This article is part of a package on the golden age of re-engagement. For more, read The Lonely American: Choosing to reconnect in the 21st century, The Art of a Lively Conversation : Be real. Be brave. Be bold. (And learn some manners.), One Nation, Indivisible : Reconnecting the public with its public servants.
I recently traveled to Japan with my son and daughter-in-law to visit her family on the island of Kyushu, at the southernmost tip of the country. Because so few tourists go there, I met only two people who spoke English during my stay. I was amazed at my feelings of isolation and anxiety and my longing to communicate. On the other hand, I was charmed by Japanese culture: the low tables with floor cushions, the narrow streets, the tiny cars, the food, the language, the indecipherable alphabet.
By the time I arrived back home in the States, I was eager to have a slice of pizza and a pint of dark beer at a pub. But I also was determined to enroll in a Japanese-language class in preparation for my next visit.
On my way home from the airport, I was struck by the number of stores with foreign writing on their signs; the majority of markets in my neighborhood now catered to immigrants from either China or India. While I was walking to the park the following morning, I smiled and said good morning to the neighbors I passed, as usual, but this time I noticed how few spoke in return. Many just smiled or nodded. When I stopped to comment on a beautiful garden, the owner couldn’t understand my words, but he grinned, delighted that I liked his plants.
I realized that I couldn’t communicate with my own neighbors any more than I had with people in Japan. I wondered why I would bother to learn a language that I might use only once or twice in my lifetime and not a language that my neighbors spoke. More important, while I was in Japan I’d thought that everything “foreign” was wonderful, but here at home I would sometimes become annoyed that I couldn’t read signs or restaurant menus, and I’d think, What’s happened to my community? When I’d flown across the ocean to meet people from another country, I’d found their customs interesting, their music enchanting, and their food challenging. When those same people came to my neighborhood, I saw it as an invasion.
They say travel broadens our horizons. I’ve decided I can broaden mine by staying home and getting to know my neighbors.
Reprinted from the Sun’s Readers Write section (Nov. 2008), which features nonfiction vignettes on predetermined themes. The Sunwon the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing; www.thesunmagazine.org.