My fellow “Tibetan Studies in India” program participants and I had been exploring the Northern Indian town of Sarnath for the first time. As we walked along the side of a dusty dirt road, we came across two brightly-painted stores. Tired from traveling, and overwhelmed by a host of new and unfamiliar experiences, I was suddenly struck with excitement.
On one of the stores read the following hand-painted sign: “おみやげ” or “gifts” in Japanese. Despite having read this word countless times before — both in class and during my travels in Japan — I had never before been so struck by this commonplace phrase. As we got closer to the store that accommodated this unexpected touch of familiarity, I heard a voice call out to me.
Now, as an Asian-American woman who’s experienced her fair share of cringeworthy pick-up lines, I was immediately inclined to grimace and move on, but something about this greeting sparked my intrigue. “Irasshaimase,” repeated the stranger, and in that moment I felt enthusiastically at ease. Loosely translated as “welcome,” this phrase was said to me in near-perfect Japanese by a man who I would have otherwise assumed to be entirely Indian. As I continued to approach the store, the man — again, in Japanese — asked me how I was doing, and in Japanese I began to answer.
Much to my fascination, the man began to explain the story behind his fluency: he worked at this eye-catching store selling Buddhist ritual items to tourists and visiting monks — many of who are from Japan. His boss’s wife had moved to Sarnath from Tokyo, and together they had three children who visited the store often. He recognized from my chocolate-brown hair and almond-shaped eyes that I, too, was a person of mixed Japanese heritage.
Amazed by his talent for everyday language apprehension, and touched by our ability to connect interculturally as a result, I began to cultivate a friendship with this man throughout the course of my month-long program. The man’s name was Ramesh, and each time my friends and I visited his shop, he and I would discuss everything from the products he sold to the lives we lived in India, the United States, and — of course — Japan.
As we spoke in what felt like our own secret tongue, I began to feel pride in my language abilities, an appreciation for our cultural differences, and — eventually, despite being so obviously out-of-place — a sincere sense of belonging.by