Thursday, November 01, 2007

Benkyo Suru

One of the goals, perhaps the only goal, I set for myself before arriving in Japan was to hunker down and learn Japanese. I am one of the hundreds of million of Americans who speaks a single language. I can order a taco and and call you a bad names in Spanish, but that hardly qualifies as being bilingual. I’d like to possess at least a functional ability in a second language before I die. I love Japan and the Japanese, so this seemed like a good time to immerse myself in language lessons. To this end I signed up for 75 hours of private lessons over five weeks.

The first day I was given a level test, which I promptly failed. You can’t fail at something you know nothing about, so I'll just say I wasn’t able to complete the test. Lessons, therefore, started at the very beginning, with an introduction to Japanese sounds and one of the language’s three alphabets, hiragana. I progressed to simple declarative sentences: My name is Matt; This is a pencil; That is a cat.A few hours of homework each night strengthened my reading and writing skills.

For the two weeks, I felt like a five-year-old, struggling to read and write, tripping over words and unsure about grammar and usage. My handwriting, to my eyes at least, appeared primitive, a child’s blocky script. Reading a few lines of text required great concentration and the words came out sounding like a recording played at half speed. I struggled to understand this unfamiliar language, forcing myself to throw out literal translations and accept my ignorance. (Literal Japanese to English translations of the previous sentences might be: Me Matt am, This pencil is, That cat be.)

I persevered, aided by the patience and understanding of two of my three teachers (the third seemed incapable of understanding my confusion and would speak so rapidly I would hear sounds rather than words). Day by day, my knowledge grew. One piece fit into another, one sentence building upon the previous. Eventually, I started to fill out the simple declarative sentences with verbs and adjectives. “This is a cat” turned into “The black cat on the bed is eating fish.” “I am Matt” evolved into “My name is Matthew Klein. I’m American, from the state of California. I worked at the New York Times.”

Kanji, Hiragana and English

When I learned the verb "benkyo suru," I knew I had found something to latch on to. The word means “to study,” but the meaning goes deeper than that. It means to apply oneself academically, to delve into a subject. Watashi wa mainichi nihongo wo benkyo shimas” became something of motto ("shimas" being the present form of "suru"). The sentence translates as “I study Japanese every day,” but its meaning is broader than simple routine. Being able to identify the cat on the bed is great. Applying a language’s deeper meanings to myself is better.

So where did all this classroom learning get me? I can read some of the advertisements on the subway walls. I can write a few Kanji characters and simple sentences. I can pick up the gist of a conversation at the table next to mine in a café. I can even order food at a restaurant with something approaching confidence. I was even able to buy a train ticket from Tokyo to Kyushu and the entire transaction was conducted in Japanese. It was a small yet satisfying victory.

With only five weeks of language courses under my belt, I’m far from literate. Nevertheless, I know a lot more than I did before arriving in Tokyo.

Language is that special subject in which the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Imagine that I'm a house. I’ve received my first thin layer of paint, a base coat or solid but boring white. I need another base coat, perhaps two, then a few layers of color and then all the trimming and detail work. After that I'll need touch ups and perhaps a complete remodeling at some future time.

As I write this I am no longer in Tokyo. I've traveled 1,200 kilometers (five and half hours on the shinkansen, an experience worthy of a blog post) south to Fukuoka on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Upon arrival, I checked into a hostel and asked for a dinner recommendation. I was directed to a nearby Ramen restaurant where I was told I could sample a local specialty, Hakata Ramen. (Wikipedia correctly describes Hakata Ramen as having "a rich, milky, pork-bone tonkotsu broth and rather thin, non-curly and resilient noodles.)

The ramen was delicious. I rounded out the meal with a plate of Hakata-style gyoza, which are, according to tradition, bite-sized so Hakata women would not have to open their mouths too wide and thus embarrass themselves, and an ice-cold glass of draft beer ("nama biru, iipon, oneigaishimas" - "one draft beer please"). The restaurant itself (and the hostel for that matter) is located in a nondescript part of the city. You wouldn't look twice at it if you drove by. Inside, the decor was spartan and functional, a rectangular room with a few wooden tables, a counter and an open kitchen.

The staff was young and gregarious and took an interest in this foreigner in their midst. One English-speaking waiter approached for my order and I offered a few words of Japanese. This brought another waiter over for a few questions. I was served my ramen and I augmented the soup with condiments like spicy pickled cucumbers (tsukemono: "tsukemono ga daisuki des" - "I love Japanese pickles", a very useful phrase), mung beans and strips of tangy ginger. This brought another waiter over for a quick discussion, in Japanese, about hot food and pickles. I expressed, in Japanese, my love for both.

Long story short. Soon after I'd slurped my last noodle and forced down the tenth miniature dumpling, I was deep into a conversation about Volkswagens (Beetles and Buses) with a man who spoke less English than I speak Japanese. I struggled to express myself, and the guys, I could tell, were using familiar verb forms instead of the more polite forms I'd learned in class, but I could follow them and they were patient with me. It was the first time I'd really put myself out there with a foreign language and the dividends were enormous. A little effort resulted in an encounter that would have been impossible just six weeks ago.

I paid my bill and told them, in Japanese, that I'd be back the next night for more ramen.

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