An emic exploration to language barriers

Growing up in a minority group as an Asian American in New York City, I always see immigrants struggle to assimilate into the “American” culture and learning English.  A common criticism for these immigrants is their lack of effort to assimilate. Even holding a simple conversation in English is a challenge for those who are not originally from an English-speaking country despite living in the U.S. for many years. In a multicultural city such as my hometown, the different cultural groups tend to form their own communities and live by each other. Moving to a new country is already intimidating enough, many find comfort in recreating or searching for an environment they are familiar with and grow within that bubble. After all, not many would say that they came to the U.S. because they are deeply intrigued by the American culture, but instead to look for slight improvements to living a better life.

While I attempt to understand the difficulty in adapting to a new culture and learning a new language, I was never fully able to empathize until my recent experiences abroad. The months spent in Vietnam and Japan had provided me with an emic experience to the constant battle immigrants and expats go through in a foreign country. It is especially easy for an English speaker like myself to go to a foreign country and still be able to get around without dedicating time to learn the local language. As the English language is gradually becoming the universally used language, many English learners are eager to practice the language with a native speaker. Perhaps many English speakers can share similar experiences of trying to speak the local language in a foreign country, but the locals usually would try to accommodate and respond in English instead. This can be because the individual wants to practice English or that they find it easier for them to mutter their broken English than to listen to your accent-filled attempt to speak their language. It is easy to give up trying to learn their language and accept their assistance to communicate in English. I focused on helping locals improve their English while I was in Vietnam and Japan instead of trying to learn theirs.

I made more of an effort to assimilate into the Vietnamese culture than when I was in Japan. By the time I had reached Japan, I had grown tired of the relentless effort to live like a local like when I was in Vietnam. While the locals in both countries had relatively low levels of English proficiency, I can still go about exploring the country without speaking much of the native lingo. In Vietnam, I made an active effort to befriend local Vietnamese people. The demand and pressure to learn English are extremely high in Vietnam. Once an aspiring English learner meets a native English speaker, they excitedly see it as the optimal opportunity to practice English. Often, students would approach western tourists in popular tourist areas in hopes to hold a brief conversation with them in English. Their eagerness to learn can be infectious. It made me want to teach and correct their spoken English and grammar. It is hard to find local Vietnamese who can speak fluent English. If you are lucky to meet the rare few, you also have to factor in the cultural differences. Many Vietnamese locals, unfortunately, have not had the chance to explore outside of their country due to visa and financial constraints. In many ways, their mindsets and ability to take in different ideas can be hindered. While I was fortunate enough to meet more open minded locals who can converse in English, it was still hard to relate at times. The consistent effort to try to assimilate with the local community can be tiring. From this experience, I can understand why even immigrants who have some level of English proficiency still prefer to surround themselves with people of their own ethnicity back in the U.S. Language barrier is just one factor to penetrating in a new society. The cultural difference and value system creates barriers to developing stronger bonds between people of different upbringings.

I was extremely excited to meet people who can freely converse in English when I arrived in Japan. That excitement never left me during my time there. To be able to freely express myself and know that the listener understands what I am trying to convey is liberating. I finally understood the frustration some of the fellow travelers had when they were unable to express themselves properly since they could only limit their word usage to simple descriptions of their feelings in English. After several months of simplifying the way I express myself so that others can more easily comprehend, I craved the ability to speak coherently in English. When that opportunity came, it was like the feeling of discovering a water well in a scorching hot desert.

This experience helped me better understand the frustrations that many immigrants share when living in America. Despite visiting many countries in the past, the language barrier was never a big issue for me because I either always understood a bit of the local language or that the English proficiency is high in that country. I also have not spent a significant amount of time in a country where I did not know the language until this journey.


“I need to explore”

I have been slacking on my posts again. It has been a tiring few weeks since I’ve been on the go since leaving Kyoto where I hop between places without a home base. I am typing this in a café in the Dulan, a sleepy town on the east coast of Taiwan. It is a spot easily overlooked by travelers unless you are keen on surfing. There is nothing special here and it has a similar landscape to other parts of the country. When I asked what there is to do in Dulan, everyone’s response would be ‘the beach and craft beer’. This is a place people would stop over briefly for a night or as a quick rest stop. In a way, this is the ideal atmosphere for me to relax – to be in a town where there is nothing to do. There is no pressure to “explore” and do something “exciting”. Everyone here just sits back and relax.

“I need to explore” or “I need to do something productive” are common thoughts that often run pass my head while I travel. They are self-inflicted pressures that many travelers put on themselves when they reach a new destination. Often, we feel the need to ‘make the most out of our experience’ when we are in a foreign place. Many times that translate into ‘be active and experience as much as possible’ whether it is sightseeing, sampling new food, or going on adventurous excursions. These presumed expectations weigh me down and wear me off day by day. I started this journey to ease my mind so I can think about what my next big steps should be, but nine months in and I have not had the chance to do so.

Why do we have to fill our travel days with activities? Sometimes when we travel somewhere, it may be the only chance we have to explore the area. We might never go back to that quaint town of Lambertville or the charming city of Berlin again. There are so many other places in the world to check out. The idea that the time of visit may be the only time you will be in that part of the world encourages people to explore it thoroughly. For short term traveling, this is a viable mentality and travel attitude. It is extremely exhausting in the long run. To begin with, this is not the experience I am after. I am not as interested in seeing all the major attractions or seek out the “cool” path less taken. I am interested in getting the feel for how it is like to live a different lifestyle in a different place, different culture, and different identity.

I would question myself, “Am I doing enough?” What is ‘enough’? Would that be defined as to seek out riveting experiences for stories to retell and blog or to find beautiful things to take Instagram-worthy photos? These concerns may even seem silly when you have it laid out on paper. Despite acknowledging these are just societal expectations, in which no one would be immensely disappointed if you failed to meet them, sometimes you cannot help but feel the need to fulfill them. Speaking to many locals along the way, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to travel and learn about other cultures first hand. Many of these people I have spoken to have not left their home country or have not traveled far. Because I do have this chance, I want to be a window for others to see how the rest of the world is like. It is a conflicting feeling of wanting to see more, but also to sit back and pretend I am a local.

Nonetheless, I still intend to post backdated entries to document my whereabouts for the past weeks.