Catrien Ross on Developing Communication Through Empathy in Japan

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 - 8 Comments

Being illiterate in a foreign country works wonders for character building.

For one thing, you become very, very humble.

Any image of yourself as an articulate adult crumples under the fact that:

  • You don’t read the language.
  • You can’t follow a normal conversation.
  • You are unable even to speak at toddler level.
  • You are a lost ignoramus, and everyone you meet confirms it.

But if you survive your loss of identity and embrace your helplessness, intriguing aspects emerge:

  • You release assumptions and expectations.
  • You expand your sensitivity.
  • You grow alert to nuance.
  • You become aware of other people’s energies and motives.
  • You learn to truly listen.
  • You discover that while words matter, they don’t matter that much.
  • You tap hidden reserves within yourself.
  • You recognize that a sense of connection can bridge cultures.
  • You develop empathy.

Suddenly you find yourself better able to understand what the other person is experiencing.

You appreciate that authentic communication can be a struggle.

You stretch your flexibility to flow with the interaction of the moment.

Many years ago, wandering around Kyoto, I lost my way.

It was only my second visit to Japan and I spoke no Japanese at all.

As I stood looking around me an elderly man approached.

- Station?

I nodded, grateful for this one word in English.

Through gestures and smiles he indicated he would accompany me there.

As we walked along he talked non-stop in Japanese.

I understood not a word.

Yet I listened to his outpouring not as a foreign language I should try to comprehend, but rather as a cadence of sounds I could accept as music.

I simply relaxed into the rhythm of his conversation and our walk through Kyoto.

And I clearly sensed his kindness, his generosity, and his willingness to take care of a foreigner in his city.

When we arrived at the station some 25 minutes later he bowed, smiled, and walked off, waving.

Each of us appreciated the moment perfectly.

So many times since then my inability to cope in Japanese has been supported by such readily available help.

While my Japanese has improved considerably, the empathic skills that first taught me the true meaning of communication remain my teacher still.

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8 Responses to “Catrien Ross on Developing Communication Through Empathy in Japan”

  1. morag says:

    totally agree _ and you’ve articulated the feelings beautifully….
    it is interesting to me that we (3 sisters) are doing what mum did _ whether we are aware of it or not : giving up our nurtured identity , and having to start again in a new culture with a new language and customs. …..

  2. Catrien Ross says:

    Morag, your observation is really insightful. Yes, this is indeed what we three sisters are doing, in different parts of the world. I wish we could meet more often, but Mum’s genes bind us together, no matter how great the distance. Try to visit Japan again soon. I miss you. Much love to you and wishing you a wonderful New Year in 2010.

  3. Barbara says:

    I was never fluent in Japanese, so your post rang a familiar bell for me. I lived in Hiroshima-shi for 14 months. I could manage on a rudimentary level, but could not read much of the language. It is a humbling, but yet strangely enriching experience. Fortunately, for you and for me, we are obviously gaijin and expectations are low. I found a rich communication in mutual laughter.

  4. Catrien Ross says:

    Barbara, thank you very much. By finding rich communication in mutual laughter you clearly survived in Japan through connecting at a level beyond mere words. How did you enjoy Hiroshima City and your 14 months there? I visited the city once many years ago to set up a Celtic Fair for a large Japanese trading firm – and I interacted with Japanese visitors to Sogo (did you ever shop there?) even though I did not speak any Japanese! We learn so much when we are unable to inject our words and personal noise into interactions. It truly is an enriching experience that leads us to tap something deeper in ourselves. And we broaden our understanding and grow as human beings.

  5. Barbara says:

    I lived near Hiroshima Nishi Eki, in the neighbourhood of the tandai where I taught in the English lab. Upon returning, I told people that I felt like I had walked through hell and come out with a suntan. So much is counterintuitive to us Westerners and therefore frustrating, but I still keep contact with friends I made here and from Kita Kyushu University (Kitakyuudai) where I assisted at an English “camp.” I had several visitors from Japan in my home. I have Japanese art and mingei everywhere and I am still studying Japanese and its calligraphy (shohdo).

    I always shopped at Sogo. It was a happy blend of the Western and more Japanese-style department stores. Did you go to the Hondohri, their covered shopping arcade? Eat at Anderson?

    I lived and worked in Germany a long time ago, too. I have learned there is much than can be communicated in the “unarticulate” gruntings of the language. Fortunately, I became fluent in German. The Japanese say you can learn to speak Japanese, but it is another thing to speak “our language”, the kind that arises from the belly.

  6. Catrien Ross says:

    Barbara, it seems your 14-month stay in Hiroshima still inspires a lifetime fascination with Japan and Japanese. Hondori Arcade I visited, but not the Andersen bakery. I did, however, eat okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style – how about you? I smiled at your description of German gruntings – a long time ago I studied German, too. But what do you think of the inarticulate gruntings favored by many Japanese men – especially when speaking to their wives? Belly communication at its daily best!

  7. Barbara says:

    I was told by a local that okonomiyaki is jokingly referred to as ekonomiyaki. I like it very much. There is a spot in downtown Hiroshima called the Okonomiyaki-mura and I have eaten with friends there a few times. I also went to a party with my colleagues at the tandai where we concocted our own okonomiyaki.

    I have not been privileged to overhear the inarticulate gruntings of Japanese men when speaking to their wives. I would be interested to see how the young men I knew as Kitakyuudai students treat their wives now. They were independent thinkers, but who knows how they turned out. I hope to visit them someday. Even when speaking to one another, Japanese men do a lot of grunting. The Japanese textbook I was using last year included the appropriate grunts to punctuate the conversations.

    Shinnen akemashite omedetoh!

  8. Catrien Ross says:

    Barbara, akemashite omedetoh gozaimasu to you, too! You might be very surprised (disappointed?) at how those seemingly independent thinking young men turned out as husbands. I am glad there is no need to punctuate our online conversation in English with appropriate grunts. Thank you for a very enjoyable exchange, and a wonderful January 1 to you from Japan.

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