I am naturally drawn to challenges, an attitude which helps when living in a culture different than the one in which I was raised. Sometimes it is a game to figure out what the person is saying or what the ingredients in this food are. Making the world into a fun game is one of the best attitudes an ex-pat can adapt, so I try to keep it my baseline.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t see the flip side. Sometimes I wish I just knew what was going on! That desire is what keeps me studying the language. The more I study, the more I understand. The frustration, therefore, is healthy too.
Meanwhile, I learn empathy. As I struggled through an alphabet completely unlike the ABCs that English, German, and Spanish had shared, as I hesitantly sounded out syllables and hoped both that I could actually remember the correct sound as well as that I would win this real world game of Mad Gabs, I began to empathize with adults who can’t read, or who struggle to read. I’ve gotten really good at guessing, but sometimes I make mistakes, and when those mistakes bite me, I think of people who can’t read in ANY language.
In the grocery store I’ve begun to realize how much I rely on the colors, fonts, and pictures of packaging. This is what the sugar looks like:
This is the part that tells me it is sugar:
And this is the thing I actually look at:
Here is the flour I buy:
These words indicate that it is flour:
but all I’m looking at are the yellow flowers and red and white pictures.
Not having those familiar sights can cause minor panic. A couple of months ago I needed to buy more toilet paper. I headed to the same drug store I always purchase it at and bee lined towards the paper goods aisle. I found the section and looked around. Here was the toilet paper, but where was the packaging with the red flowers? I’d calculated it was the cheapest stuff. Where was it? WHERE WAS IT? I thought about hunting down an employee and hysterically asking them, “Where are the red flowers?” which is about as much relevant Japanese as I could muster, and it still wouldn’t be enough. I took a breath, looked around, and bought different toilet paper. I don’t know if the brand went out of business or just changed their look, but in that moment I thought of the refugees who live in my area of Chicago and how much updated looks on products probably affect them.
None of this sounds normal. And I get that. I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to most of my friends. I entered a club when I moved over here, a club of people who know what it is like to be confused in the grocery store, who know what it is like to cling to a brand because it is all they have energy to decipher, and who know just a piece of what it is like to be illiterate.