The Young Adult Service Corps is a service mission of the Episcopal Church for young adults, aged 21 to 30. Serving in Brazil, England, Tanzania, Haiti, the Philippines, and other countries throughout the world, these young adults serve in faithful commitment as companions and servants of Christ. Christ Church Cathedral has sponsored three Young Adult Service Corps participants. We recently had a chance to catch up with Charlotte File, who returned from her YASC mission to Japan in December.
Dates and place of missionary service:
From January 2014-December 2015, I was in Kiyosato, Japan at the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP). It is about 2 ½ hours west of Tokyo and about an hour north of Mount Fuji located in the mountains for those interested in the geography of it. I was there doing international relations work that included teaching English among many other things.
Education or other background to mission:
I had never before thought of myself as a “missionary” or even someone that would consider that path, but when I joined the Diocese of Indianapolis’ trip to Haiti in 2012, I met the coordinator of the Young Adult Service Corps program, and he sparked my interest. When I left my retail management job and had nothing else lined up, I asked myself “Why not now?” and began a life changing journey.
What prepared you for missionary service?
The Episcopal Church has a great discernment and orientation process for anyone thinking about becoming a missionary. You are told right from the start you aren’t alone in this and you see that amongst all the other young people you are with. I truly had no idea what to expect becoming a missionary and that experience of meeting others just like you in a way prepares you the most. Of course you can research the culture you’re being dropped into, but feeding off the excitement, knowledge, and faith of those going through the same thing as you are and about to embark on a similar journey is what prepared me the most. There was growth happening before I even left the U.S.
Were family/friends supportive?
Of course! They all were a little taken aback by the idea and the out of the blue nature it possessed, but everyone was not only supportive, but excited in ways that excited me even more. I had the wonderful support not only of friends and family, but Christ Church as well. I loved the care packages I received as well as notes and cards. They were always displayed in my room throughout the two years I was there.
If the clock could be turned back, what changes (if any) would you want to make in your own personal preparation for service?
I don’t have much more I would have done because once I was over there I realized nothing could have properly prepared me for what I was about to experience, but if I had to choose something I would have studied my Japanese harder.
Was there a misconception (yours or others) which had to be overcome?
There was, and still is when I talk about my time in Japan, this misconception of what being a missionary or working for the church really means. Whenever I say I was a missionary I follow jokingly with “I wasn’t there converting the heathens” because that is what people envision missionaries to be. During our training when most of still have this misconception of the work we are going to be doing, we are told being a missionary is going and being with people. We are the relationship builders, the relationship sustainers, and ambassadors for the Episcopal Church. We did work across all fields. One former YASC missionary even said if she wrote about her time in Africa, she would title it Finding God’s Word in Spreadsheets because of all the office work she was doing. Today’s missionary is more about connecting with others.
What part of missionary work did you enjoy most?
The BEST part of my work was meeting new people constantly and watching those relationships grow. There is no better feeling than going to the grocery store in a foreign country and running into someone you know or when you are invited into someone’s home to share a meal or someone shares with you their wedding album from fifty years ago because that is when you realize it is finally home, For that reason, I really loved the teaching aspect of my work. I got the chance to meet so many people and not only watch our relationship grow, but watch their English abilities grow as well. The greatest satisfaction was seeing that what I was doing was actually working. Not to mention the kids were the cutest and so well behaved!
What parts of cross-cultural service would you like a chance to do differently?
I had the best time serving as a “cultural ambassador” during my time there. I would not change a thing. People there were always wanting to share the Japanese culture so I had experiences where they dressed me up in a kimono and participated in a traditional tea ceremony, invited to the local summer festivals, taken out to eat to try traditional Japanese dishes, and taken on a tour of the local whisky distillery because the Japanese love their whisky. In return, I was more than happy to share my knowledge of American culture. You never realize how much we, as Americans, put out there that others pick up. I had in depth conversations about what Americans REALLY think of Donald Trump, the Civil War, what national parks are the best to go to, and used People magazine as English text books for the women in class that wanted more pop culture. They knew more about the Kardashians than I did! I took every opportunity to soak up as much of the culture I was immersed in and to share mine with them. I only wish I could have stayed longer.
How was your service different between the two years?
