You gotta love Anna. Seriously, because everyone loves Anna. She’s a busty, blonde Swiss-German who grew up playing the piano and speaking Swiss. And German. And English. And now she speaks perfect Japanese. God, I hate her.
Nah, just kidding. Anna’s okay. In high school, she “picked up” French, Spanish, and Italian. Well, they’re all like the same language, but still she deserves credit for one. Then in college, she majored in Japanese and ended up moving to Japan and becoming an interpreter. Not an English teacher like, um, some people. Okay, now I hate her again.
So when I heard her chatting in flawless Japanese with a group of Japanese teachers at a conference, I waited till she went to the buffet table before I made my move. As she was picking up warm shrimp croquettes and slices of cold roast beef, I sidled next to her and whispered, “You should try the tamago yaki.” Words no woman can resist, I’ve found.
“Is it good?” she asked.
“With a bit of grated daikon and a touch of soy sauce,” I replied, “heavenly.”
She obligingly put a couple of pieces on her plate.
“So how’d you do it?” I asked. “The Japanese, I mean. Here, don’t forget the soy sauce.
“I grew up speaking several languages,” she replied, “plus my parents are musicians. Thanks.
“Fair enough. Maybe my real question is, How can I do it?
“You probably can’t,” she answered flatly.
Now see, I appreciate that. That’s called—-oh, what’s the English word for it?—-Oh yeah, The truth. it’s been so long I forgot what it’s called. Because you go through life with folks telling you all the great stuff you can do—-be President, star in the NBA, win the Math Olympics, speak Japanese in 3 months—-but those people are—-oh, what’s that word again?—-Oh yeah, Liars. After putting in ten-thousand hours in Japanese, I can hold a decent conversation, but still the homeless guy sleeping under the blue tarp by the river blows me away. Plus he’s got a better jump shot and can do long division. Really gotta stop challenging that guy to games of Horse and sudoku.
Playing Your Strengths
But you know, that makes sense, what Anna said. Because some people are sumo wrestlers and others are high jumpers, but nobody’s good at both. So I’ll concede that a multi-lingual musician has advantages I don’t have. Yeah, well, at least I can become President of the United States, so screw you, Anna. Still, I wanted to come away from the conversation with something. And since sex appeared to be off the table, I decided to settle for advice on Japanese.
“What would you suggest?” I asked.
“Well, what really helped me,” she said helpfully, “was writing things out by hand.
“Yeah, you know, like with a pen?
“A pen? So writing in Japanese, with a pen?
“Writing,” she said.
This was terrible news. Because when I started out a decade ago, all I ever wanted to do was speak Japanese. Then after several years of half-ass conversations, my sensei’s husband told me one truth: “You gotta learn to read,” he said. So I did. I spent a few more years teaching myself kanji and struggling through newspaper articles, until I could finally decode the directions on the back of the ramen noodles. Turns out you have to boil the water first. Glad I went to the trouble of learning this useful language.
And now, here was more bad news. But the thing about Ken Seeroi is, He’s a fighter. Like if somebody says he can’t have one more beer and it’s time to leave the bar, does Ken Seeroi back down? Hell no, he doesn’t. Unless of course you’re physically larger or in any way threatening, and then, all right, I’ll go home. Remind me to stop dating such butch women already.
Anyway, what Anna said, I tried it, and it works. Damn, why are people smarter than me always right? Very annoying, intelligence.
So what I did was . . .
Disclaimer on Studying Japanese
First of all, you probably don’t really want to study Japanese. I know it seems like fun, but really it, uh, isn’t. Well, I mean, I guess if you’re confined to solitary for shanking your cellmate it could be a good use of your time, but otherwise, jeez, go outside and see a tree or a cloud or go fishing or something. Secondly, get a life. People in Japan just want you to speak English anyway. But if you’re dead-set on it, yeah that’s cool too. Hey, knock yourself out. But where were we? Right.
So what I did was to write everything in Japanese. By hand. By which I mean, by pen. Everything, in kanji where appropriate. Now, some people will say, Well we use computers to write nowadays. To which I can only reply, Uh, so what? and Oh yeah, bullshit.
So after writing scores of shopping lists and newspaper excerpts and tearful love notes to amply-proportioned Swiss-German girls, two things happened.
One, I noticed the subtle distinctions between kanji better. Writing things by hand really highlights the differences between similar kanji—- 拭 武 式 —-that get glossed over during reading.
