Two weekends ago was busy: I helped celebrate two other ALTs’ birthdays, which involved a lot of free food, and then I went to a barbecue for my Japanese classroom, which involved a lot more free food. The latter was a pretty crazy experience: so cool and yet so stressful and uncomfortable!
My Japanese classroom is run by the city as opposed to a private company, which means that it is affordable and attracts a really diverse group of people. I’m the only English-speaking student. In fact, almost everyone else who came to the barbecue was Chinese. And they talked to each other a lot… in Chinese. Combine this fact with the information that I am awkward at parties to begin with, and you can begin to picture the steaming silence in which I sat for most of the event.
It wasn’t all that bad, though. People brought wayyy too much food, of incredible variety, from all my favorite Japanese foods to tandoori chicken to mysterious Chinese or Thai dishes that other students made themselves. And people did talk to me. Of course, that’s part of what made things so stressful; everything was in Japanese, my command of which has suffered severely since I returned from studying abroad. By far the most surreal experience was my conversation with an Iranian classmate, who’s a really nice and approachable guy, but who asked me a difficult (understatement of the century) question:
“I have to ask you: what is Americans’ image of Iranian people?”
So I’m simultaneously trying to figure out his angle with this question, form a tactful, diplomatic and honest response, and express it in Japanese. Plus, as many people — from immigrants or second-generation Americans in the US, to foreigners abroad — can attest, it’s extremely difficult to act as a cultural ambassador when you don’t know that much about certain issues to begin with. (Last weekend, people at an English talking salon were grilling me about Obamacare and American foreign policy…) Anyway, I ended up saying something ineloquent but succinct along the lines of “The problem is our two countries’ governments, not the people.”
It was a really interesting and kind of poignant thing, though, to find something as huge as international politics affecting my acquaintance with someone — to reach across that vast political tension and create a small connection, using a language that’s foreign to both of us.
I came home from the four-hour barbecue with my brain completely fried, my introverted self in dire need of some “refueling” alone time (I guess the enervating effect of social functions is multiplied when they’re in another language). I was also laden with various food gifts that people kept pressing on me throughout the afternoon: persimmons and mandarin oranges from people’s gardens, bread, homemade Thai curry, et cetera. Like I’ve said, it was an experience at once amazing and terrifying. That contradiction pops up a lot when you’re living abroad, I think. 🙂