Last Wednesday I was at one of my far-out elementary schools. Usually that fourth grade is a chore. The teacher speaks no English, the students are rowdy and badger me with requests to make an elephant noise, and I always leave that class feeling the exact opposite of Mary Poppins. This time, however, we were talking about New Year’s. I told them about common American celebrations and occurrences; thank the Lord that most of those words were the same in Japanese (tower, ball, football, television). Then we wrote kakizome, or New Year’s resolutions, in calligraphy. That’s what the teacher said we were doing. Really, we just wrote “dream” in hiragana and signed our names. Maybe that counts as a resolution in Japan.
Sweet. Not only did I not have to worry about teaching or speaking English, but we weren’t even writing in kanji. A year in the country was enough time to learn how to scrawl ゆめ. Make a fish, cross it through. First a line, then a pig tail.
The man who drives me to that school asked me if using a brush is okay. Yes, and tonight is calligraphy’s class. The teacher asked me if calligraphy is okay. Yes, a little study do. The students asked me if hiragana is okay. Yes. Is it your first time? No, first time it isn’t. Yet when I sat down with the students and began to write it was as though I had grown a second head, turned purple, and given birth to a pterodactyl all at once.
“Ehhhhhhhhh!” they shouted. “Look, look at Ryan-sensei! Look! She’s writing! Look at her paper!”
The teacher came to inspect. “Ehhhhhhh!” she exclaimed. “Wonderful! So good! You are so good! Wow!”
“Don't say that. First time it isn’t,” I mumbled, embarrassed. I was no prodigy. I was up against nine-year-olds. What competition did I have?
“Make yours look like Ryan-sensei’s,” I heard one student tell her neighbor. “Look at hers, and write.”
“Do another,” one boy urged me. “My suggestion is ‘friend.’”
The teacher gave me another sheet of paper. “Please write a liked kanji!” she said cheerfully.
“Okay,” I said, gesturing to the board. “Write please.” I’d written the word tomodachi before, for Hannah’s birthday gift. There are a couple of ways to write the second half of the word, so I opted to let them pick.
The boy wrote 友達 and turned to me. A crowd gathered around my desk. I wrote it. Mind you, had I written it the same way in calligraphy class the teacher would have chuckled, marked the faulty strokes and sent me back to try again. At Honme Elementary in the fourth grade classroom I was Hernando Cortez to the Aztecs. I decided not to take over their government or murder their families, but I did take all of their gold and move the capital.
We do not care for the results
On Saturday I was having a lovely, if belated, Skype chat with my sister. About an hour into it the doorbell sounded. I was in my striped onsie, a gift from that very sister with whom I spoke. I debated not answering the door, but I was expecting a letterpress art print in the mail. I asked Gillian to hold, threw a sweatshirt on over the child pajamas I was sporting, and answered the door.
On my stoop stood a man who looked to be in his early thirties, wore a uniform, and held a form with a lot of check boxes and some sort of gauge. “Otogetigetishiki doudou gas check degitegisho gitagitagita,” he said, bowing. “A little, getigitagetigitagetigita ojashogitegtigeti desu kedo.” He indicated the interior of my apartment.
Gas check, gas check. I knew that a gas check had been in order; I had received a couple of notices in the mail and had thought I should ask my supervisor about them. All that stuff usually happens outside the door or going no farther indoors than the place where I take off my shoes. I could get back to my Skype date and let him work. I looked up at the breaker box, intending to ask, this thing?
“Here?” I asked, not realizing that I had used the wrong word. “Yes, please/go ahead.”
“Ah! Your Japanese is great!” exclaimed the man, stepping inside. “I don’t speak any English, so dekitgotogotogoto worried getigotogotogotogoto. I'm coming in*!”
*Note: A bright ojamashimasu! is said when entering someone else's territory. The direct translation is "Intrude (do)!" When one quits the territory (car, classroom, office, home), one says ojamashimashita, or "Intruded!"
“No, no, thirty percent only understand,” I replied, waving my hand in front of my face. I backed up, wondering if he needed to stand on the first step to reach the breaker. “Really, don’t speak.”
“No, really,” the gas man protested, bowing as he went past me into the kitchen, “Japanese getigotogotogotoaharu dekitoko shabadekidekitoko…”
Here’s what I may or may not have understood from the ten minutes that it took for Gillian to get really sleepy and hang up while the gas man chattered and measured the output of my burners:
- The last time he came to this apartment, the foreigner spoke no Japanese, but welcomed him inside.
- He has been to Hawaii, but there are a lot of Japanese tourists and residents there, so his lack of English was no problem.
- He thinks it’s great that I am a)in Japan, b) teaching English, c) sticking it out even though I suck at Japanese, d) all of the above, or e) I just really misunderstood the man.
- If I do not understand something, I should tilt my head to the side and say, “Eh?” (That much I understood clearly, because he did the action. I don't know if this applies only to speaking with him or if I should apply the technique to everyone)
- He was nervous about dealing with the foreigners because of his poor English.
- My gas is okay.
The guy was very talkative, pausing only when I rang Paulette and Margaret to warn them that they needed to open their doors. Then he told me it was nice of me to tell them. Or nice of me to tell him. Something was nice. The gas man certainly was too nice for me to allude to pterodactyl birth. Nonetheless, picking out a few key words while keeping my expression clear of acute bewilderment makes me very good at Japanese.
Yesterday I went to my calligraphy class’s display. The teacher chooses the work for the display in December. We do our best to make sure it’s perfect before she hangs it for the one weekend of the year that we hold a gallery. Last year Margaret and I had written “eternal peace” and skipped out on attending. This year we both had two pieces, each different from each other’s, that neither of us can read.
