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Happy Friday!

I hope you’ve all been enjoying my blog recently. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it. It’s been a real growth experience for me to put a lot of energy into examining my own study habits, strategies and life style here on this blog, and I hope it’s been equally useful and informative for you guys. If I can help one person get better at Japanese, then I’m happy with my work.

The last couple months of intense blogging on my part are all thanks to a nice long winter break, but now 2nd Semester is starting and I’ll be a lot busier with schoolwork, my Japanese tutoring Job, and my full time job. I’ve never had a real plan for when and how I post, I just sort of put stuff up whenever I want, but I think it’s about time I make a schedule so you’ll all know when to expect new material. I’ll be working my hardest to post regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week from now on. I might occasionally write a bonus post on a weekend, but I’m not making any promises about that.

Please continue to enjoy my blog! Good luck studying!

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Don’t Forget Where You Come From

It’s easy to lose yourself in the quest for complete language immersion. I’ve said recently, more often than just once or twice, that I almost exclusively listen to Japanese music, watch Japanese TV, and read Japanese Magazines, books and Manga. Is this good for my Japanese? Of course, it’s made me nearly fluent without ever actually going to Japan for a substantial amount of time. But is this good for my identity as an American? I’m beginning to think that it’s not.

I live in Chicago. My family is Caucasian. I don’t live in a heavily Japanese neighborhood. Almost all of my friends are Japanese and somehow I’ve managed to spend more than 50% of each day living in a virtual Japan. I now identify more with Japanese people than I do with Americans.

I see people talking loudly on the train and I look at them out of the corner of my eye thinking “jeez they’re loud. They have no sense of social proximity.” I have found that I now have trouble establishing and maintaining strong eye contact when I’m speaking to someone; I have to break away and look at something else for a moment.  I am now overly sensitive to word choice over content.

This is just a small list of Japanese habits and thought patterns that I’ve inherited recently that don’t work particularly well in American society. Of course there are some benefits as well, as any culture has aspects that one would do well to learn from.

For instance, I am now much more polite. I can tell what someone’s thinking without them speaking, simply by reading their gestures, tone of voice and posture. I know what someone really wants to say from hearing them “non-answer.” I have a stronger work ethic and a deeper sense of hierarchical respect than I used to.

Now, all of these things I’m complaining about, anyone can look at and say “that’s not a big deal, get over it.” But here’s where the problem lies.

Let’s pretend I meet an American girl, and she says “do you like this singer?” and I say “I’ve never heard him before, who is he?” She says “OMG, he’s at the top of the charts right now! How could you NOT know him?” and since I am now more Japanese than American, I think “you don’t mean the Oricon Charts do you? Unless it’s Oricon I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What’s your favorite TV show?”

“I don’t watch American TV”

“Who’s your favorite actor?”

“Kimura Takuya”

“Who the heck is that?”

I don’t relate to my own people easily any more. These are superficial examples, I’m aware of that. But every new relationship starts on the superficial level and then moves deeper.

“Why do you love Japan so much?”

“there are so many reasons, it would take a week to explain.”

“ok, what’s not good enough about America?”

“I don’t remember any more.”

People like me are no longer full on American, and we’re not Japanese. We fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s really not a place in the middle to be. It’s like deciding that your best place in life is the hallway between the waiting room and the examination room at the doctor’s office. You can’t stay there forever, either go home or get a checkup.

There’s nothing wrong with loving another culture and the people who live it. There is something wrong with forcing your way into that culture when you can’t stay there forever.

We need to learn how to love Japan as real Americans (if America is where you’re from), not as a proxy-Japanese.

Are You Japanese?

It was my friend FK’s birthday yesterday and one of his friends (who I’ve met once) invited me to a surprise party for him at a Chinese restaurant. She told us all to be there by 7 PM because she would be arriving with FK at around 7:30. I arrived a few minutes early, and since I didn’t want to be the first person to arrive in a group of people who I mostly didn’t know, I sat in my car and stared at the clock. When 5 minutes passed, I decided to finally enter the restaurant, only to find that there was only one other person there: KR, a guy I’ve met a few times. We filled out a birthday card while we waited for the hostess to seat us at our table for 14, and naturally I forgot how to write the kanji for “birthday.” Where’s my electric dictionary when I need it?

