Why did you doubt?

About thirteen years ago, I was halfway through undergrad and the question of what to do with my life was becoming more pressing.  I was dry of inspiration and getting frustrated.  Then one day I was sitting in my mother’s car, reading an issue of Newtype magazine (yes, I was a total anime geek) when my eyes fell on an ad that said “Translators Wanted.”  And I had an epiphany:  I wanted to be a translator.

So I signed up for Japanese 101.  That’s right, I decided I wanted to be a translator before I spoke any Japanese.  I was fearless back then.

As it turned out, in that class I would meet a friend who aspired to join the JET Program.  “If you want to be a translator,” she told me, “you can’t just study Japanese in school.  You really have to live in Japan and be immersed in the language.  Why don’t you apply for the JET Program, too?”

It had literally not occurred to me that I might need to live in Japan to get my language skills up to snuff, but now that she mentioned it, it made sense.  “Okay, good idea,” I said.

A few years later, with four semesters of Japanese classes under my belt, I arrived in Japan with a vague plan to get really good at Japanese so I could be a translator.  There I happened to meet another friend.  “If you want to get really good at Japanese,” he said, “you should study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.  That’s what a lot of people here do.”

Again, it had never occurred to me that I might want to formally measure my language ability, but now that he mentioned it, it didn’t seem like a bad idea.  “Cool, how do I sign up?” I said.

Back then the test was only held once a year, and I pretty much already knew enough Japanese to tackle Level 3 that December.  How I might go about studying for the subsequent levels hadn’t really crossed my mind until another new friend mentioned that she was getting a Japanese tutor.  “You should sign up for lessons, too,” she said.

So I did, and in the two years that followed, I would pass Level 2 and Level 1, respectively.  At this point I had spent five years studying Japanese–three of them in Japan–all without putting an ounce of thought into any kind of plan, or worrying about what would happen if things didn’t work out.

Then I moved back to America, and things got real.  I couldn’t find any job openings for translators, and actually, for all of my success in studying the language, I realized I had trouble following conversations at native speed–and there were still a lot of kanji I didn’t know.  I started to doubt whether I was on the right path, after all.  I fiddled around with other things.  I went to grad school.

But when the opportunity to go back to Japan presented itself, I jumped on it.  This time, finally, I was able to do translation work, although the specter of all the Japanese I didn’t know still loomed over me.  For once I wasn’t running into any helpful friends who were handing me my next step on a silver platter.

Then a lot of things happened at once.  My mother passed away, and I returned to the Catholic Church.  I learned there was a thing called “discernment,” and I tried praying about my path in life.  I got the feeling it would be a good idea to move back to America, but I had absolutely no idea what to do after that.  I was actually a bit angry about that fact, but the Bible furnished examples of times when God said to people, “Go to this city and wait for further instructions,” so apparently that was a thing.

I moved back, and was actually surprised at the ease with which I found a Japan-related job.  But I was at another impasse.  Where was this all leading?  I wasn’t getting any younger.

Then, the other day, I met with my spiritual director, and after greeting me, he immediately asked, “So what are you doing with your Japanese?  Are you keeping up with that?”  It’s not like my spiritual director to be very forceful about things.  I got the feeling he and God had been talking about this.  Listening to myself answer his questions (“Well, I might be more inclined to study if I had a clear goal . . . I’m not really sure if I’m going to keep up this connection with Japan or not . . .”) I realized he’d hit the nail on the head.  I’d been running away from my Japanese studies.  As if to add an anvil to a piano, that night, my Gospel meditation was on the Parable of the Talents.

And so, here I am, ready to tackle Japanese one more time.  I don’t know where this will lead, or even what the next step is, but that’s okay.  God has a plan.



In the beginning, there was the creation story

In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton writes that there are two vantage points from which one can see the Church as she really is. One is from inside the Church, and the other is from completely outside it.  At the time he wrote, he perceived that many Westerners were stuck in the “penumbra” of the Church, neither close enough to it nor far enough from it to see it clearly. I think there was a time when I was in the same position.  I claimed to be rejecting Christianity without realizing how many Christian ideas I took for granted without identifying them as such.

One of the interesting things about moving to Japan was the opportunity to see the Church from that second vantage point–completely outside it.  We’re talking about a culture in which worshiping fox statues is considered conservative.  Let me give you a recent example of a time that the difference between Eastern and Western thought was brought into sharp relief for me.

At work, I’m part of a four-member translation team consisting of two native English speakers and two native Japanese speakers.  This is a great way to translate because if I ever need to clarify the meaning of a Japanese phrase, I can ask the native Japanese speaker sitting next to me, and if I want to run a couple English phrases by another native English speaker to see which one sounds better, I can do that, too.  It also led to the following interesting situation.

One day at the office, a coworker came up to the translation team with a question.  She showed us a translation that included a phrase that said something like “harmony between nature and people.”  In the English, the word order had been reversed to be “harmony between people and nature,” and she wanted to know if this wasn’t an error.

One of the Japanese members of the translation team suggested that the first word order was more natural in Japanese–nature comes first because it is considered greater than people (and therefore worshiped).  I added that the second word order was more natural in English–people come first because they are the masterpiece of God’s creation.

At this point I actually had to summarize the creation story, because it was a novel concept.  “On the first five days God created the sun and moon, land and water, plants and animals.  On the sixth day He created man, and that was His masterpiece.  After that He stopped creating things. And He put man in charge of all the other things, to take care of them. So man is the most important.”  You could see the wheels turning as she tried to imagine this.

I, on the other hand, realized how much those of us who grew up with the creation story take for granted. How would I think and act differently if, like my Japanese coworker, I had never imagined that man was in any way superior to a rock or a tree?

I might handle inanimate objects as gently as if they were babies.  I might be strikingly humble and reluctant to make waves, thinking of myself as one element of an ecosystem, whose purpose was to harmonize with the other parts.  I might even design infuriating tourist pamphlets in which each page contained a million pictures, each of which required a magnifying glass to see (okay, sorry, had to get that out!).

In short, I might think and act like a Japanese person.