Arigato, Thank You, Xie Xie: The Spirit is the Same in Whatever Language
By Masaki Watenabe
After the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster last year, I saw a video clip showing the word “ARIGATO” that local residents had spelled out big using driftwood on a beach swept clean by the rushing big waves. It was for the US armed forces’ rescue-and-recovery helicopter crew to see. The gratitude was genuine, and somehow ARIGATO had it just right, rather than “THANK YOU.” Practically every Japanese knows “thank you,” but it had to be an expression of thanks from our hearts. The US helicopter crew surely appreciated it; most likely it was the first word they learned when they were posted to Japan. They got the message.
“Thank you” must be one of the most important words in human communication both socially and even morally. Rather than getting into religious interpretations of gratitude, however, I’d like to discuss the experiences I’ve enjoyed with that word in particular. It was always the very first word in the languages I picked along the journey of my life that started out in Japan, then on to Britain and Italy for part of my boyhood and during my career as a journalist, the US for about six years, then Singapore for 16 years and now Vancouver for the past 15 years. I also visited many other countries along the way.
As my grandparent’s marriage (on my father’s side) was a Japanese-Finnish cross-cultural union, this life of moving from country to country, leaving many loved ones behind, has been our family’s way of life for three generations, so before I had thought seriously about all its implications, I was already moving from one country to the next. As you readers who have loved ones across the Pacific and elsewhere abroad know all too well, one of the downsides of that lifestyle—along with the inevitable financial losses (e.g. a property sold too soon) and substantial expenditures (air fares, hotel bills, travel insurance, etc) that add up over the years—is almost constantly missing those family members and close relatives far away.
One big upside of this way of life are the opportunities to learn foreign languages. Knowing more than one language is obviously an advantage in this global age, especially in multi-cultural environments like Canada. My parents long ago, while we lived in London and Rome, used to ask my sister and me “How do you say thank you in …?” whenever we went on family trips to fascinating places like France, Finland, Denmark or Italy. Similarly, my wife and I not so long ago used to ask the same of our son and daughter when we went on holiday trips in Southeast Asia and to Finland, Italy, Mexico and Cuba. And now our kids have also become “from-country-to-country people,” probably acting more on instinct than careful planning. Our family tradition of scattering early seems to continue into the fourth generation, for our son has been away for three years now studying in Tokyo, and our daughter is also getting ready to go to Barcelona on a long stint to study following a short stay there last year. It’s back to the aforementioned downside to bear for the ageing mum and dad.
My limited collection of thank yous include those in major languages that I learned at school or picked up while residing in or visiting “foreign” countries, or from TV, movies and other media, like merci (French), danke schoen (German), grazie (Italian), gracias (Spanish) and spasibo (Russian). It also includes those from lesser-known languages like kiitos (Finnish), dank u vel (Dutch), tak (Danish), efcharisto (Greek), terima kasih (Malay/Indonesian), khawp khun khrap (Thai) and salamat (Tagalog).
I also know xie xie (Chinese-Mandarin) and kamsa hamnida (Korean), but I really ought to know much more in these two major languages, which I’ve neglected over the years out of laziness and some linguistic trepidation, even when I lived in Singapore where many speak Mandarin and Tokyo where many Koreans live.
Here in Vancouver, I’ve been coming into contact with more Chinese, Hongkong, Taiwanese and Korean colleagues, students and retail and other service staff since I began teaching translation part-time in a downtown building housing various academic institutions a few years ago. After many years, I’m re-discovering that just a “thank you” to someone in his or her native tongue is one good way to start personal relationships on a positive note.
There is one thing about the Mandarin xie xie. I first learned it as a kid from my mother who had studied Chinese conversation. I believe many Japanese who know a word or two of Mandarin learn it as such. But while I lived in Singapore from ‘81 to ‘97, I noticed that my Mandarin-speaking colleagues and others usually used xie xie ni. I’m not sure whether the ni as in English “thank YOU” makes it more polite or not, but when I say xie xie ni to the Chinese-speaking folks at work, it seems to solicit a solid response, some time even a smile.
As for kamsa hamnida, I am belatedly jumping on the mainstream bandwagon in Japan where Korean culture ranging from TV soap operas and movies and their stars to K-pop boy and girl groups have become increasingly popular over the last couple of decades. Judging from the mostly young Japanese people I talk to, one is nowadays expected to know at least a couple of Korean words like kamsa hamnida and annyeong haseyo (hello). Around Vancouver, we see many Koreans operating kiosks selling soft drinks, magazines and so on. I’ve gotten to know a Korean guy running such a shop in the building I work in. We sometimes teach each other words in Korean and Japanese. I don’t know whether I’ll have a chance to study the language properly, but for the time being, such an exchange is useful as well as heartwarming.
The spirit of gratitude is the same in any language. Learning to say it in different languages is like finding tiny doors into these cultures. For example, why do some languages have “you” and “ni” in the expression and others don’t? During my on-line research for this article, I came across a website called “Thank you” in more than 465 languages. Great for collectors of words.