‘I don’t want to speak English’: on display for the gospel

Celia Olson is an OMF missionary in Japan with her husband Keith.  In this post, which originally appeared on Celia and Keith’s blog in 2013, Celia reflects on the challenge of standing out so much as a foreigner. Keith and Celia have served in Japan for the last seven years. Celia uses her musical gifts in mission, playing her cello and you can find out more about that in her Q&A with OMF US.

Cat-calling kindergarteners

One day as I was on my way out of the house, I passed about 50 kindergarteners on the pavement. I could tell they were kindergarteners because of their red hats, marking them out as being in the same class. Before I could even smile to myself at their sweet faces and high-pitched voices, a chorus of ‘haro, haro!’ rang out. That’s the Japanese pronunciation of ‘hello.’ I was cat-called in English by 50 Japanese kindergarteners. I probably should have been happy.

When I first arrived in Japan, I probably would have stopped to say hello. Several years in, I confess there were a number of responses that ran through my head, but none of them were ‘stop and say hello.’ I first thought about responding with a cheery ‘ohayōgozaimasu’ (good morning). Then I thought about saying (in Japanese) ‘Sorry, I don’t speak English.’ In the end, I fled on my bike without saying anything, pretending not to hear, wondering to myself, ‘What are their teachers teaching them, anyway?’

Getting cat-called by little kids shouldn’t bother me. It bothers me that I’m bothered by it. I know I should stop and return the greeting, since that’s the polite thing to do. But are those kids calling out a greeting to everyone they meet, or just to the one person who stands out?

No tourists here

In Ishikari, the small city where I live, there aren’t any tourists. Any gaijin (foreigner) here will generally have a pretty good grasp of Japanese, since he or she will be here for work or study. Most of the time, people I meet speak Japanese to me without a second thought, or if they’re feeling hospitable, they might ask, ‘Is it okay if I speak Japanese?’ I’ve gotten so accustomed to speaking Japanese with strangers that it startles and even confuses me when a stranger begins a conversation in English.

A couple of months previously while on holiday, my husband and I visited a church where a friend of ours is the pastor. Another visitor from a rural area struck up a conversation with us as we were having coffee after the service. ‘We love missionaries,’ he said. ‘They’re like kyakuyose panda’ (crowd-drawing panda—we might say ‘dancing monkey’ in English). The pastor and his wife were shocked; they assured us afterwards that they saw missionaries as colleagues working together for the sake of the gospel.

Outstanding value

Sometimes it seems that my greatest value to the Japanese church is that people will come to gawk at the gaijin, but introvert that I am, I struggle with standing out. I’m not some animal at the zoo. I’m a person who values close friendships and good conversation. I’m thankful for friends who patiently listen to my less than perfect Japanese and repeat what they’ve said when we don’t catch it the first time. These friends are willing to get under the surface—they can see beyond the fact that I am a gaijin and they are Japanese. The best conversations happen when we all forget what language we are speaking and just talk and laugh together like old friends. If I didn’t have great friends, I would probably spend a lot of time hiding in my house. Well, maybe not, but going out would be a lot more tiring than it is.

Despite my limitations and frustrations, there really are some ways in which it is beneficial to be a gaijin missionary in Japan. Some people will come to church events to meet gaijin. Some of them even come back a second time. Gaijin are often perceived as friendly and open, so lonely people sometimes start conversations with me. Those who feel overburdened by the many pressures of Japanese society may come to a gaijin, who is on the outside of Japanese society, for help.

I wish I weren’t bothered that I stand out. I’m praying that I can see my own ‘strangeness’ as an opportunity and not as a cross to be borne.


Will you pray for missionaries like Celia?

  • Pray for grace and strength for missionaries as they face the challenge of standing out in another culture and being ‘on display’ for the sake of the gospel.
  • Pray for them to see the opportunities presented by their ‘strangeness’ and be able to take hold of them as God leads.
  • Praise God for how he can use the ‘strangeness’ of cross-cultural workers to draw people to himself.
  • Pray particularly for those Japanese people who feel overburdened by the pressures of life – that they might turn to workers like Celia and find true rest in Christ.

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