Just like it’s a good thing when a flower or plant is repotted after a while because the nutrients in the original soil tend to become exhausted, I believe that it’s generally a good thing for people to also transplant themselves every now and then, perhaps every decade or so, into a completely different environment.
Already as a child for some reason I wanted not only to see other countries inhabited by people who spoke other languages, but also to live in those other countries and really experience the world those other people saw, while speaking to them in their own language. I didn’t want to simply travel, I wanted a chance to become somebody else in one lifetime, preferably several times.
Is that too much to ask? It probably is, but I didn’t worry about it.
So I bravely repotted myself a number of times, first from Prague to Nurnberg to Germanize myself for a while, and then from Nurnberg to San Francisco to become an American, maybe for good, while still in my twenties. Then the delicate flower that I was then (and still am now!) repotted itself after several years spent in the magical San Francisco soil (it would be eventually a total of 10 years in the city of San Francisco and 19 years in California) into the soil of a very different flowerpot in Tokyo.
If you’ve studied a difficult language like Japanese, the country and its language and culture are for a long time just an abstraction in your brain. Then you suddenly find yourself in Japan, surrounded by a language and culture that is very real and concrete, and it’s a major shock to the system. But it’s a beautiful shock making you see everything that you know of the cultures and languages of your own country or countries in a different light.
The process of jumping out of one flowerpot and into another one is relatively easy if you’re young and nobody depends on you. It’s much more difficult as you grow older because once you’re a little bit older, you first have to convince your spouse and children to go with you. And the thing is, most people will end up with a spouse and children without really trying too hard. That’s just how things tend to work out in life.
As one gets older, the safety of what’s familiar and comfortable suddenly becomes much more important, and so do simple but important pleasures and creature comforts that one often has to abandon when moving to an unfamiliar country, or even moving to a new place across the country.
I remember how once on an office lunch break I wandered into an electronics store in the Hamamatsu-cho section of Tokyo near the office where I was working at the time to look longingly at big new TVs. It must have been at the end of 1985 or the first part of 1986. All the TVs were showing a new film with Sylvester Stallone—Rambo II—on the big screens. I wanted to finally have my own place so badly, with a comfortable sofa in a comfortable house and a big TV to watch dumb movies on it to my heart’s content.
Instead, I was living in a tiny Japanese room at my in-laws house, sleeping on a mattress that was rolled up and stored in the closet every morning. Even though it was a big house by Tokyo standards, there was no space in the room for a comfortable sofa. The only piece of furniture was a Japanese kotatsu, a small lacquered table covered with a blanket (the room looked almost exactly like this picture from Wikipedia, including the tiny TV in the corner, except that the blanket was purple-brown, not blue). Based on the heating system used 30 years ago in Japanese houses, you stuck your feet into the kotatsu and turned on the kotatsu’s electric heater when you were cold in the winter. On the plus side, the system was very environmentally friendly. On the minus side, your feet were hot, but the rest of your body was cold.
Since in addition to my regular office job, I was also typing my translations on Saturdays and Sundays on a small word processor placed on top of the kotatsu, you could say that the kotatsu was both the heating system and also my first translator’s office.
At first I was immensely enjoying the novelty and challenges of my new exotic Japanese flowerpot. Those floors with tatami mats were so different from what I knew in Europe and America. The whole room was saturated by a strange but pleasant smell emanating from the rice straw that is used to manufacture the mats. But when you have to commute in crowded trains to your work in downtown for an hour and half each way, as I had to do five or six days a week, and leave the house at 7 AM only to get back late in the evening, it wears you down pretty quickly.
About six months after my Rambo II reverie on a lunch break, I was on a plane back to San Francisco, with my wife, who curiously didn’t try at all to convince me to stay with her in Japan, even just for a few more years, although at first that was plan A. She must have been secretly relieved that I had finally had my fill of Japanese culture.
No matter how fragile and delicate flowers we may be, most translators really have no choice but to move to a foreign country and live there, preferably for a few years, if we are serious about the language or languages that we are studying. There simply is no other way to learn a foreign language well.
Non-translators don’t really need to do that. In some countries, people stay in the same flowerpot their entire lives. When I was growing up in a small town in Southern Bohemia called Český Krumlov, I had four very good friends. We hung out together all the time, from first grade until graduation from high school. We were the Five Musketeers.
When I visited the town nine years after I left once the communist regime finally fell and I was able to return, I didn’t know where my friends lived. But I figured, well, it’s Friday night, Bohouš will probably be in a pub in the town square that used to be his favorite place. So I went to the pub – and there he was at a table in the middle of it, grinning from ear to ear and waving at me to join him and his buddies. Two of my old friends still lived in the same tiny town and two of them had moved: one about 15 miles south, and one about 15 miles north. I am pretty sure they still live there now.
When it comes to moving long distances, America is very different from a small European country. People here move all the time from one state to another, often hundreds or thousands of miles, without giving it much thought. That too has its disadvantages: for example, I would like to live not too far from my children, but at this point I have no idea in which state my two sons (who are now in their mid twenties) will eventually live.
In a big country like the United States, and maybe other big countries like Brazil or Australia, you can transplant yourself into a very different flowerpot without leaving the country, that’s how big the differences are between different states. And there is also a huge difference between living in a big city and a small town.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who also happened to be a stoic philosopher, wondered in his book Meditations written about nineteen hundred years ago what it is that makes people move from one place to another. I can’t find the exact quote on the Internet, but one thought from his book that I still remember, although I read it decades ago, is about how futile it is to keep moving from place to place if you are moving in order to escape yourself. You can’t escape yourself, wrote Aurelius, because wherever you go, you will be taking yourself with you [paraphrased].
But is that really true? I thought so when I read the book as a teenager. But a few decades later, I would disagree. I didn’t move to different countries to escape my old self. On the contrary, I was moving from place to place not only to learn new languages, but also to find myself in this manner.
Had I spent my whole life in the same flowerpot as the rest of the Five Musketeers did, I would have been a very different person now. I don’t know whether it would have been better or worse had I stayed put, but I do think that jumping from one flowerpot to another, and doing it in one lifetime, is probably much more fun.
It may even mean that you live more, or somehow manage to squeeze more than just one life into what was originally supposed to be only one lifetime.