Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nihongo 102.

Once a week, I leave my office building near Dupont Circle and walk about 10 minutes to another office building and descend to the basement level, entering a small classroom with my books in tow and my pride swallowed.

Konbanwa....good evening.

Walking into Japanese 102 last month, I was feeling good. Sure, my newly acquired hiragana and katakana mastery had been fading a little, and I had probably forgotten a few vocab words over the month-long break, but I had a solid foundation and was ready to learn more.

In 101, I was one of the more together students, if I don't say so myself. Always had my homework done, usually knew the answer when called on. Like in high school.

The teacher had been new, a little hesitant, and the class was quiet and awkward, but overall the first 10-week session went well. Along with the basic writing system, I learned how to say numbers, tell the time, ask how much something cost, and ask where something was. I still could barely say anything that was not a phrase listed in the first few lessons of my textbook Genki (that means healthy, energetic), but it was progress.

Part of me felt I was not quite congratulated enough by the teacher for being such a good student. I mean, I was just about the only one who showed up on time, every time, homework in tow, and generally could answer her questions correctly. Yet week to week, sensei barely seemed to remember who I was, and she never bothered to grade the worksheets that I proudly turned in.

That's what can happen to someone honors-tracked and overindulged as an American public high school student in life: Your sense of achievement quickly becomes inflated.

Now I was a sophomore in my faux-school, and it was time to meet a new teacher and class.

As I said, I was feeling good. Immediately it was clear that this sensei was more experienced than my previous teacher, and there were only two other people in the room, both younger women, alert and there on time. Wow great!

My last class had been a ragtag bunch of between five and seven people, with only three or four of us seeming to be awake and engaged at any given time. "This class starts at 5:20, no?" the teacher had said many times, as we waited for others who would show up late or not at all.

When I arrived for 102, the teacher was already talking to a grad-student-looking girl at the front about which was harder to learn, Korean or Japanese?

"Definitely Korean," said the woman I have come to call Smarty Pants.

"Really!" said the Japanese teacher, fascinated. Smarty Pants nodded and went on about how complicated Korean is compared to Japanese.

Was I in the right class?

The other woman who came in looked to be a professional in her 30s, very pleasant and a bit tentative, like me. The teacher asked us to introduce ourselves.

Smarty Pants began in facile Japanese. Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa A. desu."  She talked about how she likes learning languages and is also studying Korean. A pro.

The other one says she has studied Chinese, so she knows some kanji (the word-pictures also used in Japanese), hopes to travel to Japan one day and is just there because she's interested to learn.

I basically say the same thing: want to visit Japan someday, interested to learn, want to challenge myself. "What other languages have you studied?" the teacher asks me. "I studied Spanish in high school through college," I said. "From that I have also been able to pick up a little French."

Smarty Pants is nodding like this is all so pedestrian. The teacher says to me, "I always felt that I should learn Spanish, it's like a second language in the U.S."

Before I can respond, Smarty Pants says, "Spanish is very similar to English. That's why it's so easy to learn."

"Ooohhh," the teacher says, in a tone of, hm, I'm not so sure. I smile tightly. Yes, I spent high school and college on a language that is just like English and easy to learn.

If I had been quicker, I would have said, "That's funny, because chingate and fuck you sound like totally different languages to me!

The class gets started and I immediately feel behind. This teacher is talking much faster, and because there are only three of us, I have less time to process what's happening as she calls on us successively to answer questions in the textbook.

We are learning the ga arimasu sentence structure. You can use it to say something "is there" in a place, or you can use it to say you have something. "Kuruma ga arimasu" could mean, depending on the context, either "I have a car" or "There is a car." If it's a living thing, you say imasu instead.

We were looking at a picture in our textbook, picking out nouns. Nekko. Cat.

Some deep part of my brain, the part that sat frustrated and scared in Algebra and Calculus and Chemistry and Oceanography (yes, mofos, oceanography. have you seen that charting??), registered the same panic that I had felt whenever out of my depth in high school.

Gee, in retrospect, I guess I wasn't the uniformly stellar student that I remembered myself to be, because this tongue-tied status felt all too familiar. (I will just say that it is continually astounding and humbling to work for a science-focused organization. Despite my teenage hatred of science, I'm reminded every day that it's a science nerd's world, and we just live in it.)

Nekko ga imasu ka?

I realize the teacher is looking at me. What she said is a blur. I'm still trying to catch up from the exchange that just took place between her and Smarty Pants, who is not flustered once by anything.


