Steering your way through Tokyo’s Monday morning rush hour can feel like a Herculean task. I was a bit rusty and had forgotten how to make a 100 metre dash for the train. Jimbocho Station was swarming with office-goers who knew precisely how to walk without stepping on someone’s toes. It was strange to witness order prevail in a potentially chaotic situation. Everyone seemed to follow a code of conduct — one that I was struggling to decipher. As I struggled to fight a mild panic attack, the short hand on the clock touched 10, and I let out a sigh of relief. I could now return to the world of subway travel that I was more accustomed to.
Roppongi Hills is a fancy, upscale neighbourhood in Tokyo. It’s hard to miss the cosmetic surgery signboards promising results that match Hollywood standards. It reminded me of Seoul’s Gangnam district with its ubiquitous cosmetic clinics and towering glass facade buildings. Mori Tower dwarfs every building in the vicinity and is an iconic symbol of Roppongi Hills. It’s also one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo and the Observation Deck promises a panoramic view of the city. I don’t do well with heights, but I could be brave behind a glass window and pretend to enjoy the city view.
I spent the first half of the morning marvelling Leandro Erlich’s exhibition in Mori Art Museum. As I exited the Museum and entered the Observation Deck area, I was greeted by a smiling face. I don’t have much experience as a solo traveller, but I chose to smile back at her. Being introverted (and socially awkward at times), I didn’t expect to have to speak to my new friend. By nature, I prefer to avoid talking, unless there’s an absolute need for it. But the rules of solo travel are very different.
She said, “Hello!”
and before I could respond, followed it with:
“Do you speak English?”
At that moment, the neural receptors of my brain froze for an instant.
I wondered if I looked more exotic that morning or did my hennaed hands betray me. The answer should have been simple. I had spent my early childhood being pushed into English elocution, drama, plays, and was one of the preferred lay readers at church. I had spent my twenties studying natural sciences in English and my thirties dabbling in writing — again in English.
“silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation.”
But I’ve grown used to being asked questions about my ability to speak a given language. Some are surprised I speak English fluently. Once, a blogger, who had never heard of our blog, asked me if I write in English. I was tempted to say no. It was easier to lie than be honest about failing miserably at SEO. Back home, I’m often asked why I speak English. Our checkered history with colonialism and rich heritage of local languages/dialects makes it difficult for many to appreciate the language. Whilst others are surprised I speak local languages. I often wonder if it’s truly possible to guess the language spoken by a person on outwardly appearance. I for one have rarely been good at that guessing game.
in or using several languages.“a multilingual dictionary”
I grew up multilingual. As a kid, like my siblings, I picked up 4 languages through film, music, books, and quite naturally from my parents. I don’t think we were prodigies, but we might have inherited mum’s gift for picking new languages. I formally learned 3 of those languages in school with English being the primary medium of instruction. Ironically, I never formally learned my mother tongue, I can’t write its script, and most of my sentences come by instinct, or by mimicking the rules of other languages — often making them grammatically incorrect.
By high school, it was time to learn another language. Many years later, a trip to Paris would prove that 2 years of high school French don’t amount to much. After college, during a sabbatical, I tried to learn German and quit after 2 months.
I don’t think I was ready to give up learning new languages. Trips to Japan, China, and eventually Korea made me want to learn new languages. But, I was in my thirties now and I underestimated the bandwidth of my learning capacity. When we moved to Seoul, 2 years back, I had to learn Korean to survive. And that’s when the allure of learning a new language began to fade away. Survival is very different from fantasy and reality can be a bitter pill to swallow.
As an expat, in Seoul, I meet people from different countries on a daily or weekly basis. I’ve never stuck to a particular group and I have friends from different continents. I’ve realised that people who don’t know English are often hesitant to speak to someone who does. Many of them feel guilty for being unable to speak the language.
For many people, language is also a part of their cultural identity. Because I was raised multilingual, language never became a part of my cultural identity. I always knew it was only a communication tool for me. I couldn’t relate to any particular language and it also made me very confused at times. As an adult, I don’t think I have the answers yet.
“Meow” means “woof” in cat.”
― George Carlin
In Seoul, I speak a variation of language, words that might seem like English but are connected with Korean or another foreign language. I use hand signs and also translator apps when everything else fails. On trips back home, I feel the need to speak every language I learned to prove that I haven’t forgotten my roots. But that only leads to further confusion. And there are times when I genuinely feel like I don’t know how to speak English or any language.
You could understand why I was confused by her question. I managed to nod my head and her smile grew wider. It’s quite possible that she had never travelled to a country where English wasn’t widely spoken or she had found it hard to find people who spoke English in Japan. And I can understand that it can be quite frustrating if you cannot speak or communicate because of a language. She was pretty chatty and happened to be a photographer on an assignment.
“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”
And after our brief conversation, she gave me a warm hug. It was time for her to go back home. We didn’t exchange numbers and I doubt our paths would cross again. But in that brief interaction, as 2 foreigners in Japan, we forged a bond over a shared language. And I guess that’s what language is to me. A thread to connect people. Northing more, nothing less.
Additional Reading & Viewing
- How being multilingual changes you, from novelist Yann Martel (video)
- Language is my identity by Stan Grant, for The Guardian (video)
- How do people define their national identity, by Adam Taylor, The Washington Post
- Language and Identity, Buoyant Brussels