Thursday, June 19, 2014


We're on the cusp of leaving. So I started a list of the things I will and will not miss about living here...

the moody mountains
the clean, crooked streets
the baths
the fashion
the way it rains so lightly sometimes, like little flecks of water
the politeness and ritual in every little exchange

sitting on the floor
being functionally illiterate
being stared at
the lack of physical contact (and especially this absurd hand-wave gesture that happens among some women upon greetings and departures -- sometimes it turns into a wimpy hand-clasp, but sometimes stays aloft, the hands slightly repelling eachother like backwards magnets, it's maddening) 
not knowing what is going on 90% of the time
the politeness and ritual in EVERY LITTLE EXCHANGE 

The general word for 'excuse me' is sumimasen, which literally means "it never ends." Whenever I'm feeling like a chump because I can't get the hang of even casual interactions, I imagine people saying that in English and it cracks me up. Like, whoops, didn't see ya there! It never ends! 

A friend of mine who lived here for a long time told me she once bumped into a parked bicycle and automatically apoligized. TO THE BICYCLE. It never ends.


Not too long ago I was chatting with our neighbor, an elderly man who is also an artist, and he was telling me where I could see an exhibition of some of his work. Then he inquired after Jason, and I replied that he was out of town that weekend; but as I was answering, I suddenly realized that maybe he hadn't asked about Jason? Had I misunderstood the word for husband? What's that word that sounds like 'husband' but isn't? Oh god, he asked me about something completely different, and here I am yammering on about Jason's work... By the time I recommitted myself to listening, I had completely missed the next thing he'd said. 

That's how most conversations go. It's uncomfortable to let on exactly how much I don't understand, so most of the time I smile and fake my way through, hoping to get a foothold on a word or a phrase sooner or later. 

It reminds me of riding my bicycle in San Francisco. For several years I lived In Bernal Heights, on top of a formidable hill. I had no car, so I biked everywhere, and that hill was waiting for me at the end of every ride. I came to have an insane amount of respect for that hill. I composed breathless poems to it as I sweated up it. I knew exactly where I had to change gears so as to save the lowest gear for the steepest part. I biked up it almost every day for three years, and it never felt like it got any easier. All the other hills in San Francisco, though? PIECES OF CAKE. 

Japanese feels as relentless as that hill.

But then sometimes, by magic, simpler exchanges plunk right down into my brain, like coins in a vending machine, and don't even need to be translated. 

And then there's my first-grader, who speaks Japanese at school all day, and will willingly do his Japanese homework, but becomes a boneless whining mess when made to practice reading English.

 (Actually, I think he kind of has a point there -- though it can be made perfectly well without the whining -- one I discovered when trying to leave a note for him that he'd be able to understand. I ended up writing it in Japanese because it would be EASIER for him to read. This is completely for bragging purposes, and has only a little to do with the pesky vowel rules of English):

See? Try to simplify yourself in English and you sound like a Neanderthal.

He read it and understood it and was unabashedly proud of himself. I have to admit that I am unabashedly proud, too -- I look at him and think, that's MY KID, turning the tumblers inside the locks of comprehensible syllables, and my god he sounds exactly like all the other defiant and punk-ass first-grade boys around. 

Still. I have this chip on my shoulder: while I'm marveling at my children's effortless grasp of verb conjugation and they way they charge into communication, I get so annoyed when other people treat it as such a remarkable thing. Usually it's because I overhear someone, at the playground for example, saying it to someone else -- "Oh, foreigners! Oh, they speak Japanese!" Even if they say it directly to me, it still comes across as a veiled insult, like, you have managed to transcend your natural stupidity to acquire our difficult and important language. This is a common theme when I talk to the little old ladies at the sento, "Japanese is so hard, isn't it?" they say, proudly. And I get all bent out of shape because YES YOUR LANGUAGE IS HARD, it has me in fits. But any language is hard, and any language can be learned. 

I wish I could give my kids the gift of being bilingual -- for poetic and practical reasons alike. I wish I could say we will keep speaking Japanese to them after we leave, but I am supremely lazy: without the immersion, the imperative evaporates. 

I suspect that there are many more things I will miss after we go, even the infuriating and confounding, because they are also humbling. This is what happens in a cultural collision, and much of bad attitude here is an extension of my invisible cultural privilege in The United States. Being uncomfortable for 10 months is really a small price to pay.

Now, wait for the next post where I get my Midwestern accent back with a vengeance.


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