International Ministries

Starting Over in Japanese

December 1, 2001 Journal
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Mark 8:17b-18a: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? . . . Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?"

Although I'm not normally one to take verses out of context, this verse in Mark jumped out because it would aptly describe the state of initial culture shock we have been in! Of course there is quite a lot of bread in Japan, no lack there (more on that later), but when it comes to seeing, hearing and understanding just about anything, we are at a complete loss. It's as if one or two of our senses were suddenly stripped away and we are now infants (disguised as tall white missionaries) bumbling our way through each day, but unlike infants, able to remember a time with a common language, when we could walk up to someone, anyone and say things like "what time is it?" or "I hope you have a really nice day" or better yet, ask questions that we want to talk with people here about, like "What do you think about the war in Afghanistan?"

At times our language classroom has the aura of post-tower-of-Babel confusion; at break time we hear soft-tongued, vowelly Chinese, a bit of spicy, songlike Thai, sharp and rich Korean, and even some almost Russian sounding Mongolian.... we, being the only two westerners, can only enjoy the sounds, none of the content... BUT we can speak to our classmates on any subject in Japanese up to chapter 16 in the textbook! We're all just itching to get to know each other; it's great incentive to study.

Finding Home

How does one describe the attempt to learn Japanese? Somewhere I heard that for every one hour of Spanish study, one must study 12 hours of Japanese to get the same amount of comprehension, and at this point I'd believe it. We study each weekday for almost 3 hours while standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and at times foot-to-leg-to-back-to-head with our fellow man (and woman!) on a series of trains-yes at times it's hard to hold a book open-- scrabbling between trains to find our tickets and stick our books back in their bags for awhile and trying not to lose each other in the blue-suited crowd heading slowly for work. Four hours of class, where we find out just enough more complicated little twists on Kanji or adjectives to make us dizzy, then back to pick the kids up from hoikuen (daycare), a few hours of play and laundry, cooking and eating, then after the kids are tucked into their warm little futons, back to Nihongo (Japanese) and a cup of green tea. After staring at books for so long I truly feel like I'm going cross-eyed, and sometimes just stare out the window at a tree; it's reassuring somehow.

Every weekday morning we drop the kids off at their hoikuen (daycare) where they have adjusted quite well... they are finally learning phrases and the names of their Japanese friends, know how to take their shoes off without using their hands, and they have acquired a taste for little dried fish, "with eyeballs", as Adam likes to say. It has been just as big an adjustment for them as it has for us; they learn more quickly but have all the same emotions and feelings of separation from family and friends as Dwight and I.

God’s Bread

OK, back to the bread theme from the verse in Mark: "Why do you think you have no bread?" Well, yes of course Japan has all kinds of bread from literally all over the world, but that's not the point... maybe the point is, "why are we here, what is sustaining us?" It's hard having eyes and not being able to read, having ears and not being able to understand much, having mouths and not being able to speak. Why have we plunged ourselves headlong into Asian language and life, we who look like strange unbaked cookies here in Japan? Is it possible, really, to adapt to a totally different culture and share what God has done in our lives in another culture? These are questions we ask ourselves every day... and there are days when I think there is no bread, God seems far away, and I want more than anything to go home. But then we learn something truly amazing at school and a little light goes on, and I (and Dwight too!) think, "this language thing, it's got to be from God; I mean, how can these sounds that we make connect us like this?" Or I'll see Adam riding his bike under the reassuring tree outside, and see the yellow leaves fall around him, and think that home is wherever (or maybe whenever) you allow God to continue to change your heart, to be your bread, to sustain you through your emotions and your questions. If you let down your fears and your pretenses God works in your soul, and you think again, "yes, true strength (and sight, and hearing) really do come from the Lord!" God can work in us and through us just by being where we're at and who we are; there IS enough bread... that goes for everyone, right?