Vapid: there’s no other word that better describes the way I talk. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t say anything unless it means something. Still, I have a hard time making sure that when I speak, each word is worth breaking the silence. It seeps into my writing, too — if you read my really early blog work, I somehow managed to be even more long-winded.
That all changes when I speak Japanese. I’ve reached a point where I can hold good, meaningful conversations. Gone are the days when talks with friends and co-workers start with “How are you?” and end with “I’m fine.” I can communicate, but I am so far removed from any level of fluency that vapidity — my default mode of English — simply isn’t possible. I’m forced to really think about what I’m about to say if I don’t want to sound like a baby who mistook dad’s bottle of Glenfiddich for mother’s milk.
Limited ability is just part of my new thoughtfulness. Back home, it’s not uncommon to talk about your day, family, etc. with the cashier at the supermarket, or with any other stranger you might happen upon in the course of your daily life. Even if you know you’ll never see someone again, small talk is an important part of social etiquette. Sure, you can say too much, but if you say little or nothing — both of which are more the rule here — chances are people will find you rude.
I don’t want to paint a picture of the Japanese as overly stoic mutes who hate the thought of talking to people. Saying hello, asking how people are — both are common enough among strangers. It’s the giving of a life story without being asked or the announcement of your plans to someone that has to work for the next eight hours that you want to steer clear of. You risk looking like a braggart or overstepping your relationships, otherwise.
I don’t say too much or too little now, it seems, and that speaks to a much larger change. You’ll often hear people say that traveling is essential to broadening the mind, to understanding the world and the infinitely varied people who live in it. What better way to gain that perspective than by developing an alter-ego, one better suited for the Japanese clime?
I remain as loud and blather prone as ever in my mother tongue. Rare is the sentence that isn’t over-spiced with the capsicum-laced bite of profanity. When I switch characters and wear this new version of myself, however, I’m quiet and polite, talkative but not self-aggrandizing. I’m much, much better for it.
Now if I can just figure out how to marry the best parts of my international personas.
Do you know what it’s like to develop a new version of yourself when you’re traveling? Share your stories about new character traits — both good and bad — you’ve picked up on the road.