Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Foreigner

When I studied in Russia this summer, even the very first day I was there, people on the street assumed that I would understand them. On my last night in Russia after two months of intense study, I was mistaken for a local. All the time, people said to me that I "looked Russian" even though to my knowledge no one on any side of my family has lived in Russia for the past 5 generations at least. The language was difficult and I experienced a lot of culture shock in various ways, but I got through it and had a very beneficial experience overall. And really, while it was the reason my Russian improved so quickly, it was being forced into the language and culture how intensely as I was that made it so difficult. It was tough yet rewarding to be assumed to be "in."

And here's what Wikipedia has to say, with a citation:

/ / / / / /

For English speakers

Diplomats and defense language training gives some interesting data [regarding the most difficult languages to learn], although it covers only a limited selection of major national languages:
  • The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are: "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean", with Japanese being the most difficult.[2]
/ / / / / /

The program here in Japan has been much more relaxed in that way, and the culture of the International House is much more like what I'm used to than what actual Japanese culture seems to be, though still occasionally it gets to me. Japanese is extremely difficult. I'm learning to appreciate the sheer complexity of the construction of language itself in general, but there's something different about Japan. Even had I been born here and gone to Japanese school, I would still be in a different category because I look different. And now, after nearly four months (has it really been that long??), I've certainly gotten better, but I still can't understand most conversations any more than what the topic at hand is. It's frustrating. And it's true, Japanese culture is very different. If anyone ever said that culture is a mere illusion, that person was wrong; no matter what, I'll be assumed to be "out" in some ways even if I live here the rest of my life.

Still, there are some practical benefits to being a foreigner in Japan, though to be honest it's really the first time in my life I've hit a wall that seems at least in some ways truly impenetrable. Growing up in LA as a middle class white male going to high-powered schools certainly gave me an advantage, and I never knew the kinds of limitations I would hear about in history class--and so I learned to believe that they were all illusions, that they were false, that anyone can really do anything if they have the right interest. Likewise I never understood my privilege. American culture loves the underdog, the success story, the unlikely winner--so Americans are taught that we can do anything. We're taught that every person is unique and special, and that we need those ideas to have self-esteem and be happy people. So much so that real limitations are looked down upon or swept under the rug--for example, when Obama was elected, there were some who declared America a "post-racial society," a supposition that is simply wrong. Some people who are lobbying against healthcare reform seem keen to overlook the real hardships faced every day by millions of people who can hardly (or not at all) afford healthcare. I was always taught that everything was possible, even to the extent that I sort of thought of myself as a "victim of the liberal arts" in that I felt overwhelmed by opportunity, spread out, and distracted all the time--so much that I desperately wanted just to focus. I turned to foreign language and culture to find some of that meaning and focus that I so desperately felt I needed. The fact remains that there are a number of people in America who are not too fond of immigrants, and feel that everyone coming to America should already be able to speak English. And maybe that's not so bizarre to understand; dealing with different cultures is exhausting work, and to not be able to understand or communicate is stressful, even frightening. People fear the "other."

Maybe that's why I stay with this kind of stuff. American culture is full of a desire for instant gratification, a one-hit wonder, results as fast as possible. Infomercials sell 5-minute ab-packs. Conan was kicked off The Tonight Show after only 7 months. If a band is so lucky to get signed by a label, they will likely have a contract that requires success within a certain time frame. I used to think that I would eventually find some sort of occupation someday that would just immediately be easy--I'd just be able to do it, and I'd love it, and that would be it. But I've come slowly and painfully to realize that life just doesn't work like that--it's a series of slow processes, and it just so happens that learning Japanese is one of the slowest. I want to have real values, and I don't want to slip something "other" under the rug.

Last night I bought dried squid at the convenience store down the street. I would never have done that, even three months ago, but last night I ate it and loved it. And tonight at bowling, even though I had a hard time understanding a lot of the Japanese, I learned some new words. And for each of the four games of bowling we did, my score improved every time. That's progress. That's real. That's what I'm doing here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Obama thoughts

Quick post, as I've got loads to do. Just a couple of quick thoughts about Obama and the feline showdown going on in the financial world. No doubt he's having a hard time right now, and I must say that I too would like to see him flex the power given to him. It's true that we elected him on the promise of change, and while I understand a bit of the sheer difficulty of his job, last week's election of Scott Brown should be a severe wake-up call to Obama and his administration that they might ought to don a stronger domestic image.

