Meet cute

A quick note before we get started. I’m confident that when I write about Japanese, I will make occasional (probably frequent) errors of fact. Please let me know when I do, or if there’s a topic you’d especially like me to cover.

For a shallow person like me, part of the frustration of learning a language is knowing that there are millions of people—not especially smart people, just regular people—who are better at this than I will ever be.

A few years ago I taught myself to sharpen knives. Knife sharpening is a great skill to acquire if you’re a showoff. Anyone could learn to do it with a couple of months of study, but almost nobody knows how to do it already. So with a little time and money, you can become the amazing knife-sharpening neighborhood superhero. Complete with jumpsuit, if that’s your scene.

Language learning is so entirely the opposite. Even if I exceed my own wildest expectations for soaking up Japanese, I’ll still be lapped by throngs of children.

Oh, I had my chance to get an early start. In sixth grade, my best friend Alex, whose mother was Japanese and made exquisite homemade potstickers, taught me to say ohayō gozaimasu (good morning). That was 25 years ago.

Even before that, in fourth grade, my class spent several months studying Japan for Social Studies. Every student had to write a paper on some aspect of Japanese culture, and I somehow ended up saddled with textiles, probably because I had no idea what the word meant and figured it probably involved robots. We were also forced to taste sushi, which was disgusting, and threatened with the fact that Japanese has four different writing systems, and if we were Japanese kids we’d be learning all of them. (Plus, Japan had the gall to make better cars than America. The nerve, right?)

I came away from this believing that Japan was the world’s most annoying country. Since then, my relationship with Japan has followed the classic romantic comedy progression. That country is so annoying! Why can’t I stop thinking about it? Probably because it’s just so annoying. It’s not that I like Japan or anything.

So why am I studying Japanese? Yes, I enjoy the mental workout and the potential to read menus at places that don’t cater to foreigners. But on top of those good reasons, I think, is a more absurd reason.

Before Iris and I went to Japan in 2010, we had a draft list of future dream vacations: Thailand, Rome, Hawaii, Sweden (mainly because we might run into Robyn or Peter Bjorn & John). Japan just happened to be at the top of the list. Once we got back, however, all we wanted to do was turn around and go back to Japan. Those other places? Someday. Maybe. Who cares?

I think about Japan every day, especially about Tokyo and how the city seemed like a funhouse built just to delight us. If you’re in love with someone, or some country, of course you make an effort to learn their language. What kind of jerk wouldn’t make that commitment?

Next up: Let’s get our hands dirty with a bit of hiragana, writing system numero uno.

9 thoughts on “Meet cute

  1. Wendy

    I have pulled out a copy of the Nancy Drew book where they go to Tokyo for you to read. Seriously, I think it will interest you.

  2. Wendy

    SUPER, and all the more shamefully because this one was written in the 1970s and not the 1930s. But it is also very instructive. Do they really call gifts (hostess gifts and the like) “presentos” over there?

  3. Tamara

    Reading your comment about learning languages hit me just right. I am stumbling around Ecuador with my pathetically poor Spanish. I want to re-learn the language and enjoy this place even more next time.

  4. Cristin

    I’m so happy that you are posting about learning Japanese! I’ll be visiting Japan for the first time in February. My BF is running the Tokyo Marathon … I’m no runner, but I am looking forward to the food and the funhouse, as you put it. Just started using Rosetta Stone. I haven’t learned anything useful yet, but I am very good at saying, “I am a sandwich.”

  5. mamster Post author

    Tamara, I had an interesting experience with Spanish yesterday. I would not have said my Spanish was very good, but I was reading a blog about Japan in Spanish and got pretty far into it before I realized it wasn’t in English, just because I’ve been trying to read Japanese lately, and Spanish is so much easier. That’s putting it too mildly, I think: compared to Japanese, English and Spanish are pretty much the same.

    Wendy, “purezento” is definitely a legitimate loanword in Japanese; it would be written プレゼント, I think. There are also other (native) words meaning “gift,” of course. Understanding when to use the loanword and when to use the native word is one of the tricky things in Japanese.

  6. Fuji Mama

    The obsession with returning to Japan taking over all vacation thoughts doesn’t seem to go away. I’ve lived there twice and have traveled back multiple times, yet every time my husband asks me where I want to go for a trip, he’s guaranteed the same response. “Japan. Duh.”

  7. Adam Cadre

    Hunh! One of the quirks of the California public education system is that you get (or, at least in the ’80s, got) California history in fourth grade… building missions out of sugar cubes, panning for gold-colored BBs, etc. But my class ALSO did a long unit on Japan that year! Coincidence, or is that some federal standard? Fourth-graders across the country end up learning about Japan because Terrel Bell went to Benihana one night?

  8. marty gallagher

    I am skipping around in your marvelous ‘Hungry monkey’ which I started a few years ago and had to give it back because I had recommended it to a friend (library copy) so I never got to finish. Today I drooled over the lobster roll segment – I live in Wisconsin – but my family vacations in Maine every few years and we eat lobster rolls in the required bun on the beach for lunch as many times and since the kids opt out (thank God) we indulge ourselves. I even bought a pretty good one at Logan Airport at the seafood place. I won’t try mail-order because east coast soft-shelled crab never make it satisfactorily.

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