Firstly, when I said yes to attending on Sunday, what I didn’t realize was that I had missed the real key words. I had heard words that equaled, “Will you come at one o’clock?” when the real question had been, “Will you come at one to serve tea to the visitors and stay until four for cleanup?” My cheery, ignorant “Hai!” doomed me to missing all trains to church on my first post-jetlag Sunday.
Margaret apprised me of the situation as we approached the building, so at least I was mentally prepared. I spent the next three hours wandering around the room, looking at the other students’ writing,
and mumbling to guests, “Excuse me, tea and black tea there is. What or won’t drink?” After I received the answer (usually after informing the guest that sorry, we did not have coffee) I would scurry over to the tea table and fill a paper cup with boiling tea.
At one point a group of women just stared at me. Resisting the urge to check between my legs for another pterodactyl birth, I repeated the offer. The women looked at each other. Had I said it the wrong way?”
"Tea or black tea?" I said again, this time a little louder. I surmised that the women were communicating telepathically, and that the gaping mouths were a side effect of the intense brain wave transfers.
“Coffee,” one woman said. The others nodded.
“Sorry, coffee is not,” I apologized, bowing. The woman looked at each other again, then all asked for black tea.
“That was a surprise,” one woman murmured to the group when my back was turned.
Every other time I delivered tea, however, it took only an, “Excuse me,” or “Here,” when offering the cup to elicit a, “Nihongo jouzu desu ne!” from the recipient.
I imagine myself being offered tea by one of the fetal alcohol syndrome cat people from Avatar.* If one of them were to hand me a teacup and say, “here,” would I tell them their English is great?
Maybe, but I think they already speak the language. Talk amongst yourselves about the likelihood of FAS cat Native Americans on a world galaxies away speaking the same mishmash combination of Latin, Germanic, and French languages that Americans do (I’d say “that anglophones do,” but I didn’t see the movie, so don’t know if they’d be confused by the British use of the word “chips,” e.g. not associate it with a 1970's cop show).
From top left: My friend Nanami, Mrs. Mori, J.S. Mayrand, Margaret, Iwashita-sensei, Yours Truly
Today I taught a class of first years at Shotoku Junior High. These are students that I taught last year in their respective elementary schools. What a difference a year makes. Last year, the first years were frightened of me, cowering at my bizarre behavior—singing aloud—during the English song. This year the first years sing back to me during, “A Whole New World,” gesturing in monkey mimicry of my clowning.
As a superfluously elaborate preface to the continued litany of my accolades, there are certain topics that everyone learns to discuss. Babies and foreigners alike learn to talk about themselves and things they eat before anything else. I eat carrots; milk is delicious; I like sushi; beer tastes bad; food vocabulary cemented itself in my neurons long before I could tell anyone how many siblings I had. Dishes may have no name in my mind, but I know most of the ingredients. The first questions I answered were things like, “Do you like mushrooms? Do you like fish eggs? Do you like cheese? What fruit do you like? What food do you hate?” Unless it’s a leafy green or appears in school lunch mush, I probably know the name for it.
Back to the story.
In this class we were going to play a game. First, however, we needed team names. I turned to the first group.
“Team name,” I said loudly. “Go.”
The students looked at each other, thoughtful.
“Team Foot?” I suggested. “Team Banana? Team Weiner Schnitzel?”
“Foot?” one student asked the Japanese teacher.
“Tabemono,” she said. Food. I shook my head mentally. No, not food, but I let it be.
“Team Knapsack?” I asked. "Team Bean?"
“Ichigo,” one student replied. Strawberry.
I wrote “Team” and the teacher turned to me. “Team Strawberry,” she translated.
I nodded and wrote the rest. I don’t converse with the English teachers in Japanese, so the teacher couldn’t know that I have a good handle on my fruit names.
I turned to the next team. “This group,” I said, pointing. “What is your name?”
“Piman” a boy replied. The students laughed. A piman is a Japanese green pepper. A lot of elementary students hate it. I did not feel like writing out "Team Japanese Green Pepper."
“Okay,” I said, and wrote it on the board. “Team Piman.” Simultaneously a pterodactyl baby sprang forth from my bountiful womb.
The teacher said, “Oh! You know!”
The students exclaimed in Japanese. Ooh, she knows about a common vegetable. She knew piman; Tsuda-sensei didn't have say it. What is piman in English?
“Wow, that was fast,” said one of the boys. “Ryan-sensei’s Japanese is really good.”
In other news, I am still working on my retelling of the epic journey Hannah and I took through Japan. I am also working on making curtains, reorganizing all of my papers, finishing my many home projects, and getting to bed on time. My 25th is approaching, and all I want is to be reminded that people haven't forgotten about me, and a really good margarita.
*The only reason I used the Nazguls (that's what they're called, right? And they eat hobbits?) in my example is because I was trying to imagine looking at a person and thinking to myself, He/She is not American. He/she can not speak English. I'm sure I've done it before, but I can't think of any race that sticks out like a sore thumb as foreign, the your-people-don't-live-here-so-you-can't-even-be-second-generation kind. My, ah, you're foreign usually comes with a feeling of pleasant surprise, rather than concerns about pterodactyl afterbirth staining the carpet. So I used the FAS Nazgul to make it clear that Japanese people often look at me just like white Americans do anthropomorphic grimalkins.
I'm sorry, I know that afterbirth is gross. I'm not proud of that.