Being here in Germany has brought back a lot of, shall we say, repressed memories from Japan 2001-2003. I often think to myself that I do not remember the process of learning Japanese, but being here in Germany brings back old memories far in the back of my mind that I’d rather not remember…at all. It feels like I’ve always spoken Japanese but of course that is not the case. In fact, I DO NOT say that I speak well, but that I am totally comfortable speaking it, hearing it, and living without any English being spoken. If Japanese tell me I speak well, I always tell them honestly that I still have so much to learn. Maybe after five more years or so in Japan I’ll finally get somewhere. The first years of learning Japanese are very fuzzy. I vaguely remember learning the -なければなりません tense and thinking it was impossibly hard. I recall attending a church picnic in 2002 and I couldn’t talk to anyone so I went by myself to the back of the church building and ignored everyone. I also vaguely remember the emotion of feeling like a complete idiot and totally lost in a fog of words that made no sense to me. Anyway, I don’t like to remember the days when I couldn’t speak Japanese. Now, here I am in “the days when I cannot speak much German.” I hope it won’t always be like this. However, learning two other foreign languages has taught me which skills are necessary to learn a language (such as child-like brokenness and humility, enormous patience, army-like discipline and solid study habits), and I have hope that in a few years I’ll be able to speak German, although I doubt it will be as endearing to my heart as Japanese is. These days I can study Japanese for two or three hours on end and I have to force myself to stop studying.
One thing I realized recently is that there is a certain kind of person who can get along in a foreign country for a long time without feeling like they have to learn the language really well. I’ve known tons of people like that in Japan, even missionaries. There are reasons for this – in Japan, many of my friends work in an all-English environment and Japanese is not necessary except to go shopping or travel. Others couldn’t get to language school and were resigned to not learning Japanese. Some friends tried to learn but gave up because the progress was too slow. Frankly, another reason is that Americans are overall pretty bad at learning languages. They have a reputation for this worldwide…I once heard a dear American friend speaking Spanish with a valley-girl accent and another speaking Japanese with a deep southern drawl. Anyway, I have never been that kind of person who can survive like my friends can but I don’t know why. Ever since my first day in Japan it just about killed me and just ate me alive that I couldn’t speak Japanese. It was like a disease I couldn’t shake and I felt its presence every hour – my inability to speak Japanese was just awful but a great motivator to learn Japanese. I was utterly determined with everything in me, and by God’s strength, to learn Japanese. I don’t feel quite the same way with German because so many people here speak English so beautifully, and also I am able to guess most of what people say simply because it’s quite similar to English. However, Matthias says that if a person lives in Germany for a while and doesn’t learn German it’s considered quite strange. Somehow, in Japan, though, it’s normal for the foreigners to never learn Japanese. I guess they think it’s just too hard for us pitiful outsiders, the 外人。
These days, I am quite content to hear my husband speaking in German for hours and hours on end and everyone else around me. That’s what he did last night and thank God, I don’t need him to translate as much these days. It’s a beautiful language, and because it’s similar to English it’s not as traumatizing to me to hear it all the time. When I used to hear Japanese for hours on end it would give me a terrible pounding headache and almost make me feel nauseous and sick. There was only so long I could sit there without being able to understand without feeling like I was going to be sick. Maybe all that is extreme, but it’s true. I think my limit was 30 minutes back then.
I am going to try my best with the German, but I am just not as motivated to learn it as I was with Japanese. However, I really do want to love those around me who do not speak English. Particularly, I am highly motivated to learn German so I can talk to grandpa and my new father-in-law who doesn’t really like to speak English that much. I hope that one day I can sit with my grandpa and talk with him about his fascinating life without a translator. I can only dream of that right now. For whatever reason, I’m not too worried about it. I’ve learned from experience that German will come with time. Anyway, compared to learning Japanese, learning German cannot be that bad, I suppose.
As far as culture shock goes, it hasn’t been so bad, but that is comparatively speaking. My first two years in Japan were rough, and I felt very keenly how opposite the Japanese people are from Americans. Germans are different, too, of course, but it’s not as extreme. I can honestly say any culture shock I feel here is a picnic compared to what I felt in Japan. I like the Germans. Doesn’t that sound lame? It’s true, though. They are a bit stiffer than Americans and not as touchy-feely, but they are a very caring people and their history, the good and evil, is long and super fascinating. I never imagined I’d marry a German and live in Germany but that’s exactly what I’m doing. God always has surprises up His sleeve, doesn’t He?