Sunday, March 8, 2009

International Church

After an afternoon of reading Pico Iyer’s (an Indian born in England, raised in California, now living in Japan) account of Toronto, where one typical school “had fewer than a thousand students, in all.. but seventy-six different languages could be heard along its hallways, and more than 70 percent of its students spoke a mother tongue other than English... not a melting pot, as the people in Toronto politely reminded me, but a mosaic”, I was picked up by my new Japanese friend (a retired sailor with a myriad of stories and a zest for life) to go to a catholic mass in the small city nearby. I wasn’t sure what to expect, except that it was a Japanese church, and this service (every Saturday evening) catered to the Latin American population in the city. What met me was astonishing, especially in the context of the famously homogenous and impenetrable Japan. I first followed my guide into the meeting room, and as he entered I heard a stream of Japanese greetings, so I came in bowing, only to be confronted with an obviously Latin face of a young woman who turned to me with a friendly “Hola!” This was enough to throw a monkey-wrench into my determinedly mono-linguistic mind, but there was much more to come. The young lady, Senorita Maria, was from Peru (though her grandfather was Japanese), and had lived in Japan for over 10 years. She taught Japanese to foreigners and Spanish in the university and “No no, I don’t understand English. I mean, I studied it for 10 years, but I don’t know it very well,” she said in barely accented English. At that point the Father came in, an 80 year old American, with a Japanese name and face, who leads the mass alternatively in Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. His English had a forced feel to it, perfect in grammar and accent, but somehow too deliberate and self-aware. He’d been a priest in Japan for 50 years. Already I was a little bewildered in trying to get my bearings, as the (officially) American, Peruvian, and Japanese all chatted away in Japanese, then somehow switched to Spanish (even my friend unveiled his Spanish sentences), as I tried desperately to drudge up my high school Spanish without loosing a grip on my few vital words of Japanese. And then the children came in. I’ve never been so aware of my compulsion to read someone’s nationality in their face, first and foremost. It always seemed essential to me, to know what we have in common, what language we might be able to communicate in, how I should interpret a touch on my arm, and how life had taught them to view the world (or, at least, to help myself think that I know). These kids, however, defied my most desperate attempts to snatch up the slightest clue as to what was going behind their eyes. I eventually decided -more to give my mind a rest than any sense of certainty- that they were all Japanese, with the exception of the obviously Latin girl and boy, even when the 7 year old boy (Juan Garcia), started chattering away in Japanese and translating for his father. “No, he’s full Peruvian,” I was told, “and has only been in the country for 3 years.” The girl, however, was half Filipino, though she spoke not a word of English. One obviously Japanese girl was actually half Brazilian, and helped translate from Portuguese, while another jerkily introduced herself in an English thick with a typical Japanese accent “Hello, my name is Laida, I’m from the Philippians,” all the while turning the deepest shade of pink I’ve ever seen. The only fully Japanese girl in the room kept interjecting in Spanish. I felt my sense of bewilderment intensifying to dizziness. Having all the answers made orienting myself even more daunting, for what is the nationality of a half Brazilian, half Filipino, born and raised in Japan? Or a half Japanese half Peruvian living with a Mexican relative? “Oh, I have an American passport!” said little Juan to me, almost impishly, in Japanese. “Stop the room please,” I wanted to say, “I’d like to get off.” What does nationality or ethnicity even mean in a context like this? For the young girl with a Japanese face and language, yet born in Peru to a Brazilian mother, how ought this child respond to the most basic of questions “where are you from?” Whenever possible, of course, she will say “from here,” since all the question really seeks is a connection, but is it a lie? Is it ever the whole truth? The UN declaration of human right states as one of its basic tenants for humanity that “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” which is a core need for those who lack it, but might be just as much a source of friction in abundance. Of course all we’re really just looking is a label, a starting point, and nationality has been a fool-proof way to expedite an understanding of where the other is coming from. But in a world where I can sit behind a couple and eventually deduce (based on overheard language, accent, and appearance) that I’m seeing a Japanese man and his Brazilian wife, only later to learn that it’s a Peruvian man and his Filipino wife (what does that make their 5 year old daughter, born and raised in Japan?), in this world, is nationality quickly becoming less a convenient coat hanger and more a mental hang-up? And if nationality is, like family, something a man does not choose – as many of us are becoming more and more like an individual passed from one foster parent to the next, none really making a claim on “belonging”- then language is like the friends he can choose, which tell more about how he sees himself and wants to be seen. For in this small church room the ability to navigate is no longer dominated by origin, but by language. All around I can begin to track the web-like lines of communicate, as I try to keep up with “Buenos Noches”s here, “Konban wa”s there, and everywhere a deer-in-headlights look as the other follows up on my signals that we can communicate. I find out that Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese, but not the other way around. I meet adults who have lived in Japan for 10 years, yet their kids have to translate my most basic of Japanese to them. Some few who speak all the languages gathered there rush around like whirlwinds of activity, while others close into small circles of those they could communicate with. In this place, a forerunner of the world stage, the “sense of belonging” goes not to the highest bidder, nor to the holder of the correct passport, but to the speakers of the right languages. And so while the world is shrinking, it’s becoming exponentially more fractured. The teenage girl next to me might indeed hold an American passport, but I can’t speak Spanish, and if I did I wouldn’t know where to begin commenting on her favorite childhood cartoon in Japan, or what kind of relationship she has with her English-only father. It’s still true of course that speaking the same language doesn’t mean you have anything to talk about. So that’s one more thing that struck me about this place, again in contrast to the norms of the country waiting outside the front doors: warmth. I spent 10 minutes speaking mutually broken Japanese with a Bolivian who thumped me on the back more times then I can count, and discussed religious culture with a Japanese woman using little more than sincere smiles and hand-motions (not an unusual exercise, but somehow it felt like real communication). During the greeting time a full 20 people gave me a double-handed handshake (even the Japanese had picked it up!), unintentionally teaching me to say “Peace be with you” in four languages. The world has changed, again, without most of us realizing it. The number of people falling through the cracks of how we traditionally see and understand the world is growing, but once the cracks are full it is we “normal” ones who will be out of place. Our ways of seeing each other will have to change, categories must be reorganized, What question will replace “Where are you from?”? Will it be “What language do you speak,” “Where do you live?” or perhaps even “Where are you going?”? In any case mankind shows no signs of abandoning the need to see itself in groups, but the rules of membership and the shape of the anchors we toss out are all changing rapidly. If it can be so visible in a small church in suburban Japan, the world can’t be far behind.


  1. What an amazing experience! An American friend living in Dubai mentioned being in church surrounded by people from all parts of the world. He loved the idea they had all come together to worship the same God....but never mentioned the language issue (perhaps being Dubai, it was all English).

    I love that you actually had physical contact in the warmth of handshakes!!!


  2. Goodness in Dubai I can imagine!! You could probably hold a model UN in most of the buildings in that city. Yeah, probably all English, but I remember something said to me by a friend who was a missionary in the Philippines for 15 years: "most of them spoke English, but I knew that Tegalog would always be their heart language." So he learned Tegalog. That's why I think foreign language will retain it's usefullness for a few generations yet.
    Handshakes! Yes! Then you'll be thrillled to know that my youngest elementary school students have taken to dog-piling me when I walk into their class. :-)
    Thanks for the comment!