I talked last time about some of the mechanisms that are in place to keep Japan’s group-oriented society running smoothly, and I’ve witnessed various forms of “wa maintenance” as an English teacher. Now, Japanese who go all-out to master English can sometimes be a little odd, and we had one very smart student at our school named K who was sure the best approach to learning the language was to memorize the dictionary page by page. When she got a wrong answer in class she would slap herself loudly, and then there was her unfortunate habit of trimming her nails by peeling them by hand, sometimes until they were bloody. I watched for months as the other members of the class took great pains to make K feel like part of the group, eating lunch with her and looking the other way when she did something strange. One day she made an especially embarrassing goof then made it worse by slapping herself repeatedly, which looked so ridiculous that the other students couldn’t stand it any more and burst out laughing. I could tell they’d tried hard to keep the poor girl from feeling bad, but we all have our limits. Actually everyone seemed to be better friends after the incident.
Every language has certain built-in traps which will invariably be stepped on by learners coming in from other languages. Tomo told me once he’s terrified of using a perfectly good word for “cat” because of his fear that it will be confused with an anatomically descriptive slang word, and when Yasu was studying in Philadelphia, he tried to use the word “Bro” with his friends, but they mis-heard this as “bra.” Another famous problem area are the L/R pronunciation issues, since the two sounds aren’t differentiated in Japanese, and I’ve known people who avoid talking about politics so they wouldn’t have to try to pronounce the word “election.” But gaijin aren’t immune to these linguistic land mines just because the tables are turned. The word seiko can mean many things depending what kanji you write it with. The most common meaning is “to succeed” (成功） or in the case of the famous watch company, “minute engineering” (精工), but one kanji combination results in an academic-sounding word for copulation (性行), and for years I was scared to utter the word “succeed” in Japanese because I thought I might be mis-understood. In Japanese, the only “bad” word (as in, so bad you’d get in trouble of you used it on TV) is similar to the word “mango” but with a “k” replacing the “g,” and it’s the rare foreigner who can avoid making a Freudian slip when ordering mango juice from a pretty waitress. It’s easy enough avoid using the word, of course, but sometimes it pops up at you unexpectedly. The number 10,000 is “mahn” and the counter for small or round objects is “ko,” so if you find plan on talking about, say, 10,000 gumballs in Japanese you might want to be careful.
If you really want to value the things you have, try going to a place where they don’t exist. I love living in Japan and everyday is fun, but there are many things you just can’t find here, from “real” Peanut Butter to Pop Tarts to fat-free Triscuit crackers to any type of bread other than “white.” When I’m in the U.S., I go out of my way to enjoy these things, and I’ve been known to choose lowly Miller Lite over more exotic choices mainly because of the natsukashii (NOTS-ka-SHEE, nostalgia) factor. During the Star Wars convention we went for some cheeseburgers at our hotel, and the menu offered many exotic types of cheese for my burger, from Gouda to Provolone to Havarti. But all I really wanted was good old American cheese, all but impossible to find in Japan, which prefers sliced white mozzarella (zzzzz). I’m a big proponent of the idea of sending all college-age people to another country to live for a year. If nothing else, they’ll realize how good they’ve got it at home.
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