The Right Foot

I’ve been feeling a bit pressured to post an entry since my return to Japan. After all, Japan was what got me started on this in the first place. I thought about writing about moments of loneliness or culture shock, or even minor complaints regarding the changes in my lifestyle, but somehow it didn’t feel right to make my first entry a glass-half-empty one. And finally, after almost a month, I’ve found something with a sense of the wonder and idealism that I originally came with to write about. Here’s how it went down:

After talking with Mina online for a bit, I promised I would visit her father at the office the next day (Mina is the girl who studied at PSU for 5 months). After thirty-or-so minutes of mangled Japanese and a lot of gesturing about nothing in particular, Sato-san invited me to a BBQ at his house the following evening. He explained that it would be a few people from the office, some teachers and their children, and that while nobody spoke English, it might be a good opportunity to practice my Japanese.

When I arrived at Sato-san’s house, I found his wife and a couple of his friends already cooking, so I picked up my own pair of over-sized chopsticks and began to man the grill. I was promptly given a towel to wipe the sweat off my face and a cold beer out of the smallest keg I’ve ever seen in my life. More people and their kids began to arrive and as the beers kept getting passed around, the conversation became increasingly more difficult to follow and eventually devolved into the Tanegashima dialect, which is barely recognizable as Japanese (although I was able to follow the entire bit about how fast their kids are growing and also the bit after I dazzled them with my one word of Tane-ben and they demanded to know who taught me the word. My answer was followed by a chorus of “of course it was that guy, he’s always talking in Tane-ben, even the people that live here can’t understand him”). Occasionally they would try to coax their children over to talk to me in English, but the best I got was a few shy smiles followed by mini bows. Eventually I went over to talk to the two girls – Aoi and Hikaru, both 6th graders at the elementary school nearest the Board of Education. We talked about hobbies and family and favorite foods and my tattoo, with me asking most of the questions and them giving whispered two or three word responses. Our conversation was mostly had out of courtesy and politeness, but when the topic turned to bugs and English, 8-year-old Tomohiro tossed in his two yen without reserve.

Tomohiro turned 8 on Monday. He has a younger brother, Aki, whose mouth his dad drops bits of octopus into with chopsticks. And his most prized possession right now is a set of cards with pictures of various bugs one them (it’s actually a game that as far as I can tell, is similar to Magic, but with bugs, instead of wizards and stuff). He was fascinated by my electronic dictionary and made me look up every word he could think of in Japanese and then proceeded to say the English translation over and over again until he had succeeded in its correct pronunciation. He asked me what kind of bugs we had in America and I told him that we had almost all the same ones as he did in Japan, but that wasn’t a sufficient enough answer for him. He listed off every bug he had encountered and when I didn’t know what it was and even the dictionary failed us, he would dutifully describe it to me as best he could until we had confirmed whether or not we actually had them in America (I ended up saying yes to just about everything, because I mean, come on, America is huge). I asked him if he spoke any English, and he said a little, and I told him that that was all right, because I only spoke a little Japanese. Then he asked me if I could say and understand everything in English, which I thought was a funny question and almost asked him if he could say and understand everything in Japanese, but we were momentarily distracted by the most recent onslaught of bugs. After a lot of arm-flapping and bug-flicking, he asked me what sports I liked and I said snowboarding, which I had to explain to him, and then he told me that it didn’t snow on Tanegashima. I told him that I had studied abroad (ryugakushita) in Sapporo, where it snowed a lot, and he shocked me by asking me what “ryugakushita” meant. As I fumbled through an explanation, it suddenly became clear to me why he had asked if I could say and understand everything in English.

As an 8-year-old child, he is still in the process of learning his native language and it amazed me to think that the words “studied abroad” and “ryugakushita” were equally foreign and new to him. He wasn’t a master of Japanese language any more than any 8-year-old American is a master of English. I was further amazed by the fact that he seemed to understand this. And because he, a native Japanese speaker, was still learning Japanese, it seemed perfectly natural to him that I would occasionally not understand or make a mistake when I spoke. I often find that adults and even older children are so worried that I won’t understand what they’re trying to say that they end up saying a few key words in English and gesturing a lot, which makes everything even more confusing. But Tomo-kun, still young enough to feel no shame at being misunderstood or misunderstanding (hell, at this stage in his life, he’s probably still used to it), talked to me the way he would talk to almost anyone else. I was touched by his sincerity and the depth of his understanding and then he said something that sealed his place in my heart forever: I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He took a moment to think seriously about it and confessed that while he didn’t really know, he probably wanted to research bugs. A budding entomologist. Adorable. I explained to him that my major in college was biology (seibutsugaku), already anticipating that he wouldn’t know what “seibutsugaku” meant. He didn’t, and this time Hikaru explained, and once again I felt simultaneously astonished and giddy that his language skills were still being developed. Things still had the ability to be new and fresh to him and he seemed accept that he must forge ahead into the unknown, because as a child, so much is unknown. We become paralyzed as we get older, too afraid to step outside our comfort zones, too self-conscious to feel like a kid again. It brings to mind the excerpt from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, so often quoted by Ken that it sometimes plays like a mantra inside my head – “A scientist must be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it is what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise, you will only see what you were expecting.” A scientist, a foreigner, whatever, I think it’s important to feel like a child sometimes, to be reminded of what it’s like to see something for the first time, to be comfortable with not understanding, to not be afraid to learn, to be excited when you get through to someone else. It was for moments like this that I applied to JET.

And no, it hasn’t escaped me that my most meaningful conversation thus far has been with an 8-year-old =P

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