, and that I am sensitive to the discomfort of the person I'm speaking with, it's then possible for the other person to relax - at least a little bit - and proceed with the conversation.

Back at the house, Kumi and Mitsuko made tea, while Tom put in a videotape he had made that afternoon of the Master's golf tournament (Japanese business men - ALL Japanese business men - have an unrivaled obsession with the game of golf). As we sat drinking our tea, Tom and Kumi began speaking to Mitsuko and I, though it was clear that they were addressing me. Our conversation touched on various topics, jumping from the sights Mitsuko and I had seen in Washington to my graduate school, Kumi's new job, and whatever else happened to come up. Not until we'd been talking for almost an hour did I realize that the entire conversation had been proceeding exclusively in English. My hosts, in their own home and defying their insecurities, were doing their level best to help me relax and feel comfortable after a weekend that they knew had been very difficult for me. When I finally went to bed, I felt a thousand times more at ease than I had at any point during the preceding two days.

Monday morning, Mitsuko and I took the Metro into D.C. one last time, then headed over to the Greyhound station to catch our bus home. All during the ride back, I couldn't get thoughts of the night before out of my mind - of the whole trip, in fact. Although I had spent the better part of the last couple of days confused and fighting a pounding headache, there had been a lot of fun as well. Tom and Kumi are wonderful people, bending over backwards to make anyone who stays as a guest in their home feel welcome. And I had, indeed, felt welcome. Beyond that, the weekend was also a terrific learning experience, one from which I'd gained insights that I never could have gotten otherwise.

As an ESL teacher, I'd had the unique opportunity to "get the view from the other side," to live life as my students do and gain first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a non-native language speaker. The frustrations and anxieties of the people I teach are no longer just theoretical to me - feelings that I claim to be sympathetic to but really can't understand. They are now part of my personal experience and, when confronted with them, I am in a much better position to help my students deal with their problems. On the other hand, I now have much more patience with students, because I know from the inside what it's like to be in their situation. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to draw on this experience in my efforts toward becoming a better, more empathetic teacher, and be of even greater benefit to my students.

Oh, and P.S. - Just in case you're wondering, everything I just said about my students also applies to my wife, though in a slightly different connection. Of course, my relationship with Mitsuko is much closer and more intimate than that which I share with my students. The emotional bond that she and I have developed makes it possible for me to feel and understand things that I have not necessarily experienced myself. And, because our time is not limited or broken up into segments (semesters, terms, or what have you), we know that, just as in any marriage, we have the whole of our lives to learn about and come to understand each other. So, instead of concentrating on the things that separate our two cultures, we focus on the similarities between ourselves and make allowances for each other. Eventually, those areas that can't be resolved will either be accepted or conceded; but, no matter what, in our life together we will continue to grow and learn, always striving to be patient, supportive, and to do our best to bring happiness to one another.

May 15, 1999