Before arriving in Sierra Leone this summer, I tried my best to come with little to no expectations – I wanted to make sure I would adapt and enjoy every experience that I’d come across.
In the back of my mind, though, there were a few things that I did expect: I expected to get plenty of looks by the locals because I knew I would look different and clearly stand out as a foreigner. I anticipated having to adjust to the different food I would be trying. I expected to get sick, just by nature of traveling to a foreign land (although I’ve been lucky enough to remain plenty healthy throughout my entire internship).
But you want to know something I wasn’t expecting? Meeting a Japanese person.
As I explained in a previous column, I am half Japanese and half Vietnamese – my mother is Japanese and my father is Vietnamese. Both of them speak fluent Japanese, so my siblings and I grew up speaking my mother’s native language.
When I heard about a Japanese person staying in Freetown, I was pleasantly surprised and took it upon myself to contact her and arrange a meeting.
It was three weekends ago now that I met Mrs. Nagayo Sawa, an experienced researcher currently associated with the University of Tokyo in Japan. I heard about her from one my friends at my hostel, the intern from New York, John Hwang (who has since returned to the states).
Mrs. Sawa promptly responded to my email on the same day I contacted her, and she even called me later that night. It felt bizarre speaking Japanese (in Africa, no less). I’m sure that my Japanese sounded a bit broken, considering I hadn’t spoken it all summer with the exception of the few days I was back home in the states. Oddly enough, speaking my native language with someone made me feel like a foreigner in Freetown more than ever before.
Our meeting, though brief, was enjoyable and comforting. I’m admittedly a little nervous whenever I speak Japanese with someone I don’t know; with my parents, I can speak a hybrid language that frequently mixes English and Japanese together, but obviously, I can’t exactly do that with a complete stranger.
We communicated just fine, though, and Mrs. Sawa was a great person – not just a great Japanese person – to meet.
It gave me an opportunity to sit down and reflect on all of the different experiences that I’ve gone through during my internship, all while using a different mode of communication than I’ve used with anyone else in Salone.
My colleagues at Awoko have been adamant about getting me to speak Krio – one reporter, John Baimba Sesay, has even refused to speak English to me. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to teach them and my Salone readers a little Japanese:
“Konnichiwa” means, “Hello.”
“Ohayo” means “Good morning.”
“Sayonara” means “Goodbye.”
So the next time you see me walking in the streets, feel free to shout any of these to me. Not only will it put a smile on my face, but I promise to respond with, “How di body?”
By Yu Nakayama