Hiragana? More Like Heisagoner! Hey-O

September 3, 2009

I went absolutely nuts on the Japanese language front when I first found out I’d be moving out east. I bought and received all sorts of “learn Japanese” books and CDs to the point where I had no idea which disc or book to consult first. When I finally chose a CD and tried applying a phrase I had learned in the real world, I was told that wasn’t actually Japanese, only adding to my problems. But I carried on, determined to get a jump on the Japanese language.

Of course, I stayed firmly planted on the ground. Whether due to the looming threat of graduation or classes or just plain laziness, I never got around to getting serious about studying. “Don’t worry, I’ll hunker down and do it when school ends.” School ended, and even though I had nothing else to do, I still couldn’t bring myself to give “Japanese for JETs” anything more than a cursory flip through. Now, I’m in Japan with nearly zero knowledge of Japanese. When I hear a phrase I know on TV, I celebrate – you should have seen me when the 10-year-old anime chef lady who occupies the 5:30 to 5:45 spot said “yoroshiku onegai shimasu,” I nearly ran a victory lap around my apartment complex.

Thankfully, I might be able to understand even more of the TV shows as the Nabari community center is starting up Japanese lessons for foreigners. I was hesitant at first due to my shaky history with foreign language classes – in high school I had to take Spanish, and I sounded terrible whenever I opened my mouth. It was so bad that another student took to mocking my Spanish accent while I wasn’t around…except, since I was such a speck on the social scene, I was literally sitting three rows in front of him and he just failed to realize I existed. I’ve been wary of language classes ever since. Thankfully, though, I will be taking the class with people who also no absolutely zero Japanese, and the class is so small (two people, me being one of them) that I don’t think I can be lost track of.

Tuesday we went to the community center for an introduction section, so the teachers could gauge our level of Japanese competence. I expected to walk in, tell them “got nothing!” and head home to download the new episode of Greek. Unexpectedly, we walked into the small classroom to find all the teachers sitting on one side of a large table. We sat across from them if we were going to negotiate business with them. Instead, we had to introduce ourselves. Thankfully, awkwardness translates across all languages so I got a few chuckles even though I sounded like a total dweeb.

We filled out paper work next and the teachers showed us the book, which is when I had my big “oh dear, I officially HAVE to learn this language.” The textbook is entirely in Hiragana, one of three (!) syllabaries. Japan originally copped Chinese Kanji (characters) for their own use, but soon realized Chinese symbols are freakin’ hard. “Screw this,” I imagine them saying, “let’s just make something up.” That something was Hiragana. Then America came along with a whole new set of words and fast-food chains, resulting in the birth of Katakana, the third part of the Japanese language (I’m already exhausted trying to figure this out) dealing with foreign words. A lot of Katakana symbols look like smiley faces.

So now I have to learn Hiragana if I hope to learn any of the oral language, and I’ve attempted to get my study on. This has been tricky though, primarily because I can’t find note cards anywhere. I’ve gone to four one yen stores, but the best thing offered were very thin memo pads. You can see the other side of the card, which kind of defeats the purpose of using the cards in the first place, but I’m trying anyway.

And hey, I’ve actually learned stuff! As long as you ignore the fact I’m not learning how to draw the symbols, I’m moving along at an OK pace – I know about 15 symbols. Only like 70 more to go! My new hobby is examining Japanese signs and wrappers to try and find the few symbols I know – I have no idea what the greater context of my Pepsi bottle is, but I can pinpoint all the “tsu” characters super well.

It can still be challenging to draw up an excitement to really get into studying Japanese though, and it’s not just because I have all 18 hours of Ken Burn’s Baseball at my fingertips. No matter how much of the language or the customs or if I dress up like a shogun, I’ll never really be anything more than an outsider in Japan. Oddly enough, I’m OK with that…I never came here with the intent of being an “insider.” Heck, well looking through at my bank receipt I started fantasizing about all sorts of crazy post-Japan plans. You’d think having these daydreams a whole month into my tenure would be alarming, but it’s just an inevitability…I’m not going to be here forever, so I do have to be semi-aware about the future. But that deadline is also probably the biggest motivator – I don’t have forever here, so I best make the most of what I do have.

Making the most of it would be a lot easier with non-transparent flash cards, though.

(Japanese Fun Fact #13 – Oh hey, look at that number! A few neat-o Japanese number facts…four and nine are the unlucky numbers over here, as the pronunciation of them sounds close to various words for death. Also, on slightly luckier ground, it’s a bit strange to see the number “42” on baseball jerseys here, but it’s only for like three seconds until I slap myself for being so narrow-minded. I blame Ken Burn’s Baseball.

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