Many years ago after a few major life setbacks, I took my 20-something self to Japan to teach conversational English in an industrial city near Osaka.
Years later after meeting and marrying Roger, we took a two-year leap of faith to teach at an international school in Aleppo, Syria.He taught high school English and I taught middle school social studies in a city four hours north of Damascus.
While I have yet to master any second language, the process of learning by immersion helped me grasp a culture more quickly than did learning in school.
So here’s my theory:the first words learned when landing in a new country speak volumes about that society’s values, outlook, and temperament.
First Words I learned when immersed:
1. yes (hai)
2. please (kudasai)
3. excuse me (sumimasen)
4. thank you (arigato)
5. beautiful (kirei)
6. strong, well (genki)
7. where? (doko)
8. how much? (ikura desuka)
9. foreigner (gaijin) maybe (tabun)
10. cute (kawaii)
1. whenever (insha’llah)
2. tomorrow (bukra)
3. oh well (maalesh)
4. no (laa’)
5. good (kwayyis)
6. thank you (shukran)
7. where? (wein)
8. how much? (addeish)
9. coffee (ahwe)
10. I want (biddi)
Looking at the lists, what generalizations can I make about Japanese culture? The Japanese value agreement and politeness (yes, please, excuse me).And with several words for pleasantness (beautiful, well, fine), I confirmed what the guidebooks said about the importance of building agreement. Both language and everyday rituals grease the wheels in a society where people practically live on top of each other.
My first day teaching in Japan, I showed a photo of my family to my new coworkers, four bilingual Japanese women.My grandma was promptly declared cute, kawaii.
And so were my younger sister, a small pen I carried, and my shoes. Women used kawaii frequently both to describe and to build rapport through giggling.
And what about Arab culture?Like people in other Mediterranean countries, Syrians are laid back and speak their minds.There’s a joke in one of the guidebooks that to get by in an Arab country, you only need to learn “IBM” — Insha’llah, Bukra, Maalesh — because all you need to know is “whenever,”“tomorrow,” and “oh well.”Throw in the very direct (and non-Japanese) “no” and you’re set.
When will the school’s copier be fixed?Bukra – not a fixed point in time like our “tomorrow,” but a relative term meaning more like “not today.”
Will the landlord have our hot water heater working again soon? Maalesh – don’t worry, no problem. Be happy.
How long will it take to process my visa? – I really need my passport back. Insha’llah – God willing – you’ll have it back bukra. Don’t worry — maalesh.
Common in Syria, ”no” and “I want” are considered too direct for the Japanese, who prefer more nuanced words like “maybe” and “please” spoken verbally and with finely tuned body language.
I often wonder which would be among the first terms a non-American-speaking visitor would learn in coming to live and teach in the United States. Credit card and carpool? Dow Jones and download? American Idol and American troops? iPod and YouTube? Speed limit and speed dating?
And what would this list say about our values, our outlook, and our temperament?
Do you have any immersion insights?