Here's an interesting (yet related) perspective on Obama from (no, it's not the Communist Party publication anymore).

Friday, January 22, 2010

ニュース! Новости!

It's a disjointed update, confounded by languages!


This week has been insanely busy, and I haven't had time for much of anything that isn't related to class. In other news, I've started teaching a weekly English class and the second meeting was tonight. I have 3-5 students, and I really really really enjoy teaching. I find that having studied Latin, Russian, and Japanese (Latin most of all actually) helps me a great deal with teaching English, and I could see myself doing this a lot more. I've added links on the right (my Profile) to my Facebook, ВКонтакте, and ミクシ pages.

INTERESTING: I've finally started both a Russian and a Japanese language blog (it's great practice, hm?)--the Russian one can be found on VK and the Japanese one on Mixi. For my weekly Russian class, I'm currently reading some really excellent memoir-stories by one Вадим Смоленский (Vadim Smolensky), known for having translated some of Haruki Murakami's early works into Russian. Check out his awesome site here. The issue of shark-finning is significant, because while the popularity of these expensive yet apparently tasteless fins ought not to be more of an issue than eating tuna, I've learned that the fact is that sharks are often hunted in an extremely wasteful (and some would argue cruel) manner, and apparently some species are endangered. I'm not against the idea of eating shark in principle, but apparently this is a big deal environmentally speaking, so I'm told. Here's one BBC Correspondent's experience with the issue in China. What do you think? Here's a fantastic speech by President Obama from Dr. Martin Luther King Day, concerning race in America and issues that face us all in the past, present, and future. Recommended viewing.

News about the earthquake in Haiti seems to been somewhat glaringly absent here in Japan. I wondered why even The Japan Times featured Kobe's anniversary memorial for the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 15 years ago on its front page...without any mention of Haiti. None can deny Japan's late response (though extant), and this discussion explores why that happened.

Awesome musician I've just discovered: Origa (オリガ / Орига / Ольга Витальевна Яковлева). A Russian singer who does most of her work these days in Japan, not to mention a friend and collaborator of Yuko Kanno (菅野よう子), the genius behind the music of Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and others (she's my other new favorite musician).

And here's some more gaijin perspective.

And of course, who could forget the Coachella lineup that just came out this week? I'd really really really really really love to go (TONS OF AMAZING BANDS), but that would mean $1000 in airfare, plus three days of missed class, not counting tickets, food, camping, a train to Tokyo, or gas money. So in other words, not happening though there are two really awesome-looking music festivals coming up this summer right here in Japan: Summer Sonic Fuji Rock Festival Hopefully I can go to both! ROCK!!!!

The news about Conan O'Brien has been disappointing, to say the least. I feel lucky that I was able to see his live show twice. Other disappointing news concerns the loss of Martha Coakley in Massachusetts. I even phone-banked for her all the way from here in Japan, but it came out a loss. Can't say I'm all that surprised, though. Given what I've seen in the news about American politics and the way the country is reacting to everything, it seems this was bound to happen. Finally, the weather has also been crazy in Los Angeles. Angelinos, I hope you're enjoying the change of pace. I know these people are!

Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, December 29

Shibuya in Tokyo, New Year's Eve

Now, ain't somebody gonna buy my bass?

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Teriyaki Chicken Bowl

Why doesn't ANY kind of teriyaki (much less the common teriyaki chicken donburi [bowl] that is so popular in the US) seem to exist in Japan outside the realm of Western burger restaurants (McDonald's, Mos Burger, Freshness Burger, and apparently Subway and Burger King, though I haven't seen them in Japan yet)? It's easily the second most popular/best known and loved Japanese food in the USA, second only to sushi. (I would venture to guess that number three is tempura.) I love those teriyaki bowls, and the truth is that teriyaki IS a real Japanese flavor, so where's the teriyaki? Where are those delicious dons?

It's a mystery!



Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.
(Basically "happy new year!" in a really really nice polite way--said at the beginning of the new year, rather than at the end of the old one)

Zōjō-ji, a temple in Tokyo (in front of Tokyo Tower) where I rang in 2010 with my family.

Happy New Year, and with that I seem to be in the doldrums of my year abroad. A ton of stuff has happened since I last updated (almost a month ago? Is that possible??), and fortunately it's all been generally good. However, I've been back in school two weeks already after break, and it's been a bit frustrating. Japanese is truly a fiendishly difficult language, and advancement is slow. That said, I've improved significantly, and my knowledge is certainly quite useful in terms of getting basic information from people, buying things, getting schedules and whatnot. But still, thinking back on my summer in Russia, with its relative great similarity to English coupled with the intensity of the program itself, I improved much faster than I feel I am at Japanese. Interestingly, speaking of Russia, I have found that I miss it, and of course the people I met there too. I'd like to start a blog in Russian (and a blog in Japanese), but my first priority is catching up on my work. I had been under the impression during October and November that classes here at Kindai (金大、the short name of Kanazawa University) are very easy, so I didn't really take it seriously. The program here is indeed comparatively relaxed, but in the past several months of my life I have come to understand more that study itself is quite important to me, and I see its value. So, I've got some catching up to do, and that's my first priority.

I had mentioned before in this blog that while studying in Russia, I came to reconnect with my love for music, literature, and study itself. Looking back on it now, with my living situation there being in my host mother's apartment (at least a twenty minute walk away from friends, with no TV I could watch), with my computer being broken, and with very very little money to speak of, I found that I was much less distracted and was able to focus much much better on studies. However, the experience of being able to focus on those things was very good for me, and it taught me that it's quite alright to actually study sometimes. I do enjoy it when I'm actually doing it, and real friends will understand and always be there afterward anyhow. In Japan, though, although the living situation is a ton of fun, there are many more distractions!

In other news, it's snowing in Kanazawa right now. That's no surprise, because it rains and/or snows every day. It's been snowing since yesterday afternoon and is expected to continue snowing until tomorrow evening, I think.

It's been over a month since I last updated, so in the future I will be sure to update more regularly. Since my last update, I took a trip to Osaka and Kyoto in mid-December that was a massive ton of fun. I have some great pictures from that trip, not to mention great memories, and I got a chance to learn some about the Kansai region with an excellent guide! Then there were various sorts of holiday events, including some international student parties and things, some crazy storms, and I had my very first ever actual "gig" playing guitar, where I played and sang a song at the International Student Winter Party or whatever it was called. It was a ton of fun, and it felt very rewarding.

Anyway, during the winter break, my family came to visit me here in Japan, and we explored Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo together. Here are a few pictures...

Feeding the world-famous friendly deer in Nara.

Crowds lined up for Hatsumoude (the first shrine visit of the year) on January 1 at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto's famous Golden Temple.

With Matt at my favorite shrine, Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto.

The Tenno of Japan (Emperor Akihito) addressing the public on January 2. I was there!

Maiko (舞子) in front of Kiyomizudera (temple) in Kyoto. (Geisha in training!)

Some interesting articles I've been collecting over the last month:
The issue of the American base in Okinawa
Japanese goodwill toward the United States
A new international air travel agreement between Japan and the US
BBC perspective on the above
Perhaps an interesting piece of history concerning The Far Oriental
Some curious news about a famous Zashiki Warashi
Crazy weather news
More crazy weather news
Awesome science news about exploring Titan
Huffington Post article about "two Obamas" that seems rather astute blog story about "how to party with your Japanese boss"
Recent news concerning Gilad Shalit, the national son of Israel
Concerning my academic interests, this article on understanding culture through language was fascinating
Food words
Know your Fish
A cool blog about the Aspiring Polyglot
Another cool blog about East Asian Stuff

Finally, something interesting that a friend showed me.
We remember that famous picture of Obama form the campaign:
But then there were the parodies. Here's the question: how do you translate this into Japanese?

The answer:

It just so happens that "frog" and "to return" are homonyms in Japanese (kaeru is the word), a fact that becomes obvious when written in kana. The above text "meiji jidai ni kaeru" can therefore be translated literally as "Return to the Meiji Era" or just as correctly "Frog to the Meiji Era" -- indeed, a pun.