Communication and Peeling the Onion

On my way out the door to Nanzan University during my third week of classes my host mother bid me farewell with the familiar suffix -kun.  It was a pretty big moment – up to that point she had addressed me as Tim-san, a more formal honorific typically reserved for guests or outsiders.

This subtle shift in language signaled a major shift in our relationship.  I had moved a step closer into my Japanese host family’s life, and with that came a new range of benefits (inclusion in family events and deeper conversations with my host mother) and responsibilities (downgrade from first to third in line to take a bath before dinner and the expectation to help take care of their vegetable garden and rice paddy).  Because I had caught that hint, I was obliged to change both my communication and daily living habits.

It sounds obvious but, particularly in Asia, culture and language are deeply intertwined.  You can’t isolate one and expect to understand the whole.  Without adequate language skills (or general communication skills to compensate in the short-term), you’ll miss many of the subtle indicators that are integral to gaining a full understanding and appreciation for whatever you are trying to do.

Living and working in Asia is like peeling an onion: there are many different layers to uncover and you have little concept of what lies beneath until you start going deeper.  It takes a bit of work and, in many ways, your path is harder because your status as an outsider is often deeply embedded in both the language and culture.  However, there is an underlying structure to everything. It takes effort and time to keep peeling, but you embrace each moment of understanding and slowly figure out how each layer supports the former one.

~ by responsiblenomad on February 7, 2011.

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