Gospel Go

The Cha Family in Japan

Being the Village Idiot: Lessons in Humility


One of my prayers since moving to Japan has been for humility.

I prayed for this because having lived in China for 2.5 years in the late 1990’s, I was aware of the challenges of living in another country, in a new culture and language. Because I didn’t know Chinese, I remember the constant tension in the back of my mind when going out, always having to be alert and perceptive, trying to understand situations through context clues and body language. I also remember the recurring feeling of helplessness, unable to do basic tasks (or basics tasks took a very long time to do!) because of the language barrier; it’s the feeling of being the village idiot. Damon and I once talked about how when someone doesn’t speak English well, even though he may be a neurosurgeon in his home country, we subconsciously perceive him as less intelligent. And we joked that we would be viewed in the same way in a new country.

I think these are common experiences for people who move to a new country with an unfamiliar language (it makes me think about all the immigrants in America…about my own parents). It is an innately humbling process. While in China, I remember that one of the ways I found myself coping with this newfound inability was to become critical of the new culture. By doing this, I was seeking to compensate for the feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. This defense mechanism starts harmlessly, such as “Wow, they sure don’t believe in lining up in China” or “Oh, that’s a typical Chinese way of doing things”. Sometimes these are just simply observations. But sometimes these seemingly innocuous observations can, in time, morph into a critical and hardened heart toward the new culture and people, becoming negative lenses that color daily experiences. I’ve seen this happen in myself and others.

Because of my past experience in a new culture, because we were joining a new team, and because pride is the root of a myriad of sins, I prayed for humility.

Our move to Japan 2.5 months ago has been relatively smooth, thanks to the many people on our team who have helped us and continue to help us. Being Korean-American has been an additional help as we transition to life in Japan. There are numerous similarities in Korean and Japanese culture, and because we are Korean-American, we have lived most of our lives within a cross-cultural context which is helpful in a new country. And by God’s grace, our girls have done quite well.

But I have to say, the last 2.5 months have been marked by lessons in humility (God is faithful to answer prayers! =P). I’ve been humbled again and again.

Because I can’t speak Japanese yet, I’ve experienced many awkward, uncomfortable moments. There are small moments, such as staring blankly at the cashier when she asks me a question or not being able to order coffee correctly, resulting in one hot coffee and one iced coffee (and caffeine-overload jitters afterwards). Since the girls started school, I’ve experienced prolonged moments of sitting in silence with another mom while waiting for our children to come out of class because it’s hard to say anything beyond “Hello.” Or I’ve tried to communicate in the little Japanese I know, and sometimes I can sense the other mom feeling a bit awkward. I’ve had numerous times, whether at a picnic or play date with Japanese friends, where I have to fight my self-preservation desire to flee because I feel awkward sitting silently, muted by my inability to speak Japanese and take part in the conversations that surround me. Sometimes self-consciousness edges in, but I have to force myself to engage, embrace the discomfort, and persevere to build relationships and learn the culture and language. In the end, I feel awkward and uncomfortable because of my pride.

Furthermore, I have been humbled through my language class where I am not only the oldest in my class (yes, there are teenagers in class!) but I am the worst at speaking and understanding Japanese. I am constantly asking my English-speaking classmate, “What did she say? Why is everyone laughing? What’s the joke? What does that mean?” While I cognitively understand the grammar, somehow as the words move from my brain to my mouth, they get jumbled up. As a typical type-A overachiever, this has etched away at my pride.

But what is most humbling is how I have often responded to my being humbled, inwardly and thus outwardly. I admit that this perpetual state of humility has brought out the ugly in me…no, it has revealed what is truly in my heart, what is truly me. As I have been humbled, at times I find myself easily frustrated and impatient…and often it is displayed in my interactions with my girls. I end many days, lying in bed full of regret for my impatience and unkindness to the two beings that I love so much. And in those times of utter weakness and brokenness, God graciously reminds me that His grace is sufficient and that in the gospel, I can repent (to Him and to the girls), be forgiven, and start anew each day, each moment, by His grace and strength alone.

God has been very faithful to answer my prayer for humility…though it hasn’t been easy. I find comfort in knowing that our experiences in humility are not unique. In fact, it gives me more understanding and compassion for our immigrant parents, for all the immigrants in the US, as well as others who settle down in new countries. But more than this, I know that the Lord is working a good work in my heart, in our hearts, through this and is teaching me to die to myself and my pride.

How is the Lord humbling you in your life? In what areas is pride controlling your actions? Let’s pray together for more humility and draw near to God who is always near to us.

Thanks for reading,

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Prayer Requests:

  1. Please pray for Clayton, a 2 year old from our home church, who was in a terrible accident, is recovering from major surgery, and needs ongoing therapy. Please pray for full and complete recovery.
  2. Please pray for Towa, the son of a Japanese pastor in Tokyo, who was in an accident and is now paralyzed. Learn more on the Aoyagi family blog.
  3. Our girls – please continue to pray for their transition to Japanese school, that they will learn the language quickly and make good friends. Pray they will deepen in their faith and knowledge of God. Please pray for wisdom for us as we decide which school Aliya should go to for 1st grade.
  4. Good health – please pray for good health for all of us, especially for Mikayla who was sick for over a month with a persistent cough.
  5. Language learning & ministry – Please continue to pray for our language acquisition. It is hard work but please pray that we will persevere and not be discouraged. Pray for continued humility and to die to ourselves. Please also pray for wisdom in committing to ministry opportunities, and also opportunities to build relationships with Japanese people.


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2 thoughts on “Being the Village Idiot: Lessons in Humility

  1. Young-Mi, thank you for your humility in sharing on humility! I’m sure you and Damon are soaking in Japanese and will be conversant soon! In college, I lasted four days in my Japanese I class before dropping it! Damon, it was good to see and chat with you through Skype!

    • Gavin! Thanks for the encouragement! Looking forward to Kim’s visit. Hope to see you here next time! Hopefully, our Japanese will be passable by then!

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