Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? If English is not your mother tongue and you’re reading this — congratulations!! That’s a major accomplishment! Learning another language broadens a person’s perspective more than perhaps just about anything else out there. And there’s nothing easy about it.
It took me about a year of full-time study of the Portuguese language before I had enough of a foundation to learn the rest by studying and using it on my own. The more I immersed myself in Portuguese with Brazilian friends, the better I did in Portuguese. When I moved to Japan I knew I was in for the same thing — only greater.
But that “greater” was even bigger than I thought. Coming from English, a language that is a mix of romantic, Germanic and Scandinavian languages, there was little in common. Kanji is new. The grammar is completely different. Verb tenses are different. Pronunciation is miles apart from English. Even English words, when used in Japanese, can take on a completely different sound. (How about “Kurisumasu” or “Sutahbukusu?” — Christmas and Starbucks!)
But as with anything, if you keep at it and never give up, even if the progress is little, there is progress. Future gains become bigger and bigger, and when things click into place, other things follow behind in a quicker fashion. This is the curve of learning any new skill. Lots of effort with little to show. But keep at it long enough and the curve turns around and with less effort, greater strides are made. That gets you to an intermediate level, where the curve begins all over again.
So if you’re working on a new skill — whether it’s learning a language, an instrument, a new skill or even starting to learn the Bible or a new culture — keep at it! Before you know it, you’re going to hit that curve that propels you to an intermediate level and be so glad you did.
I have to admit that I am very fortunate when it comes to finances. I grew up with an unfair advantage: my dad was a hard-working accountant who knew how to control money without being controlled by money. Not only did he know it, but he lived it and taught us to do the same from a young age. The only way I am able to afford living in one of the world’s most expensive cities with such a big family is not because I have a huge income — it’s because I was taught how to use the income I have.
I wasn’t handed a bank account full of money. My parents encouraged me to get a job and start earning money for myself. When I first started making my own money, it was mowing lawns of the neighbors around us. I got my few hard-earned bucks and Dad sat me down for the money talk. He taught me to put a percentage of my money away in savings, a percentage of my money to go to the church and a percentage I got to spend. Learning this from a young age, my dad set me on a course of staying out of debt, saving for the future and being generous with my money with God and others. And when you’re generous with your money, God is generous with you. With scholarships, hard work and some saving (from me and my parents), I was able to do college debt free.
In this week’s video Is Tokyo Affordable for Large Foreign Families? I talk a bit about how we make it work for us. There are places where we tighten our belt and other places where we splurge a bit. When all is said and done, we make sure we’re spending less than we’re making (even if it means we live in a house much smaller than what we would prefer).
Now that I’ve been counting my calories to lose weight recently, I’ve been amazed by how much it lines up with finances. You have a certain income (daily caloric intake) that if you exceed, you gain weight that slows you down and makes you unhealthy (you go into debt), but if you’re able to closely count your calories that you consume (your expenses) and balance those against additional income (exercise) and that total is less than your income — you’re going to lose weight (get out of debt). Make sense? In both situations, the key is tracking what’s really happening and exercising self-control.
The process of putting a budget in place, or starting to count calories, is not fun at all. In fact the first implementation of it is time intensive and it feels restrictive. A total downer. But once in place and operating correctly, you’ll be surprised to see where your money really goes. And with enough time the results start to speak for themselves: a life much more full and free of weight, debt and unnecessary excess. It frees you to enjoy life on a whole new level.
Moving to any culture outside of your own is a huge adjustment, and the amount you have to adjust only increases as you cross oceans and go from a Western country to an Eastern one (or visa versa). If you already know the language of your new country, it’s a HUGE advantage, but very few people move oversees that way. One of the fastest ways to adjust, although perhaps the most difficult way, is complete cultural immersion.
If you’re single and able to house with a native speaking family (a homestay or exchange program), it is by far the fastest way to learn a new language and culture. Growing up in America, my family often had exchange students living with us for 6 months at a time. It wasn’t easy for those students, since everything they knew was different. Often it wasn’t just their first time outside of their country, it was also their first time outside the home they grew up in! That’s a lot of stress, even if you like that sort of thing! But if you can handle it, it is by far the fastest way to adapt to a new country.
If you’re moving with a family, then the extent to which you can immerse yourself in a culture will be more limited. We opted for enrolling in language school — 3 hours a day of Japanese language and culture taught to us by locals. I did 2 years of this and I am very glad I did. The speed of your adaptation is up to you: being brave and asking for help from strangers and making friends goes a long ways towards learning faster. We have found the Japanese people to be very helpful in this regard.
Our kids are even more immersed — they get to do authentic Japanese school, although without the help of Japanese parents. They are adapting to Japan in such a natural way that it is astounding. We believe this will be a big advantage for them later in life, building bridges between our cultures and being able to feel at home in Japan or America, fluent in Eastern and Western cultures.
For us, we’ve had tremendous support from friends and family back in the States and — I can’t overstate this — from our church family here in Japan. Our Paz Church is an awesome international community and the loving relationships that are developed there have helped us immensely. It has been an anchor for us as we navigate the stresses and ups and downs of adjusting to a new country and culture. There are days that are so exciting. Then there are days when you just feel like moving back to the familiar. You need support in order to stay healthy and flourish.
We don’t want our kids to lose touch of their roots as they grow towards their God-given destinies. Our church family gives a strong foundation and identity for our family to build upon, and it makes our lives here in Japan that much more rich and fulfilling.