Our huge round table was in a special room towards the back of the restaurant, and in this room were two more empty, huge round tables. We sat down and one by one people began to trickle in. It seemed to me that KR also didn’t know most of these people yet, so I got the pleasure of experiencing the “nice to meet you” moment alongside him. Have you ever had that moment in Japanese? Here’s how it goes. (Please keep in mind that this is not word for word how it went, but a rough translation from Japanese into English)

ME: Um, KR-san, is this your first time meeting this guy too?

KR: Yeah, I’ve never met him before.

Both of us half stand up, hunched over like we have stomach aches.

KR: Ah, Ni…Nice to meet you. I’m KR.

Stranger: Nice to meet you, I’m XX.

Ok, here’s what I’m inevitably thinking at this point. Very soon it’ll be my turn to introduce myself and exchange pleasantries. There are two ways this can go: one way I look like a jerk, and one way I probably don’t (although who really knows?). If this new Japanese guy, XX, introduces himself to me before I introduce myself to him, he’ll definitely speak English to me. That’s obvious, I mean, I’m white and since he has never met me before, he has absolutely no reason to think I speak Japanese. If he introduces himself to me in English, but I respond in Japanese, I look like a grade-A jerk. He’ll think his English wasn’t good enough for me to bother listening to or responding to, and he’ll think that I have decided my Japanese is better than his English. I’ll look selfish and rude. After that attempt by him to speak English with me, if I start speaking Japanese later, it’ll only seem strange and forced – like I am struggling to practice Japanese and not like I just naturally speak it and belong to the group that I am here with.

My solution is to introduce myself to XX before he has a chance to introduce himself to me, and I do it in Japanese so there won’t be an uncomfortable “oh yeah by the way I speak Japanese” moment later on.

ME: Nice to meet you, I’m Elliott.

XX: EH! Ni-nice to meet you! I’m XX. Um… are you… Japanese?

Did he just ask me if I’m Japanese? Oh my… this is now officially an awesome day. He has no idea how happy he just made me. He didn’t just say “wow, your Japanse is good!” which is how Japanese people usually compliment a racially non-Japanese person who speaks Japanese. He actually thought I am Japanese. This was a first for me. I’m not going to lie, it felt really good. What am I learning this language for if I don’t want to sound like a real Japanese person, right? It just means I’m accomplishing my goals as planned.

ME: Nah, I’m American.

XX: Ah, yeah that makes sense, of course.

I don’t like to give more information than that unless asked. Usually I’ll be asked why I speak Japanese (since I didn’t grow up there), and then when I say that it’s simply because I study obsessively and have a lot of Japanese friends they will usually ask me why I’m interested in Japanese. There are a lot of answers to that question, but the big one that I like to give (that’s easiest to talk about and easiest for people to relate to) is that I did karate all through my childhood, and studying Japanese was the natural progression of things when I went to high school.

The rest of our party arrives, all Japanese, and half of them I have never met. I repeat the situation above with each of them (they don’t all think I’m Japanese, but I introduce myself just the same). By this point, the other two parties have arrived. They’re also Japanese. Is this a special room for Japanese customers? I am now the only American in a room of maybe 30 Japanese, all speaking Japanese. I have never felt more like I was in Japan than I did last night… and we were in a Chinese restaurant.

Now, usually my Japanese friends like to speak English with me at least some of the time. But when in a room full of Japanese people, I guess the mood just takes over and they forget about it. They were at home. The whole situation became somewhat of a “we’ll speak Japanese normally with each other. Elliott will sink or swim” scenario. Well, lucky for me, I live for sink or swim. This is what I’ve always wanted. How do I measure up in a room full of Japanese people who aren’t slowing down their language to my level? Do I understand? Can I participate?

If I had to grade myself on last night, I’d give myself an 90%. I had to adapt myself to the situation. I sat back and just listened for a while to get a feel for the flow of conversation. Eventually I began to interject into the conversation, and almost every time I opened my mouth, everyone stopped to listen to me. Actually, this was kind of intimidating. But I can’t blame them, they were curious and excited to hear me speak Japanese. They also probably wanted to make sure I wasn’t being interrupted or confused by peripheral conversation.

