I love studying languages. Back at school I took as many as I could get my hands on. Spanish, French, German, Japanese. At university this list only increased further. I was one of only two students who was fascinated with language learning, and that put us both in a precarious position. You see, you don’t need to be fluent; just being familiar with a language is enough to get you into trouble. You automatically know more about foreign languages and cultures than most do. So, whenever someone from another country comes to visit, having someone with this knowledge is preferable. It doesn’t matter if you’re used at all for correspondence; sometimes the presence alone of a linguist is desired, just to provide the security of mind that if anything goes wrong they can help smooth over cultural shock. Ordinarily the need wouldn’t arise but my school specialised in foreign languages. That meant we had a lot of foreign student exchanges. Close to once a term to be exact.
Studying every language on offer meant juggling which exchanges I could afford to go on. In all my time there I only participated in two exchanges myself but, I was drafted into the others when they took place in the U.K. Need somebody to help escort a dozen Japanese students on tourist trips? Go get Poncho. Your go-to linguistic aid, free of charge. We could be called upon at any time under the guise of study to assist the school in languages. Trips, events, speeches. My school was the sweat shop of student interpreters.
There were multiple schools in Japan that we had ties to and every term a new batch of students fresh off the press came to visit; all of them complete with matching uniforms and brief self introductions. They come fully posable with a list of set phrases in both English and Japanese! Go to your nearest Japanese school to pick one up today. Accessories not included. Visit your local Japanese language teacher for more details.
My school was in dire need of some moral propaganda. Pets and Japanese students, are not just for Christmas! Yet every term when the new group arrived, Japanese students would pass between host families like hot potatoes. Why they couldn’t stay with the same host family for as short a time as a week was beyond me. Half the reason was the British families; they didn’t want to host anybody for longer than a day or two. We can assume that if it went beyond the third day they’d spontaneously combust out of hospitality shock. The other half was the Japanese school and families; they would not accept a student staying in the same home as a student of the opposite sex. Once again, God knows why. The reason behind this condition was never explained to me. I guess it was just far too simple to suggest that all a host family needed to provide was food, a room, a bathroom and transport to and from school; I obviously forgot they needed to conveniently have a child of the correct gender too.
This posed a slight problem at my school as it was an only-boys grammar school; there were no female British students to pair off with the female Japanese students. Ironically the Japanese students that arrived were sometimes predominantly female (do young Japanese boys have absolutely no interest in foreign countries or languages I wonder). I suspected that the Japanese were playing a cruel joke on us one term when they sent 14 girls and only 2 boys to stay with host families, insisting on gender matches despite knowing we were at an only-boys school. Watch out. The power of Japanese inflexibility extends far beyond its borders. As a result, temporary hosts were found until substitute ones could be organised, resulting in many students being paired off with the female teachers at my school. The Japanese schools loosened their condition eventually and allowed the mix of genders so long as the British student had a sister. I don’t know how or why this was preferable but I’m fairly certain that if somebody explained to me the stupid conservative reason behind it, I would lose my temper.
Wherever these Japanese students went, I would be sent too. I showed the the school grounds. I introduced the local sites. I even went as far as Canterbury to translate the history of the Cathedral. Oh that Cathedral. The first time was exciting; I had only been once as a child and this time I was asked to explain the history. Weirdly not the religion though. God forbid religious education for students from faithful schools. I became a true tour guide, leading them around the cathedral and even pointing to the exact spot where Thomas Becket was murdered by Henry II’s knights.
‘Who will rid me of this one turbulent priest?’
Whether it was poor translation or a complete lack of interest in history from my audience, it fell flat along with my face. The second trip to the Cathedral the following month was little different. The third less so. On the fourth I had lost my enthusiasm. By the eighth I never wanted to go back there again. Yet I did again. My trips to Canterbury were forever overshadowed by the Cathedral’s spires, looming and tempting historic monologues. No matter what I did I would be brought back there, to my personal purgatory under the roof of the institution that invented the very term. When I die, please dear God, don’t bury me in Canterbury. Burn me with fire, dissolve me in acid, pose my corpse in the Tate Modern, whatever takes your morbid fancy. Just don’t send me to that Cathedral again.
On a separate trip I was sent to assist in a cultural festival organised by the Japanese students who were staying in that city. Come experience some Japanese culture. But it wasn’t without its hidden drawbacks. when I arrived, two Japanese girls in charge of demonstrating tea ceremony offered me the first cup of that day believing I had never tried green tea before. In their eagerness they paid little attention to the fact that the kettle had only just boiled and the water was still literally bubbling inside the cup. But how could I delay drinking it? Two expectant faces before me and the gentle pleading in broken English ‘please try it. We made it especially for you’. Which is why I poured boiling water into my mouth, searing my own flesh all the way down my throat. My tongue swelled and I lost all ability to taste anything for the rest of the day.
“So. Good” I choked, feeling my tongue grow to twice its size between waves of stinging pain.
Translating for everyone was very fun after that. Of course they asked to go to the Cathedral later that afternoon after the festival ended and who was I to refuse. Or better yet, how could I even form the words to refuse.
“Who will ridge me of jis one chabulant priesht?”.
I don’t know Henry but there’s no way I’m going to translate that into Japanese this time round.
Back at school I was more a babysitter when the tours were over, making sure they were comfortable and translating as best I could when need be (with one exception. One of the guys in my class decided he wanted a Japanese girlfriend and set about trying to flirt shamelessly with one the Japanese women. Ordinarily I would have come over to help her escape if it was obvious she wasn’t interested and in many cases before, it was very obvious. Except this one time when this same guy mistook the Japanese teacher or one of her students. On this occasion the aftermath was both extremely uncomfortable and hysterical). Japanese students and teachers were often deceptively youthful looking. Perhaps Japanese people age better due to their diet, it’s hard to say. As a result it could be rather shocking; such as when two students informed they were 21 and 23 years old respectively. Why on earth are you two at a secondary school with exchange partners that are more than 6 years younger than you? It’s creepier than seeing adults from my generation bond excitedly with children over their mutual love of ‘Line stickers’. One of you does not belong in this scenario guys.
Finally, no foreign visit was complete without an awkward farewell. Between letters being thrust at me suddenly by those with no confidence in speaking and Japanese students bursting into tears (only the male students. Somebody needs to look into male Japanese students, seriously), it was a bit of a juggle. I would be around to help translate farewell messages too. So it became somewhat difficult when one student declared honestly in Japanese that she really hated British culture, not expecting me to understand and not expecting British students to ask about her opinion. So like a true accurate interpreter, I lied through my teeth when I described what she said.
These visits continued on for years while I studied there, mostly with the same sister schools. I used to keep a tally of how many times I had guided people through Canterbury Cathedral and after I hit double digits I lost track. I soon realised that I would need to actively avoid school teachers if I wanted to get away from doing this. So each time a new group would visit, for the duration of two to three weeks I would become a ghost. Fleeing at the end of lessons before favours could be asked, hiding at lunch hours to avoid being caught unawares. But they’d get me eventually. Between lessons, during registration, even one time as I was leaving school. Could you please help out with the Japanese students who are coming? You won’t be busy; it’s on a school day. Even at times like this, I held onto the false hope that if I ended up at Canterbury, somebody else could take the reigns and do the tour instead of me for a change. I couldn’t bear to see that place again.
“Ok. Does anyone know the history here and Thomas Becket?” my Japanese teacher asked us.
“Of course I do” I replied without thinking.
“Great! Poncho, explain it to our visitors and lead them around”.
Damn it. Betrayed by my own pride.
“Who will rid me of this one turbulent responsibility?”