What we eat is deeply tied to our customs, culture and the produce of the land we live in. Growing up in the midwest (known as the breadbasket of America) beef, pork and chicken were plentiful. The crops that filled our grocery stores were often grown locally, and those that weren’t were mostly grown in America. There was an almost endless sea of options before you at the supermarket, all at a good price.
When my wife and I moved to northern Brazil, our diet also changed. The variety of food that we enjoyed in America was replaced with Brazil’s staple food of beans and rice. Add to that the local manioc root called “farinha” and a side of meat, and you had yourself a meal. Many Brazilians wouldn’t even consider that they’ve eaten a meal unless they’ve had rice and beans! And the fish! Oh, the fresh-water fish from the Amazon River is second to none. Delicious and plentiful, I developed a deep appreciation for fresh-water fish in Brazil.
But there were times I longed for a good old-fashioned American burger with cheese, corn on the cob with butter and salt, and some apple cider to go along with it. Perhaps a side of potato salad! My mind would recall times enjoyed together with friends and loved ones in America talking and laughing together as the night slipped away. Ah! There’s more to what we like to eat than just taste. Often our favorite foods are our favorites for a reason: they remind us of a good experience — a beautiful view or a special time in life. A certain meal at a particular restaurant can remind us of when we fell in love, and other places can trigger nostalgia.
Now that we live in Japan, the rice and beans of Brazil have been replaced with the staples of Japan: sticky rice, seafood and ramen with a base of soy sauce. There’s a completely different taste to the palette of Japanese cuisine. If you didn’t grow up eating things like natto (fermented beans) or mugichya (tea), you might just gag your first time trying them. That is, until you develop the palette for it. Customs and cultures are as much like cuisine as anything else. What we grow up is normal to us — until we’re introduced to something else. If we keep braving the new experience until we are used to it, we find we have grown to appreciate a deeper aspect of life.
When we expand our experiences and appreciation for other cultures, foods and places — not putting them down or being closed off to them, but embracing the good parts of them — then we grow in our ability to experience joy and satisfying relationships with others on a deeper level. While 20 years ago I could have never imagined being homesick for anywhere but the midwest, now I miss America and Brazil! There are experiences, relationships and cuisine unique to both. And when I’m traveling away from my new home of Japan, I miss the people and food here, not to mention my family!
My point is this: without forging out into the unknown, you can’t grow as a person. But growing as a person is the key to enjoying life in ways that you could never have imagined.
The Bible emphasizes the importance of family and fellowship with others by sharing meals and encouraging one another. This is key to being a healthy, well adjusted person. But what that looks like and just how it plays out in each and every culture is very different. Without a doubt, this diversity is special and unique and to be celebrated world-wide.
God’s promise is “Wherever two or more are gathered together in my name, there I am with them in their midst.” God’s Spirit is the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. When we meet together in Jesus’ name, the fellowship is more rich and meaningful than any other type of get-together. It is a central part of the experience that we call church, and it is bigger than any one culture. If you’ve never experienced that, it’s time to try for yourself. I’d like to extend an invitation to you to join us at Paz Church, or if you are not near us, ask around your area to find a local church that people recommend. The experience alone will expand you as a person and allow you to experience a joy you never thought possible. There are so many stories of people who, for the first time walking into church, began to cry because there was so much love and hope in the room. I want you to experience that too!
Our life is so rich now because of the three cultures we have come to love and appreciate. Each culture’s cuisine and interaction define a way of interacting with others that is rich, complex and meaningful. How much more rich will it become as the years go by? Enjoy this week’s Life in Japan: What we eat in Japan when we’re together. So many of the precious people in this episode are not only our family members in Japan, but our extended church family — the brothers and sisters that make our experience here in Japan so rich. Bon appetite!
As westerners living in Japan, the decision of where to send your kids to school can be a bit overwhelming. You want them to have the best education possible, and at the same time you want them to learn Japanese and fit into Japanese and Western cultures just fine. Upon arriving in Japan, while Becca and Anna (our oldest daughters) were still 4 years old, we looked into the different options.
We could send them to international schools where they would grow up learning in English. Some are even good Christian schools, which were very attractive to us. But at the same time we wanted our kids to learn Japanese and make good connections locally. These private schools were not local.
Also, we’d heard of the intense pressure Japanese students undergo and bullying which can be problem. These things were certainly red flags to us. The more we talked with others, we found out that the real pressure to perform begins when students prepare to go into Junior High School. They want to get good grades to place in the good schools. Then of course the same thing happens for High School and finally college. Once students get to college, it is perhaps the most free time in the life of any student in the Japanese system.
We wanted the kids to learn Japanese but eventually prepare them for university in English (most likely in America). We determined we could have our kids in local Japanese schools up until Junior High, at which point we could either home school them (yikes!) or move them to an international school that teaches in English. We’d heard of some other students that did it this way and it was very positive for them.
So for now we keep a close eye on our kids, always asking them about other students (or potential bullying), friends, teachers, etc. Many times they haven’t quite understood what all was going on, and we weren’t able to help them much in terms of the Japanese, but that’s where good friends really helped out. Several friends would help us make sense of the system and we even enlisted the older girls in after-school sessions that helped them with their school work.
Since the girls are in 5th grade, soon we will need to cross the bridge of what we will do for them in Junior High School. Until then, it has been a positive experience having our kids go to local Japanese schools.