We went to Paris for a couple of hours, ate brunch in Venice, then did some shopping in Luxor. When I looked at my watch, I realized we were going to have to walk fast to make it back to New York on time to check out of our hotel. It wasn’t as far as you’d think, though: all of this was on the strip in Las Vegas.
We were finishing the first week of a trip to the U.S.A., with myself as the escort of two Japanese students. We didn’t have much of a plan; I was just taking them to the places they wanted to go while trying to encourage them to utilize their English skills. We would have a home stay too, where they could use their conversational English while seeing American life firsthand.
After checking out of the hotel in Las Vegas, I ate lunch alone. The students were with me, of course, but somewhere in the Student Handbook to Being a Japanese Citizen, there is a rule that students on home stay are not to talk. We were like three Micronesian islands sitting at one table. I tried to make small talk with the other islands but, well, it’s difficult to communicate with a deserted island. Although these girls were in the perfect language-learning environment, I was beginning to realize that because of cultural barriers, not language barriers, these students would never become fluent English speakers. It should have been easy to communicate — we shared two common languages — but no one did.
But in all honesty, after five years of giving them private English lessons and six days of traveling together in the U.S., I have to admit that the students are finally starting to come out of their shells. We even had a conversation the night before leaving Vegas:
Me: “How did you like the Grand Canyon?”
Students: “Great!” Long silence. Polite smiles.
Me: “Big, eh?”
Students: “Yes.” Long silence. Big smiles.
Me: “What would you like to do tomorrow?” No answer. Long silence.
Me: “How about going to Ohio?”
Students: “Yes!” More smiles. Long silence.
Me: “Well, good night.”
Students: “Good night.”
I thought about that student handbook again and wondered if I might be able to alter the silence rule with a footnote: Does not apply to home stays in Ohio. Instead, I made a note to myself to improve my signing skills. After all, Japanese communication relies heavily on tacit understanding.
The silence continued in Ohio. We took a silent canoe trip, and quietly visited a dairy farm. We were seen but not heard while eating a picnic lunch on the banks of the river. We took hushed bicycle rides on country roads and returned greetings from other bikers with polite smiles. Silence was golden as we rode horses through the forests and over streams. We swam in blue waters without a word. On noiseless walks in the countryside, we took deer, raccoons and possum by surprise. We heard the sounds of Ohio: rustling corn stalks, cow moos and falling buckeyes. We slept peacefully to the rhythms of crickets calling throughout the night. Did you know you can hear the sun setting if you listen hard enough?
We walked around the aviation museum with other tourists who didn’t even know we were there until they bumped into us. We took photos in front of Air Force One, the presidential plane, while no one was looking. In an evening of deep reflection, we floated down the Ohio River on a riverboat, lost somewhere between the border states of Ohio and Kentucky.
When at the end of two weeks, I took the students to airport to say farewell, I thought for sure they would say something, something big. Instead, under their breaths, they each muttered one, polite, “Thank you.” But this time, I heard it louder than ever.