Sunday, February 5, 2012

Found in Translation

Sometimes, I forget that I'm living in a country that is foreign to me.

For my friends and family living in the U.S., this might be surprising information... surely Japan's differences must be striking, difficult to ignore!

Well, yes... they are, but the circles I spend most of my time in make it very easy to take these differences in stride. It's not as though I'm living immersed in Japanese language and culture: though CAJ students increasingly default to Japanese in conversations with each other, classes are run in English and the expectation for the classroom is that both teachers and students alike speak only in English. The culture is unique--not American, but not Japanese either; a combination of influences and dynamics that can only be found at a Christian international school.

The fact is, most of my life is spent at school or doing tasks related to school. I rarely practice Japanese... I rarely have occasion. So, this makes this past Saturday evening all the more interesting:

First, some background. Just a two-minute walk from the school, right next to the Higashi Kurume station, is an American restaurant called "Reno's Bistro". I'm a Reno's regular--Kevin, the owner/chef, and his wife Megumi are among the several sets of surrogate parents I have in this community who look out for me, and I appreciate them tremendously. The food is excellent, too, which doesn't hurt (and frankly, the fact that it's American food has little to do with my appreciation for the Bistro; they could make and serve any kind of food and I'd still be a regular customer).

Anyway, Saturday evening... my roommate Gabe (director of CAJ's Jazz Band) was playing a few sets at Reno's on clarinet and sax, so I went, watched, and enjoyed a quiet meal. Just as I was standing to leave, a girl sitting at the bar recognized me and got my attention.

"Nate, right?"

I recognized her--we'd met a few weeks earlier, also at Reno's. Unfortunately, with my brain more or less at capacity for remembering names, my memory tends to be atrocious when I meet new people. She must have noticed me straining to think because she quickly gave me an excuse.

"It's okay, you were really tired when we met, so if you don't--"

"Ayaho!" My memory kicked in and saved the day in the nick of time.

"Ayaha." Well, almost saved the day. Close enough, though, and she seemed to relax when she realized that I remembered her.

I had been tired when we'd met and had a conversation several weeks earlier--I'd spent the entire day at school grading essays, after which I'd gone straight to the Senior Talent show at school, and then for a late meal at Reno's. There were several Japanese people in the restaurant, which was typical for a Friday evening. I sat down at the bar several seats down from a young woman who looked to be about my age. Due to my low level of Japanese skills, I rarely attempt to engage Japanese people in conversation, even in a setting such as Reno's. Meg Reno, however, was quick to introduce me to the girl, who, she informed me, spoke English and appreciated any opportunity to practice.

"Ayaha. How are you?"

We exchanged pleasantries and I was surprised to learn that not only did she remember me, but she also remembered Gabe (who had also been there several weeks earlier) and a lot of what we'd talked about. Meg, putting her waitressing duties on hold to temporarily play matchmaker, or at least friend-maker, shepherded both Gabe and myself into seats next to Ayaha and another girl.

Meg announced, "These are very nice girls, same age as you. 25, 25, 25 25," she said pointing at each of us in turn.

What followed was a sometimes halting, sometimes awkward, but mostly interesting hour of conversation. Ayaha, an accountant, had gained her English skills during a one-month home-stay in Portland, Oregon during university. She occasionally asked Gabe and myself to speak more slowly, always apologetically. For the most part, however, I was impressed by her high-level of English conversation. Her friend (a clerical worker whose name I can't remember; atrocious memory of names and all) spoke no English. So, the conversation functioned in several different ways: mostly, Gabe and I would speak with Ayaha in English and she would translate for her friend, who would reply in Japanese and Ayaha would translate into English for us. Occasionally, I tried what Japanese I could remember to ask questions or attempt to clarify if there was a particular word or expression that Ayaha wasn't familiar with in English.

In this way, we discussed the differences between Japanese and English as languages, the sheer difficulties in learning each, the differences in accents and expressions between regions in both America and Japan, our experiences in school, what foods we liked, what instruments we played.

I learned that in Japanese schools, students study English for several years during middle school. The catch, however, is that studying in this case is truly limited to reading and memorization; there seems to be little (if any) focus on speaking, listening and conversation. The likely end-product is someone like Ayaha's friend, who knows what seems to her to be a disconnected list of English vocabulary and grammatical rules, and lacks any context for using those pieces in conversation resulting in absolutely no confidence. Ayaha managed to turn that book-knowledge into practical skill through immersion during her home-stay.

I learned that for Japanese people learning English (or at least for the girls that we were talking to), one of the toughest aspects is working through all of the grammatical rules (For example, "I have; she has" where the verbs are different but then "I had; she had" where the verbs are the same. An understandable difficulty, as verbs in Japanese do not change with the subject).

I learned that though the variation in Japanese accents does not seem to be as extreme as the variation in American accents, there is considerable variation in fairly basic things (even down to different ways of expressing a question depending on region).

I learned that in some Japanese schools, students are required to play the harmonium during their first year of school, and later, the recorder. Ayaha was even required to play castanets at one time.

I also learned that I know more Japanese than I ordinarily feel that I do. At several points, I rattled off grammar and vocab that I thought I had long forgotten, surprising the girls, Gabe and even myself. I guess we never really forget language--we just archive it until we really need it.

I learned a lot more than even this, and I think those young women learned a lot, too. It was a good conversation, and a valuable reminder of where I am. It's too easy for me to stick to a routine in which I only speak in English (with the occasional mechanical use of "coffee shop Japanese"), and do not interact with Japanese culture. And though these women had such drastically different experiences growing up from Gabe and myself, it was comforting to find common ground in our curiosity to learn of the others' culture while sitting around and carrying on a conversation, one way or another, as four 25-year olds.

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