I arrived in Tokyo last night. It’s changed. The streets are darker, lights are out all over the place (rolling blackouts). Food is available but on my morning walk to the local Lawson to pick up water and milk tea, I noticed maybe a third of the shelves were still empty.
There are also significantly fewer gaijins. More on that some other day.
I’m finding myself facing a whole new kind of interpreting experience. I’m heading up north to Ohfunato today for two months. What am I doing? I can’t honestly say. I have been told relief/disaster work is very fluid and organic and things “just sort of evolve” and when I say I don’t understand what that means, I’m met with “you’ll understand once you’re there.”
I’m working with a US-based relief organization that has done this kind of work all over the world. I tried explaining Japan is anything but fluid and organic but they say they know what they’re doing and are prepared to use the “gaijin card” to get things done if necessary. I’m prepared to insert myself into this, whatever that means and whatever form it ends up taking, but….
I’ve been in many, many situations where when interpreting I didn’t like the content, subject matter or way it was being conveyed. I have also seen first-hand accounts of what happens when cultural norms are side stepped. In this case, I will be in the middle of a disaster area, working with total strangers and sharing sleeping quarters (good-bye, privacy) who have never done this kind of work in Japan.
Through all this, I keep telling myself this will be an interpreting assignment unlike any other. There’s emotion, danger, grief, and pain. I will need to learn how to keep myself in check and find ways to let the tears flow versus keeping them in. According to those who are calling the shots, there will not always enough time for the team to follow the “when in Rome” mentality thus the team will have to, at times, step on toes while trying to do the right thing. I will need to learn when and how to keep my mouth shut and when to pull them aside and say “you just can’t say that.” I may need to be prepared to be told “back off” and will have to find ways to let off steam privately.
I have to be honest: I have mixed feelings about all of this. I’m working with a group of total strangers. I’ve never been in a disaster zone. I cry at the drop of a hat. I’m not going to make any money for two months. I don’t know what kind of Internet connection I’ll have. Between not having a clear-cut job description and not knowing what I will see tomorrow morning when I wake up in Ohfunato, to say I’m unsettled is putting it mildly.
My grandmother’s favorite prayer was the Serenity Prayer. I’ve adopted this as my own as well. I focus on different parts of the prayer as I need it: sometimes I need serenity, at other times courage and at other times wisdom. Today I need all three.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about at http://www.lupineandco.com/ and http://www.gaijingroup.com/.