I got a little spoiled in Japan. I know that now.
While I achieved a lot on my own in Japan, and was able to get around restaurants, shops, and cat cafes without causing too many international incidents, I realize now that I had a safety net. A big Mr. Louise-shaped safety net.
Because my husband speaks Japanese (and can read it, and knows the customs, and knows not to "lay a reassuring hand on the coffee shop worker you thought was your friend" because that will FREAK HER OUT EVERY SINGLE TIME), I never felt like help was too far away.
Though I certainly made my fair share of linguistic and cultural faux pas all on my own, I had the luxury of having my husband by my side for situations when I knew no amount of apologizing would get me through it.
And if I knew I was going to be alone in a new or strange situation, Mr. Louise was usually able to give me a step-by-step guide on what to say, what to do, and where to go. ("Don't shake their hand...but bowing like that is weird. Just be yourself. Remember to start your request with sumimasen. Err on the side of formal, and say thank you A LOT. This is how you say, "Excuse me, would it be OK if I just look around?" And if you get lost, ask for this train station. Good, you got it. No, stop bowing. Why do you keep bowing?")
Japan was an amazing adventure around which every corner was a learning experience. And though I felt responsible for my own best behavior in Japan, I realize now that I only really had to worry about my behavior. My husband was my guide, he took care of himself (mostly) — and he took care of me.
Now I'm in Hong Kong, and I'm the guide. I'm the language and cultural "expert" in our household. May the Great Kitten in the Sky help us all.
My husband is having trouble learning Cantonese. It's a tonal language where the meaning of a word changes depending on the tone. For example, change the tone of the word for "size" (as in, "I'd like a large size shirt") and you get the word for "horse" ("I'd like a large horse").
For my husband, whose career in academia revolves around the relatively flat Japanese language, hearing and speaking the Cantonese tones often leads to him holding his head in his hands and saying, "I HEAR the difference, I just CAN'T MAKE MY MOUTH DO IT."
Admittedly Cantonese is not vital to living in Hong Kong the way Japanese was vital in Japan. Hong Kong is an incredibly easy place for English-only speakers to get by — nearly everybody speaks some English. Of course, there are a few situations that demand Cantonese be spoken. That's where I come in.
When my husband had to go to the doctor recently, the usual bilingual receptionist was absent. Of course this was the day when my husband's medical needs were delightfully complicated (for those of you keeping track, he's fine). I had come along for post-doctor's visit waffles. I earned those waffles.
As soon as I heard the receptionist apologize and speak SLOW AND PURPOSEFUL Cantonese to my husband at the reception window, I knew I was going to get called up from the bench. I frantically began reviewing any and all medical Cantonese I had floating around in my head. I realized in that moment that most of my "medical" Cantonese revolves vomit, diarrhea, and death.
"Louise can you help us?"
"Sure! What's up?"
I went over to the receptionist window and smiling, asked the woman behind the desk what she needed from my husband.
"Hello," she said, looking bit relieved to hear me speaking Cantonese. "Your husband needs to come back for a [Cantonese medical words] next week, is that OK?"
The confusion in my eyes was reflected back to me in the "UH-OH" look on the receptionist's face.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand, what does he need to do next week?"
"A [Cantonese medical words not pertaining to vomit] test. He'll need to [Cantonese medical words not pertaining to diarrhea] before coming in. Also fill this prescription," she handed me a prescription and told me the cost of the test next week. "Is that OK?"
Turning to my husband, I asked him if the doctor had mentioned any testing he had to come back for.
My husband told me that the doctor had mentioned several tests that would need to be performed on him in the coming weeks and rambled off a litany of tests that the receptionist "might" be talking about. "Can you ask her if any of those are it?"
Turning back to the receptionist, I tried to not look terrified and bumbled my way through an explanation that went something like, "My husband doesn't know...uh...anything. Can we make an appointment for next week, take this prescription, and call back later so the doctor can explain to my husband in English?"
The receptionist quickly agreed to this course of action, we threw some Hong Kong Dollars at her, and ran away.
It's moments like these that I can't help but worry that my husband has a "safety net" full of holes. I know he doesn't need me in quite the same way that I needed him in Japan, but in the experiences in Hong Kong where I have to take charge I'm learning that being a translator is a much more stressful job than I originally thought.
I now understand the look of trepidation that would cross Mr. Louise's face when I'd ask him to accompany me to some obscure "very Japanese" place that would require him to do all the talking. While I never took his language skills for granted, I also never realized the mental gymnastics that went into translating. Not to mention the added difficulty of translating a language that you're not entirely fluent in.
I'm not going to lie, there is a thrill in knowing that I can translate, or at least get us through a situation, if absolutely necessary. Every time I reach for a Cantonese word, and miracle-of-miracles it's there, I'm reminded that this language is a part of me in a much deeper way than I am aware.
When I had to give my husband a step-by-step guide on how to explain to a taxi driver where we live (many taxi drivers here don't speak English), I could do it. Knowing that I could take care of the person who took care of me when I was at a total loss for language, was one of those new triumphant feelings that is so unique to life abroad.
When the angry lady loitering around my favorite cheapie food counter decided to lay into my husband for having tattoos and being a white guy (I'm not sure she was in her right mind), it felt so GOOD to be able put myself between them and tell her to buzz off.
I don't normally like to feed the ramblings of an irrational stranger, but when she invaded our personal space, slung insults at Mr. Louise, and then finally muttered how I probably didn't even understand Cantonese, I couldn't resist.
"HEY. I hear what you're saying. WALK AWAY."
She froze, stared at me for a moment, then ambled away talking to herself.
No, neither of us were in any real danger in this situation with the angry lady, but remembering all the times my husband had come to my aid in Japan when I made irrational, elderly Japanese men angry because of the way I looked or spoke, I wanted to pay him the same service. Knowing someone has your back like that makes a strange place a little less strange.
Being the one "in charge" in Hong Kong is a position I grapple with daily. Every time we go to a super-local restaurant that only speaks Cantonese, every time one of our building managers knocks on our door, or even every time we get in a cab, I find myself digging deep to be brave.
Living in Japan meant putting myself out there, forcing myself to find a way to be independent of my husband. And while being brave in Hong Kong still means being independent and putting myself out there, there is the added quality of wanting my husband to feel as safe and supported as I did in Japan.