03 July, 2008

guyasumi: fragmentary communication

On my morning train, I always see the same little girl. She is probably nine or ten and she usually wears a pink hat each day. Like all Japanese children, she is incredibly cute. In the past, when we happen to be riding in the same car, she looks at me with a shy smile and makes a deep bow. I smile back and bow too. I hadn't seen her for a week, maybe, but yesterday morning we were in the same car and she actually sat beside me. When she walked over, we exchanged smiles of recognition. She sat quietly beside me as I read W. Somerset Maugham, but now I'm regretting that I didn't speak with her; talking to her would be infinitely more rewarding than Maugham, who I'm finding rather tiresome now anyway. As she got off the train, she stood and with a bashful wave, turned back to me and said, "Bye!" (In English.) I smiled and waved and said it back, feeling all the more resolved to talk with her next time we meet. The little things mean so much to me here; just that one word and smile from her made my entire day.

Being in Chiba and its surrounding environs has made me incredibly curious when I see other gaijin ("foreigner," especially Caucasian ones) around here, because they are so rare. I always stare at them and try to discern what on earth they're doing in Japan. It's not terribly uncommon to see gaijin at the more bustling tourist spots in Tokyo, but here in the suburbs, we are very few and far between. Today there was a middle-aged gaijin man on the train, carrying on a conversation with the woman beside him, and I was full of curiosity what he could possibly be doing here. It's funny, too, though; whenever we gaijin pass each other, we always stare at one another (much longer than the Japanese stare at us) as if we were wondering the exact same thing, "What are YOU doing here?"

Played tennis yesterday with Diane and Iku, one of the students here at Kanda. The courts were shimmering with the heat and we sweated ("glistened," Diane insists) tons, but it was great fun. Diane and Iku teamed up against me and we didn't keep score but shouted back and forth the whole time in Japanese and English, laughing at how terrible we were. As we played I was reminded that exercise is tremendously important to keep one mentally and spiritually sound. This is something of a motto for my family. After God and each other, maintaining an active lifestyle is probably the next highest priority. It's one that I never really bought much into until this past year, when I started to realize how very true it was. I'm hoping that the rain will hold off on Friday, for I am trying to organize a Frisbee game (which ought to be very interesting, since Frisbee in Japan is only something you do with dogs).

Nana, my three-year-old host sister, is a bundle of energy and raucous laughter and even though she can be "urusasugiru" (too noisy) sometimes, she's a lot of fun and rather attached to me. Whenever I come home each day, she likes to proclaim it to the entire household, if not the entire neighborhood: "MAMA! MAMA! ABBY-SAN KAETTA! OKAERI! OKAERI!" (Transl. Mom, Mom, Abby's home! Welcome home! Welcome home!) And every night, when I say "Oyasumi nasai" to the family, she gets really excited and and jumps up and down, shouting, "Oyasumi! Goodnight! Oyasumi! Goodnight!" (Interchanging the Japanese and English.) Lately, she gets so worked up that she's blended them into one word: "Guyasumi!" Keiko and I always laugh a lot at this, but she's so delighted to bid me good night that she doesn't even notice.

I have a deep fondness for Risa, the six-year-old girl. She is quiet and sweet and I can't even begin to explain her eyes. When she looks at me, I sense that she is perpetually brimming over with thoughtfulness and sincerity ("seijitsu"--something like a cross between "earnest" and "honest"; I like how the two are mixed in the same word); she understands that I don't understand many things. But we carry on little conversations in our own little way and she teaches me new words every day. (Like "pinwheel" and "balloon" and the name of the tree in the front yard, which I'm afraid I've already forgotten.) She praises my kanji and I praise her kana reading abilities. It's a curious position to be in--I can read more kanji than she can, but she knows infinitely more words than I do. So when she asks me to help her read some instructions for one of her art projects, I can read it (notwithstanding the characters I haven't learned yet, which at this point is still about 5,800) but I can't always understand what it means. But if I can read it out loud, she understands what it means.

And so literacy is a very complicated thing in Japan because of the immense difficulty of their written language. Yet Japan is the country with one of the highest literacy rates in the entire world (98% of the population can read). This is really a remarkable statistic, considering that their written language is arguably the most difficult on earth (even more than Chinese, apparently, which is something I was surprised to learn last week; if you want to know why, ask me and I'll explain it to you; I don't much feel like writing it out here). Elementary school children learn approximately 1,000 kanji and middle schoolers learn another 1,500. By the time you reach high school, you gradually acquire another 1,000 or so. So there are about 3,500 kanji in general usage but over 6,500 in the total language. It's bizarre to be in a society where everyone is very well-educated, but you still can't fully comprehend a newspaper until you're in sixth grade. Most of the time it's just discouraging; I feel like I'll never get there. The newspaper is still mostly confusing black strokes to me. (Although I got really excited yesterday when I could actually read an entire article and understand it. An enormous accomplishment.) Can someone please tell me why I chose the most difficult possible language for an English-speaker to learn? I'm beginning to forget why.

In a semi-related vein, I've been feeling a bit glum lately and almost waver back and forth with this feeling that I want to leave. It's not that I want to leave Japan exactly, but I really want to leave these classes. I don't think I've ever felt so mentally exhausted in my entire life. But being able to play tennis yesterday released a lot of those pent up black clouds and I am feeling a bit more optimistic. Especially since I finished my homework for today and am about to take the train back home, which I think might be my favorite part of the day.


Anonymous said...

Which Maugham are you reading? I've only read one of his, so I can't comment on him as an author in general, but The Razor's Edge is a great book.

Anonymous said...

Sure he's arrogant, and maybe his style's not the greatest (I don't remember)--but Larry was great. I wish I had money to go hide out in Paris for two years studying Greek and going to philosophy lectures at the Sorbonne.

Right now I'm reading McCarthy's The Road.

fiercest said...

hey abby, read the painted veil before you write maugham off entirely. i thought the relationship between husband and wife played out in a really fascinating way.