As far as I can remember, the Hippo Office in Cambridge was always bustling with people from around the world – interns from Mexico and Japan, members from Taiwan and Italy, and visitors either coming with their friends or simply following the curious call of language and music. By the time I had to say goodbye to that little office on Sherman Street, I had made pockets of friends from around the world. However, with the way LEX Hippo is, farewells are never final, and by some incredible stroke of luck, I’ve had the chance to meet some old friends more than 7000 miles away from where we first met.
|The Home Base!|
At the beginning of November last year, I found myself on a plane to Saga, a small prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Given that it was my first time traveling alone on a Japanese domestic flight, I had spent the previous week worrying – what if I misunderstood the instructions and missed my flight? What if I couldn’t find my gate and accidentally flew to Okinawa? What if I never got to Saga and ended up in some alternate universe where Godzilla was real and ate my plane? And of course, my biggest worry: what if I never got to meet my friends? The anxieties, both the reasonable and the hyperbolic, dissolved once I settled down in my seat and buckled myself in. The next two hours were spent in quiet awe at the view outside my little plane window, and with the warm glow of anticipation.
|Mount Fuji from a whole new perspective|
When friends and colleagues found out that I was traveling to Saga, they were always baffled – why Saga? It’s tiny, more countryside than city, and relatively unknown outside of Japan – why not somewhere like Fukuoka instead? Each time I would answer proudly: my friend from Boston has just started a Hippo Family there! After more than half a year, I was finally going to meet Sagacchi – now a freshly minted Hippo fellow – and her lovely family.
|The wonderful family!|
Sagacchi joined LEX America shortly after I started volunteering there, so you could say that we grew up together in our Hippo experience. Back in Cambridge, however, I ended up becoming closer to her daughters, who – as a result of school – spoke more English than their mother did. At the time, my Japanese was close to non-existent, so my interactions with Sagacchi were mostly aisatsu and small talk, usually in English.
This time, however, when I landed in the Saga airport, the dynamic had changed – now, I could greet Sagacchi in Japanese! Of course, my speaking abilities were (and are) still limited, but knowing that we now had more languages in which to communicate opened new doors for us. In the first 30 minutes alone, it felt as though I had gotten much closer to Sagacchi than I had before. No longer restricted to the weather or the scenery, our conversations could stretch into more interesting territory, like our language progress, our experiences in places where our native tongue was not spoken, and Sagacchi’s own fellowing experience.
And it was not just Sagacchi – when I was reunited with her daughters, and our conversations tumbled into Japanese instead of English, there was a visible change in our interactions. Before, I had felt that we were close, but there was still a sense of distance between us. Now, the barriers were erased, and the distance faded away. Especially with Sagacchi’s youngest daughter, A-chan, who would rarely come near me in the past, would now let me hug and carry her around. Hope and Violet, her older daughters, now referred to me as their お姉ちゃん, and seemed even more comfortable talking to me than before. While I had previously known about the emotional power of language, now that I was seeing it in action, I could see exactly how strong it was.
|Enjoying Hippo activities as one big family!|
It was a short four days in Saga, but I still managed to meet some wonderful people and make new friends! I got to visit my host mother Tabasa’s childhood home, and meet her lovely father; I took part in a sharing session where one of the fellows, Beatrice, taught us a version of zai jian that had over 50 ways to say goodbye (!!!); the most exciting encounter, however, was getting to take part in Sagacchi’s family! It was so heartening to see her doing her best as a fellow, and super reassuring to meet her members – all of whom were friendly, open, and kind. It was definitely an evening of nostalgia for me, as we got to do a ton of Boston-style SADAs, which brought me back – however briefly – to that little office back in Cambridge.
It was difficult to leave that little prefecture at the end of my stay, but I did so on the promise that I would return! When I next do so, I’m looking forward to seeing how Sagacchi’s Hippo Family will have grown, and what new SADAs she and her daughters will have cooked up!
