I started studying Spanish in the 7th grade. Mostly because my friends were taking it and because my brother Andrew was on a mission in Argentina and he would need someone to talk to when he got home. I make no claims that junior high Spanish is difficult or challenging but I was good at it. Really good at it. I have noticed that when one is good at a thing, they tend to love said thing. I kept on it and chose it as my major when I went to college. I started literature classes, history classes, Latin American revolution classes (that was a goody), pre-Colombian culture classes and I loved all of it (please note above deep insight, as I continued to be very good at it). When I decided to go on my mission, I began to have dreams. I knew I was going to Mexico. It was revelation that felt as earnest and true as my connections with my dead dad and forgiveness of my teenage sins (I was a bad kid).
I got called to Tokyo Japan.
I was baffled for a bit but mostly felt overwhelmed by this place about which I knew nothing that I forgot to ask God about his misleading revelations. Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto, Domo. Domo. This was what I knew of Japanese. I vaguely knew that Sayonara also belonged to this language but could it be Korean? I could never remember. Did it have tones? Holy shi*, I thought.
In the MTC, I was the only one in my district who had not studied Japanese. It turned out not to matter though, because somehow I was good at Japanese too, though this was more than my little intellect I was sure of it. I felt it. Being smarter and more capable than I normally was (I know, I know you think this cannot be possible) and Japanese flowed right out of me. I was lucky, I had almost all Japanese companions which meant required SYL and I somehow liked all things Japanese. Suddenly swords were cool (normally, not cool, please) and fish jello was tasty. This whole love of culture and tongue was exhilarating to me and I felt confident that God was directing me on a new life path. I knew I would be forever connected with these people, this language.
I got home and kept taking more Japanese classes at BYU, kept up friendships with Japanese foreign exchange students, because I liked them and because I wanted to keep up my language skills. I taught at the MTC. I continually contemplated my life connection with Japan and God’s desire for me to be involved with it. Then things happened and slowly I got more interested in literature and had to graduate. I moved to Boston and lost my Japanese friends. My Japanese language skills became a parlor trick, see monkey! speak Japanese! which meant that I was really good at some really random phrases and/or talking to myself.
Now I am in Iquitos Peru, a decade after my mission. I am not good at Spanish. And my Japanese feels like it has faded into nothing. Sometimes, when I start a conversation with a girl in the market that I cannot finish or when I’m trying to pay my electric bill or when the police are pounding on my door in search of a previous tenant, I think dammit! I could do this in Japanese. At one time, I could have done this. I could have made a joke. Made small talk. Sounded authentic. I feel like I’ve lost more than Japanese though, that I’ve lost this feeling of God telling me my life path. Of loving a people or a language so much that I cannot part with them. Now mostly I fumble through Spanish and wish I could go out for a vanilla steamer with my friends and eat a fresh salad. My husband and I do good work here. I think it’s important, hopefully fewer people will get dengue fever as a result (RT/JNS tell them how bad it is) but it doesn’t feel like what I felt on my mission. What I felt when I was speaking Japanese.
This might be a loss of innocence, the loss of my youth, less cynical, more believing and bright-eyed. It might be loneliness wanting the attention and the love of speaking another’s language. But I also just want my Japanese back. And the fish-jello, anime making people that understood me.