I look down at my textbook. There is a cat on the page. "Hai. Nekko ga imasu."

Now the teacher is saying something even more complicated to me, and she has an amused look on her face. "Nekko something namae something something." All I heard was "name" and "cat" and it felt like everyone was silently laughing at me. For all I knew, I'd said I was a cat and she was asking me for my cat-name.

When I first saw all the red circles on my homework I asked about the errors I'd made and the teacher explained that a red circle is the Japanese way of saying you got it right. Subsequent homework has not been so full of red circles.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I admitted. This was pretty brutal. I didn't expect to be on the spot like this on day 1 of Japanese 102.

"Your cat's name," the teacher said.

I suddenly processed what she was saying. Smarty Pants was looking at me with a dour expression. I paused. Should I just paper this over and lie? I used to live with a cat. His name was Dusty. Should I use him now? Telling the lie in Japanese seemed even more daunting than telling the truth. "Nekko ga imasen," I said. "I don't have a cat."

It went on like this for much of the class: try to keep up, fail, and repeat. The part that sticks in my mind is the part where we were asked what is in our house. Literally: What is in your house? The teacher turned to me.

"Nani ga arimasu ka?" Let me think on that for a minute.

The silence in the room was deafening. Anything in your house. Anything at all. Just one thing in your house. Can you think of things in your house? Anything? WHY COULD I NOT THINK OF ONE ITEM at home that I could say in Japanese? I felt suspended in time.

Smarty Pants grew weary. "I assume you have a bed," she said, chin tucked down and eyes full of judgment.

"Yes I do, and if I knew how to say it, I would," I said.

"Bay-do," she deadpanned, except she was actually serious. The teacher nodded and I laughed. How simple.

"Beddo ga arimasu," I said.

I felt an overwhelming urge to retire to my beddo.

In the next class, I learned that Smarty Pants had actually majored in Japanese and was taking this class for review. Every time she makes a mistake in class, she laughs and says, "I keep thinking of the Korean!" When I can't keep up, it's tempting to say, "Whoops, I keep thinking of stabbing Smarty Pants in her superior round eyes!" but that would not be productive. So I continue to struggle.

There was a brief respite where one of the students from my 101 class showed up in the second session. A very sweet 17-year-old kid who was inspired to learn Japanese because he loves anime, he was perpetually behind and had failed to learn hiragana, so he temporarily took on the role of suckiest person in class. Much as I sympathized, even I was not sorry to see him go after the teacher basically kicked him out of the section in front of everyone.

"You are very smart, but you have a problem. You do not know hiragana," the teacher said to him kindly but firmly while the other three of us looked down uncomfortably at our desks. "So I am giving you a choice. You learn all of the hiragana by next class, or you move to 101."  She was still talking at him when I left class that day.

Anime boy did not return.

At first I was relieved: It's so nice not to have to listen to someone struggle through the material, is it not, Smarty Pants? Now it's me and Professional Peer and you. She and I will muddle through together, and you will have to be patient. I sure wouldn't want to be you.

But it soon becomes apparent that when it comes to repeating back dialogue, I fall far behind. "Leepeat after me," the teacher says.* She reads a longish sentence from the textbook. Three voices chime in for the first few words. Then it's down to two.

"Let's try it again," the teacher says. Again, the other two manage to repeat back what she is saying, and I have given up. I see the words on the page, and I hear what she is saying, but it is going to take me about three times as long to eke out the seemingly neverending string. My lips are pressed together in a nonsmile that says, "This is not happening." The teacher laughs a little bit and talks about how she wants us to learn to speak. I can no longer blame Smarty Pants for sandbagging.

It is clear now who has fallen behind. It is clear who has work to do. Ganbatte. And, mierda.

Music: "Ryokudou"**

* This is just how it is. Neither of my teachers is very strong at pronouncing an 'r' or an 'l,' and the first one joked about it. And the beauty is, few students can properly pronounce the Japanese 'r,' which is a combination of 'l' and 'd' uttered with the tongue pressed back against the roof of the mouth. It was comedy gold to me to see a room full of English speakers trying, and failing, to repeat the Japanese syllable  ろ ("ro"). "Ldo." "Ro." "Okay, try again: Ldo." "Ro."

** I don't understand jack squat of barely any of this song. I just happened to love Ikuko Harada way before I ever aspired to learn Japanese.

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