The biggest difference between the two years was that the first year I was treated as more of a guest and the second year I had become the employee. It was nice because I was no longer a novelty item that everyone thought would be leaving after I just got to know them. I was able to take on more responsibilities and continue the work I started in the first year. It was great to see programs I helped start become an annual event.
Can you tell me a humorous incident involving either the language or culture?
I never became fluent in Japanese or even became comfortable enough to hold a conversation, but I knew enough to get by. I knew the processes when checking out at a store or how to ask for a full tank of gas and most restaurants have pictures on the menus, so I avoided language related snafus. Most people want to practice their English with you, anyhow. Most of the humor came from cultural things. I lived in a house with six other female employees and we shared a bathroom. I was getting up in the mornings and showering and half way through there would be no more hot water. I assumed the hot water heater was running out because of all the other women showering so I would wake up even earlier to try and get a hot shower in, but on those days there would be no hot water at all. Turns out, in almost all Japanese homes, to get the water to heat up, you push a button. I had no idea. In the middle of January in the mountains, I was taking freezing cold showers. I finally figured it out three weeks later when another American showed me where the button was. That’s the biggest one I remember because it was the one my Japanese coworkers loved to tell other people because they thought it was hilarious.
Most embarrassing moment in cross-cultural contact?
I’m not a person that gets embarrassed easily and I typically watch others to see how something is done before I attempt it so I didn’t have many experiences that stick out. I guess the worst experience for me even though no one else saw it was my first encounter with the “squatty potty”. Most all Japanese restrooms have both Western style and Japanese style toilets, the latter being a toilet in the floor that you squat over to use. Up until this point I had avoided having to use one, but on a trip to Tokyo on the local train, that was the only option. I don’t recommend the squatty potty on a moving train to the amateurs.
Greatest disappointment or disillusionment?
The washing machines don’t have a hot water cycle and they don’t have clothing dryers.
Most treasured memory?
Just the entire experience of being welcomed into a society that not even a hundred years ago was our enemy. It wasn’t even just those close to me, but everyone in the country. The people of Japan are what made the experience amazing. The memories I have of the people I grew close to is what I will always hold dear. I truly feel that Japan is a second home to me because of the family I left behind.
Are there specific ways you life has been richer because of your service?
I have become a more patient and understanding person. Seeing how I was welcomed into another’s culture and their acceptance of me caused me to take a step back and evaluate my own practices. I grew as a person because I saw things in myself that needed to be improved and I worked towards that improvement. I also felt much better while I was there because of the healthy foods and the fact that I walked everywhere!
Do you have a missionary hero or model?
The American that founded KEEP, Paul Rusch, was always a man I looked up to when I was there and learning about his life. He came to Japan as a “reluctant missionary” meaning he thought of himself as someone that shouldn’t be revered for his service and that he didn’t feel worthy of the title of missionary in the beginning, but ended up falling in love with Japan and devoting his entire remaining days to the service of the country and her people. His story always resonated with me because I never felt that what I was doing had much impact, and who knows maybe it didn’t, but for me it meant a whole lot! We always had the idea of “What Would Paul Think?” whenever we did things around KEEP.m m
Are there specific people in the target culture who have had a significant impact on you? If so, who and in what ways?
Of course! You can’t work a job for two years and not get close to those around you. The woman who was my day to day supervisor was someone I called my “work mom”. She had three young kids of her own so she was already a mothering figure, but she would take me to the doctor when the mutant mosquitos attacked. She was the person I shared the most communication with. We discussed the nuances of each other’s languages such as the difference between chubby and fat and shared foods that came from my care packages and treats whenever she went on vacation, which was often because Japan has so many national holidays. I always loved the cakes shaped like birds from Kyoto and she loved sour Skittles. One of my crowning moments was when we spoke about her heading to Columbus, OH for her niece’s wedding and that everyone outside of Ohio hates Ohio State and she brought me back a shirt from there and laughed so much giving it to me. Laughter and food knows no boundaries.
Any advice you would give to people headed for cross-cultural service?
Be open to EVERYTHING! Don’t ever say no to a food, don’t say no to an invitation to hang out, don’t say no to a new activity. You may feel like an idiot or look silly, but you have a free pass to do that! They are willing to share in this little bit of their culture with you so pound those rice cakes, eat those fermented soy beans, don that kimono and mess up royally during that tea ceremony because chances are you’ll regret it if you don’t.