One of the Daily Prompts this week was: I Am a Rock. (Is it easy for you to ask for help when you need it, or do you prefer to rely only on yourself? Why?) At first I decided not to write because I didn’t have anything travel or experience related to write, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I do have something to add!
I’m a talker. I talk a lot. This is something I’ve grown into – I wasn’t the girl in school who always got in trouble for talking to the other students. In fact, I was quite the opposite: shy and afraid to get in trouble. As an adult I have found my voice and I share it with everyone. One of my travel buddies, CJ, has said that one of the things I do most when I travel is talk to strangers. She tells a famous story about our trip to New Mexico when I visited a gas station in Moriarty, NM and told everyone there my last name was Moriarty and bought everything in sight with Moriarty written on it. So no, I am not a rock when I travel; at least not until I moved to Japan.
When I get lost or can’t find something in a city I feel like the quickest way to find it is to ask someone for help. Just because I don’t have the answer doesn’t mean a local won’t. When I traveled in parts of Europe, everyone spoke enough English to be able to answer my questions and at least point me in the right direction. I thought that Japan would be the same way. WRONG ASSUMPTION.
While living in Japan, I can go an entire day on the weekends without talking to a single person outside of saying “arigatou gozaimasu” in a store (thank you very much). While people generally know a little bit of English, unless you are in a tourist area, many Japanese people will not offer their English. I was told that there is some embarrassment about people’s lack of English speaking abilities in Japan and therefore they are afraid to use it. For these reasons, I often don’t attempt to ask people for help when I am lost. Don’t get me wrong, if I am in the tourist areas of Kyoto or Tokyo I will ask someone, and often I will even ask a Westerner, but in my day-to-day life I do not ask strangers for assistance.
I didn’t realize how my ability-to-talk-to-anyone-ness had disappeared until my trip to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong most of the people I met spoke perfect English. There was no need for me to wander aimlessly around the streets of Kowloon when I could just ask someone for directions. The interesting thing I found: I was afraid. Wow! Fear had popped up somewhere unexpected! After spending a year keeping to myself out of an inability to speak to people in their native language (and lack of a desire to learn on my part) I had somehow both adapted and became fearful. The adaptation part is that I have learned other ways to navigate or make due with the little knowledge I have of things, but the fear part must have to do with continuously having people speak to me in a language I don’t understand and then feeling embarrassed that I don’t understand. (Obviously this embarrassment hasn’t been a good motivator for me to learn Japanese though..)
A woman corrects my stance (in English) during Tai-Chi at Kung Fu Corner in Hong Kong.
This fear of talking to people extended past my visit to Hong Kong. As I chronicled in my post about reverse culture shock, when I returned to the United States in May I had a fear of talking to people and was overwhelmed by my ability to understand everyone around me. I will be doing a bit of international traveling in October and then heading back to the States. Time will tell if I continue to be a ‘rock’ or if I begin to ask strangers for a hand.