2. 多言語 Reunions and Lots of Nos-snow-lgia
Sagacchi was not the only Boston nakama I got to reunite with – it would be another few months before any familiar faces would cross my path, but when February rolled around, someone very special came into Tokyo: Elizabeth!
|Elizabeth and the Intern/Staff Crew!|
Getting to see Elizabeth again was extra exciting in the sense that we were meeting in a new, yet familiar context. After two years of interning at the Cambridge office and coming to understand the rhythms of LEX Hippo over yonder, it was both refreshing and reassuring to chat with her while here in the Tokyo office. It was as though both my US and Japan sides were coming together to meet, and I could see what parts of me had changed and what parts of me had stayed constant over the past few months.
On top of that, hearing about everyone back in the Cambridge office, finding out about their recent 言葉 discoveries, and seeing how the kids have grown filled me with a rush of nostalgia and warm fuzzies. More than once I found myself thinking about how much I wanted to go back – just for a little bit – to meet everyone again.
|Daniel, whose hair was much better styled than mine!|
However, another opportunity came barreling in not long after – in March, we had the Multilingual Snow Camp, where I had the chance for a reunion with Daniel! Unfortunately, given the massive size of the camp, we didn’t get to see each other too often, but one of the times we did get to meet, he surprised me by speaking to me in Japanese! I probably shouldn’t have been that shocked – we’d both been mixing around in a largely Japanese environment – but it was exciting to see the language progress we had both made over time.
And just two weeks ago, I got to meet yet another old friend and his family: Lou! They took part in one of the Hippo Workshops on Monday, and again I was blown away by how much Japanese Lou could speak when he gave a short talk about his time in Japan so far. When Maddie and I had lunch with the family after, it was heartening to see him using bits and pieces of Japanese to talk with his kids, and how they too were receptive to the language. Maddie and I also had a lovely time chatting with his wife, Oksana, who very kindly indulged our attempts at speaking Spanish with her. It was clear to me that this was a multilingual family that was open to all languages and all people, and I’m excited to see what progress they’ll be making back in LEX America!
So far I’ve had the good fortune to meet an old friend at least once a month since February – perhaps there’ll be someone coming to surprise me in May? Friends back in Cambridge, I’ll always be waiting~
3. From friends to 友達
|The good old Cambridge team of Genya + Elizabeth!|
While in Boston, I got to cross paths with a number of Hippo members from Japan, who often came either in the capacity of interns or visitors. Thus, you can imagine you exciting it was for me to come full circle, and to meet them again here in their home country! What’s even better, however, is the fact that we now have more languages to communicate in. Be it Kama-chan, Mala, Dorami-chan, Akane-chan, or Genya – it has been so much more fun to chat with them not just in their native tongue, but in the various languages that they have interest in. It’s been awesome to see how much Akane-chan has improved in the realm of Mandarin, and it’s always a riot to talk to Genya in Spanish when he’s using his Española accent; meanwhile, getting to chat with Kama-chan and Dorami-chan in Japanese has made me feel even closer as we look back on old photos of the time we met in Boston. And somehow, my conversations with Mala often take place in a language comprised largely of hugs, high fives, and animated waving.
I feel like around the world, there is often that one language that is dominant in the place where you are – be it English in America, Japanese in Japan, French in France or so on – but when we open our ears and hearts, even by just a little, other languages join the mix, making for an orchestra (or in some cases, interpretive dance showcase) of different sounds and movements. The level of fluency doesn’t always matter – perhaps you can hold an elevated conversation about Proust, or maybe you can at best introduce yourself and your family – but what matters is that you are sharing your linguistic experiences. The more we share, the closer we become, and the deeper our friendships get. And at the end of it, that may be all that really matters – that our friends become our 友達 who become our amigos who become our 친구. When that happens, we are not only meeting old friends in new places, but in the wonderful realm of new languages too.