All I wanted was a peanut butter sandwich. The bread was easy to find. I could not find that peanut butter, though. Up and down the aisles I went – how hard could it possibly be? I tried hard to ignore the people peering curiously in my cart. No grocery store staff were offering to help despite the fact that I must have looked hopeless and confused. After what seemed an eternity, I finally saw it! A container of brown, soft-looking, possibly spreadable stuff. I hurried home with my groceries, anticipating the first bite of the sandwich I’d been dreaming about for two months. As soon as I opened the container, I realized my mistake. Miso. Fermented soybean paste. Absolutely not peanut butter. I sat on the floor of my kitchen and cried.
That was the exact moment when I realized my illiteracy was a barrier to my happiness. I had landed in Japan unable to read or write the language and barely able to speak it, let alone understand it. The honeymoon phase was over; frustration and, I will admit, anger were starting to set in. One of my lowest points in three years there came about all because I couldn’t find a simple comfort food from home.
When I arrived in Tomakomai, the teacher I was replacing showed me where the bank was, how to put my monthly salary in, take money out, pay rent and pay bills. I didn’t understand what I was copying onto the forms at the counter, but I painstakingly went through the motions on the first day of every month. I was shown how to take the bus to and from work and where some of the best pubs and shopping places were. I made a few friends – some curious, some wanting to learn English and some interested more in having a foreign friend, or being seen with the newcomer than in getting to know me. I eventually joined a softball team and started volunteering at a local bird sanctuary when English-speaking visitors came. I made a few good friends. I still wasn’t settled, though. Not truly.
Eventually, people’s curiosity wore off, my coworkers returned to their busy lives and I was mostly left to my own devices outside of work. I had a medical emergency that I had to navigate alone. I had to re-apply for my identification on my own, and I didn’t have a dental cleaning for just over three years. Looking back, I realize how much less complicated or scary life might have been had there been some kind of settlement services available to me. I did have a wonderful life there – rich with experiences and people. I always knew I would be back to Canada, however, and I can’t quite imagine how I might still be having the odd difficulty had I chosen to make my life overseas.
The value of the settlement program offered by CBAL in ten of our communities is immeasurable. Many newcomers to our country arrive with few, if any, contacts or supports. Our settlement workers are readily available to assist clients with not only government documents, applications and English language, but also with the day to day issues that inevitably come up. Finding dentists and doctors, understanding school newsletters, completing banking and connecting to the community are all within the scope of what our settlement workers offer. And, without a doubt, we could help with finding the peanut butter!
For more information about CBAL's free settlement services go to cbal.org and click on your community.
Community Literacy Coordinator – Trail & Area