I messed up my grammar a couple times, I had to maneuver around a few vocabulary words that I didn’t remember, and I occasionally didn’t understand what people were talking about. That last problem could very easily be due to a lack of context, however, since some of these people already knew each other. I won’t take off too many points for that. I’d say that overall, I didn’t sink.

I was in the middle of saying something when a 10 year old Japanese girl needed to sneak behind me to get out to the bathroom. When she walked by me she said,

「すみません」 excuse me.

A little girl I don’t know said “excuse me” in Japanese. She thought I was Japanese too.

The waitress came by and asked me if I wanted more water.

“oh, yes please. Thank you. And can I please have another napkin?” I answered in English.

“Wow! Your English is good!” Said one of my Japanese friends (in Japanese).

Everyone stopped and looked at her. We all laughed.

For the first time all night, I didn’t know what to say.

CONCLUSION:

If you’re in a situation where you’re a little bit intimidated by the amount and level of Japanese being spoken, just sit back and relax. Let it come to you. They will understand your efforts to learn and practice Japanese. If you mess something up, just keep going. They won’t stop you and say “Jeez, I can’t believe u screwed that up. You suck at Japanese.” They’ll keep listening politely, even if you aren’t making any sense. So talk, have fun, and jump in the deep end. You won’t drown.

One Final Note:

I am not making fun of any of the people I have described in this post. They are all my friends, and I talk about them with the utmost affection. Obviously, when I say that I think it’s cool that they ask me if I’m Japanese, I don’t mean that they are asking me if I’m racially Japanese. I mean that they’re asking if I grew up in Japan. I write about this topic from a place of humility, and realize that while I do consider myself to be an advanced language learner, I do not consider myself completely fluent.

Study Like a Champion

I mentioned a while back that I’m a private Japanese language tutor, and some of my students are in high school. Well, seeing as it’s now the middle of January, they’re getting ready for final exams. A couple of them are freshmen, so this will be their first time ever experiencing a final exam. Needless to say, they’re anxious.

Japanese is hard at the beginner level, I think everyone would agree. Final exams are also scary for a high school freshmen; a test on five chapters seems like an awful lot of material. Those of us who are in college or beyond are already familiar with it and it no longer seems like that big a deal, but to a high school student, it can be overwhelming.  One of my students actually looked at me before the speaking / listening portion of their final exam and said “I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail this.” Well, if you know me at all by now, I don’t like it when people show me low self-esteem (especially my students, be it in karate or Japanese), and I don’t like it when people give up before they start. It’s time for a pep talk.

“Well buddy, you’re right, with that attitude you’re definitely going to fail, you might as well not even try.”

“Ok, then what are we here for?”

“You think I meant that? Look kid, here’s a little wisdom I picked up in Karate over the years: whether you think you’re going to win, or you think you’re going to lose, you’re right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s put it this way. If you say ‘I’m definitely going to fail this test, I shouldn’t waste my time studying’, then what happens? You don’t study, you won’t know anything as a result, and you’ll fail. No doubt.”

“Oh…”

“But if you say ‘I’m definitely going to pass!’, then what happens? You put in way more time studying than you even need to because you take the steps necessary to make your statement a reality. If you don’t put the time or effort in, you don’t stand a fighting chance, but if you fight for what you want like it’s already yours, then you do!”

“Ok, I think I can pass”

“That’s not good enough. It’s too wishy-washy. You’re diluting your spirit! You have to attack this test like your defending your treasure from an onslaught of enemy warriors! You have to approach it with supreme and unshakable confidence that you’re going to pass, no matter what! If you don’t, you’ll only approach it half-hearted, and if half hearted is 50% of your spirit, then it’s also a 50% on your test. You’ll still get an F”

“I see…”

“So what’s the word?”

“I’m going to pass this test”

“That’s better! Look, I don’t care about all your grades leading up to this test or how little you know right now. If you put in the appropriate effort, time, and energy, I promise you, you’ll do great.”

“But how do I know if I’m ready?”

“That’s, believe it or not, the easiest part. Don’t close the text book tonight until you know everything. Simple as that. Just know every word, on every page. If you don’t know something, don’t stop studying until you know it.”

“That sounds hard.”

