Finding Out and Fitting In

When you are about to visit a new country for the first time, do you try to learn everything you can about the country, its people, the language, culture and the expectations of you as a traveller/tourist?

Or not?

On my recent trip to Japan, I met a couple who were visiting from the United States to attend the wedding of their son to a Japanese woman.  They were telling me how bad they felt that their son had spent the majority of the wedding rehearsal dinner translating for them as they didn’t know a word of Japanese.

‘Have they been together long?’ I asked, expecting that this had maybe been a whirlwind romance, where they hadn’t really had a chance to meet their new daughter in law and explore her culture.  ‘Oh yes, for a few years now’, they replied.

I was dumbfounded that this couple had flown half way around the world to attend their son’s wedding and welcome this woman into their family, yet they hadn’t even bothered to learn a single word of her native tongue!

Now, I know learning a language can be one of the most difficult things that a person can undertake, but when I first visited Japan in April 2010 with Mum, we took a term of Japanese lessons just so we could learn a few words for our two week visit.  OK – so you don’t remember 100% of what you learn when you get there, but it is amazing how even a few small words and phrases can make such a difference to your experience.  People tend to open up to you so much more and often are more willing to help you in times of need.

I had a whole discussion with a bottleshop owner in Takayama – her in Japanese, me in English – and achieved what I wanted, being a bottle of plum wine – all based on the fact that I had learnt a few simple words – ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and the words for plum wine.  The lady was soon flying around the shop picking up different brands and size bottles of plum wine, eager to help me get what I wanted.  It really authenticated the whole experience and gave me a real buzz.

And, on my last trip I decided to try and use the luggage delivery service, and as the service was located at the by now means insignificant Kyoto Station, I assumed that the service would be English speaking.  Thank goodness that I knew a few words and had brushed up on my skills before I arrived, because there was no English speaking going on in that office at all.  But with my few small words and knowing a bit about how the Japanese language works – my luggage was delivered without problem.

It seems to me to be common courtesy to at least take note of the things that may offend or upset the people of the country you are visiting and also anything that will help you to fit in to your temporary surroundings.  I love to learn a bit about what makes the people of a country the way they are, a bit of history, a bit about what’s acceptable or not in their culture, what the local foods are – because it makes me feel as though I’m getting more out of my experience.

But maybe that’s just me!

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