I was born and raised in the beautiful Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts surrounded by farms, orchards, and the mighty Connecticut River. Although the area is fairly rural, quiet, even sleepy, it is also a major higher learning hub with four colleges and the University of Massachusetts calling it home.
It is the latter that provided the largest tug on my imagination.
The colleges and University were filled with students and professors from around the world. Events and activities were often available that would carry me off to far away places where new and interesting cultures could be discovered.
So it was not surprising that upon completing my education and gathering some work experience, I set off to see the world, moving to Japan for two years. This was followed by two years living in Europe.
I have continued to pursue my love of travel and foreign cultures ever since, visiting nearly 70 countries and learning multiple languages. It is an odyssey that has broadened and deepened my view of interpersonal communication and understanding, in particular the benefit of adjusting your thinking slightly in order to comprehend the point of view of others.
Several experiences brought this home as i lived and worked abroad.
While living in London, I worked in a kitchen and at the Student Union at the University of London. In the kitchen, I worked with Nigerians. At the Student Union, I worked with people from Ireland, all over the U.K., and parts of Africa.
Here I was working with fellow native English speakers and yet I had a devil of a time understanding them. The rhythm of the way my Nigerian friends spoke was nearly impossible for me to follow at times, and the Cockney janitor at the Student Union was all but incomprehensible to me.
Despite these issues we worked together well and became friends. We spent social time together outside of work and rather than blocking our communication, the linguistic oddities each of us carried became points of discussion and fun.
Perhaps the one language incident i’ll most remember happened while i was living in Japan.
One morning I stopped at a 7-Eleven (yes Japan is full of 7-Elevens) to purchase an onigiri (a rice ball wrapped in seaweed with tuna in the middle). After collecting my onigiri, I went to pay . The person working that day was a young man clearly timid about talking with me.
I prefer my onigiri warm, so usually ask the attendant to zap it in the microwave. So I casually put the food on the counter, pointed to the microwave, and asked the young man to put it in.
As I was counting my money I realized that the young man was just standing there. So I asked him again to put the food in the microwave. The young man looked at the microwave, looked at me, back again, but did nothing except look increasingly uncomfortable.
I was beginning to get annoyed. Was it my Japanese? It seemed the simple request to put the onigiri in the microwave shouldn’t have caused such difficulty. So I asked again, somewhat more forcefully. My friend came to the counter and asked what was going on. I exasperatedly explained that I simply wanted this young man to put my onigiri in the microwave.
“What exactly did you say?” my friend asked. Turns out my language skill weren’t quite up to speed that morning. I had confused my verbs and rather than asking the young man to put the onigiri in the microwave, I had been emphatically telling him to get in the microwave. I apologized profusely and quickly slinked out of the store.