Secondly, and more importantly, writing finally took Japanese from being a foreign language to a real language. My language. Sure, everyone says “Oh, your Japanese is so good,” but that’s not what they mean. What they mean is, It’s good for a someone who looks like “you.” You’ve got a great high-jump, for a sumo wrestler. Wow, half a meter, Bobby Chubs, that’s impressive. Keep up the good work. Japanese people spend surprisingly little time complimenting one other on how well they use their own language. But it’s very easy to buy into that thinking: yeah, my Japanese is great, all things considered. Where “all things” equates to “being white.”
If you think about it for even a second, it would be insane to meet someone who studied Portuguese or Hindi or English for years and yet couldn’t write the language. And I don’t mean spelling mistakes. I mean, couldn’t write it at all. The only reason it’s acceptable in Japan is because Japanese-looking people assume that foreign-looking people can’t do it. So it’s okay. We understand, you’re handicapped.
Sorry, but to functionally live as a member of society, it’s not enough to be able to speak, or even read. Which is to say that, when the insurance adjuster comes to your apartment, if you can’t write “I had a couple cocktails and somehow mistook the closet for the bathroom” there’s something wrong. But practice your writing and, hey, problem solved. Finally, some respect.
How to Write Japanese
So how do you do it? Well, it isn’t the Math Olympics, but here are a few thoughts.
1. Seize the day. If—-and it’s a huge if—-you really want to speak Japanese beyond “My name’s Bobby and here’s my hobby,” then you need reading and writing. And those take a long damn time. If you’re gonna slim down for the high jump, then Sumo Bob, you need to start today.
2. Stroke order. Look, it’s important, but don’t get bent out of shape. Imagine if every time you wrote your name in English, you penned all of the characters in a different sequence. You started “G” and “A” with the horizontal lines first, or a “Z” backwards, half of the time. That’d be schizophrenic. So to avoid making yourself mental, it’s best to write every character the same way every time. That takes a bit of research and practice. Yeah, it takes a long time.
3. Forget about writing neatly. Look, you either got it or you don’t. My handwriting in English is terrible. And in Japanese, uh, same thing. Somehow, I don’t think that’s gonna change. But I will say, the more you do it, the better you become, so that’s something. So rather than write ten words perfectly, write a thousand words. That’ll help.
4. Stop being gay. And I don’t mean sexually. Like, I think it’s great if you’re homosexual. Do all the freaky bedroom and public restroom stuff you want, I don’t care. But stop sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat crafting each character with some brush and special ink, ’cause that’s going over the line. They’re just freaking words. If you did that with Italian, three guys named Giuseppe would jump out of a Camaro and beat the shit out of you, so stop treating Japanese like some special case.
5. This probably should be number 1, but Change your mindset. Every time I write my address at the post office, they’re like “Oh wow!” But every other Japanese person can do it, so Yeah, what. I doubt anyone says as much to Koreans. Or Filipinos. Or Peruvians. The only way to be part of a society is to think and behave like you’re part of it, and you can’t do so by being a retard. You don’t have to be Rosa Parks, but at least stop mentally moving yourself the back of the bus.
The Benefits of Writing Japanese
So then, a few months later, I ran into Anna in Shinjuku. It was late at night and she was with two Japanese girls. They all looked smoking hot, but that was probably just because I’d had a couple cocktails and was about to go pee in my closet.
“This is my Ken,” she said, introducing me. “Ken can write Japanese.”
“Woooow,” said the two girls.
“So can you, Anna,” I noted, and everybody laughed.
“Anna’s Japanese,” said one of the girls, and they laughed again.
“Interest you in some karaoke?” I propositioned.
“Ah, we better make the last train,” said Anna. “After, all, it’s Tuesday.”
“Is it?” I said. “I thought it was Saturday,” and I really did.
“Write me another letter, Ken Seeroi!” she called over her shoulder as they turned to the station. And suddenly I was engulfed by a million people running for the trains, then in a moment, alone in Shinjuku.
I realized I’d once again missed the last train. But no worries—-Ken Seeroi is that man of experience. I knew I’d either grab a taxi or crash in a cheap internet cafe and the next morning pick up a convenience-store dress shirt and razor and make it to work just fine. So I headed out into the warm, foggy night for one more yatai beer and a quiver of chicken skewers and felt great because I’d finally found a use for all those years of learning Japanese. At last I could communicate with the notoriously reticent Swiss-Germans. And that made it all worthwhile.