AMERICANS abroad are always looking for someone who speaks English (which is not an easy language). I was going to be different. I prepared for a trip to Japan by buying a phrase book and a dictionary. I'd had a head start in learning the language, having lived there as a child, but I thought I had forgotten most of it. What a strange and wonderful surprise to find that as soon as I was there again, Japanese words and phrases effortlessly filled my thought! I walked down a narrow street jammed with traffic, and as a car came careening toward me, I thought, ``Abunai! Jidosha!'' ``Watch out! A car!'' I passed a shoe store: ``Kutsu.'' An old woman: ``Oba-san.'' Goose pimples rose on my arms at the constant, sweet stirring of forgotten memories.
I was going to need every Japanese word that rose to the surface of consciousness, because I would be spending a week with a family who spoke very little English. I was traveling as a member of the Friendship Force, an exchange program that works to promote international understanding. Think of me not as an 18-year-old exchange student, but as an adventurous homemaker who left her family (for a short time) to pursue a dream.
During my week with the Sugawara family, I learned a great deal about communication. For one thing, as an American blabbermouth, I had forgotten how exciting it is to be an active listener. Struggling to understand and to be understood, I found myself listening with the heart, anticipating, concentrating, focusing, wholly attending -- hearing! We were forming an intense friendship, a rapport, and an understanding in a very short time.
My hostess, Rinako, was teaching me to sharpen all the senses. She was skillful at pointing out the sound of a cuckoo in the pines as we walked in a temple garden, or the smell of jasmine at night when the flowers released their fragrance, or the rush of the river below our house. Walking away from the noisy busyness of Sendai City into the still, winding streets of our neighborhood, we stopped to ``listen'' to the quiet. She taught me the word ``shizuka,'' which conveys an atmosphere of peace.
Sometimes we found that words were unnecessary, even when the subject at hand was complex. We visited a war memorial where the destruction in Sendai during World War II was graphically presented. Yumiko, Rinako's middle daughter, pushed a button in front of a photographic display, thinking it would be a taped explanation, but it activated the recording of an air raid siren. It echoed around the room, seeming to bounce off old, recovered weapons and exhibits of debris; we stood still, shocked. In a small, darkened room at one side, there was a stone statue where people prayed for peace. Rinako stood near the statue. I took her picture. We began to weep. We didn't need words, because we had our tears. As we left, we paused to sign our names in the guest book. Mine was the only one in English. I wrote, ``I pray for peace.''
But if tears are universally understood, so is laughter. One evening after a long, busy day, we sat down to compare the cultural differences in the way we perceive the sounds that animals make. It was an intelligent exchange that went like this: ``Japanese dogs say `Wan wan!'''
``American dogs say `Bow wow!'''
``Yes, bow wow.''
Everything was going well, with only a few discreet giggles, until Rinako said, ``Japanese pigs say `Bu bu.' '' I sensed the approach of a certain humiliation: embarrassment for American pigs or, even worse, embarrassment for our own disregard -- perhaps even deliberate misrepresentation -- of what pigs really say. I looked down at my lap and said, ``American pigs say `Oink.' '' I tried to mumble, but it's difficult to mumble the word oink (which is all the more evidence that oink is the wrong word for pigs when they are certainly not crisply articulate).
``Oink?'' asked Rinako blankly.
``Oink]'' asked her daughters incredulously.
``Oink! Oink, oink!''
Suddenly we were all saying oink. We rocked with laughter; we doubled over; we wiped our eyes; we felt delicious and rested. We said good night and went to bed, well satisfied that we had pulled off any thin disguise of dignity worn by oink and exposed it as the funniest word in the world.
We used our dictionaries constantly. Mine seldom had the word I wanted and theirs . . . well, theirs was confusing. Once, Yumiko found a word to explain what we were going to do with soba noodles. I read ``To burn.'' ``Oh,'' I said. Another time, Makiko consulted her dictionary when I asked her about a member of her family. She told me, ``My cousin's father is my mother's sister.'' ``Oh,'' I said. It was Makiko who told me she enjoyed our random. I couldn't understand until I looked at her dictionary. The entry was written in Japanese characters, but the definition stood out in English: ``A random talk, enjoyable conversation.'' Indeed, we had wonderful randoms!
By the last day of our week together, we were comfortable with each other. We spoke in phrases from two languages and our common vocabulary was growing, but our real communication seemed to be on a heart level.
Rinako and I met two of her friends at a small caf'e. We four women sat laughing, chatting, finding that we were all mothers of teen-agers, all concerned about the high cost of college, making little jokes at the expense of our husbands. How few words we had in common! How did we do it? How could we understand each other enough to love each other?
That evening, our last evening together before I would return to my side of the world, Rinako sang. Her song was sad and haunting; her voice sweet and clear. Quiet tears spilled down my face. At the end of her song, she announced in English, ``To see Toni-san tears, again song.'' Her voice pulled new tears from me and the tears were in the melody and the melody was in the tears and we were well satisfied without words.