“It is hard in that it takes time, energy and determination. But when you think about it, the concept isn’t that hard, is it? So many people out there walk into a test without knowing everything, and they hope that they will magically know it when the test is in front of them, or that they’ll get lucky and the stuff they don’t know won’t be on test. Well, that’s a B-student’s way of studying. If you want an A, make sure you never walk into a test without knowing everything.”

“I guess that makes sense”

“Darn right it does. Pound it.”

We pounded fists, drilled Japanese for an hour, and he kept on studying till midnight after I left. He thought he got a B. He got an A.

We never really know how we’ll do on something until the moment to perform comes, but if you want to give yourself the opportunity to achieve what you set out for, you need to settle your stomach, heart and mind. Approach it like you’ve already won. That doesn’t mean don’t try hard because it’s a shoe-in. The greatest athletes on earth, even those who know they’re going to win, approach every game like it’s going to be a dying battle. That’s why they always win.

There’s not that big a difference between preparing for a fight, or a basketball game, or a tennis match and preparing for a Japanese test. Train hard, rest well, and fight for your life.

Success begins and ends with your attitude.

Do you have what it takes?

Learn to Think in Japanese

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is study Japanese for up to an hour. Later, when I eat breakfast, I try to watch NHK or read an article out of the online Asahi Shinbun or the online Japanese Wall Street Journal. On my way to and from work, I listen to Japanese music. I also like to listen to Japanese music at work when I can. During my lunch break, I watch NHK for an hour if I’m in the office. At dinner, when my non-Japanese-speaking family isn’t around, and when I’m not out with my friends, I watch NHK or a rerun of some Japanese variety show (SmapXSmap, Arashi etc) from the Internet or a disk. When I take shorter breaks throughout the day, I flip through Japanese magazines or I’ll read a chapter of some manga (it has to be RAW – in Japanese — or I won’t learn anything) or a Japanese novel. I try to do another hour of intense study (textbook study) before I turn in for the day, but sometimes it’s hard to squeeze that in. Before bed, I like to watch an episode of one of those 11-chapter J Drama’s we all love. If I’m not in the mood for a J Drama though, I’ll read something in Japanese (manga or a novel). Finally, I like to fall asleep to NHK. Now, if you add that all up, it’s somewhere between 3 and 4 hours a day of what I like to call “Relaxed Study” and 2 hours a day of “Intense Study”.

Intense study is pretty straight forward. It’s just memorization of vocab and kanji, practicing or reviewing grammar, or reading out of a text book. It’s the standard kind of study that you find in any good college level Japanese class. The point of Intense Study is to learn more Japanese. Learn more words, learn more Kanji, learn more grammar, and learn how to use it all.

Relaxed Study is, I think, the key to my success in Japanese. In relaxed study, you can’t (and don’t really even try to) learn any new Japanese. The point of relaxed study is to simply encounter Japanese. Let Japanese language surround you, let it push all the English out of your head for a little while. Just enjoy listening to it or reading it. If you don’t know something, just move on. You don’t have to understand everything. The point is not to understand it all in detail, but to simply encounter as much as possible. In Relaxed Study, all I want to do is enjoy recognizing and reinforcing Japanese that I’ve already learned in my Intense Study.

I usually fall asleep to NHK at night. I call this “falling asleep in Japanese.” Well, when I do that, I almost always dream in Japanese. I mean real Japanese. When I wake up in the morning, I am frequently still thinking in Japanese, and this goes on until I get to work. It’s 12 hours (from before sleep to work the next day) of almost complete language immersion.

Make Japanese a backdrop to your day. If you hear Japanese on and off all day, and you allow yourself to forget your English while you do, then your brain will actually start to work in Japanese, even when you’re not studying, and you won’t even notice that you’re doing it.

The Hidden Magic of Singing in Your Car

In modern America, it would seem that there is one place where a person’s true nature comes out with un-compromised purity. In this place people shed their shells of embarrassment and discomfort and behave as the innermost core of their soul dictates, unaware of the reactions of other people and unashamed to behave like idiots. What is this magical place?

The driver’s seat of a car when no one is riding shotgun.

I am not exempt from this pattern.  My car is packed to the brim with Japanese music. I have one American CD (The Killers “Hot Fuss”) and about 20 Japanese CD’s. When I’m driving alone to work in the morning, or home from work at night, I almost always listen to these Japanese CD’s, and at first it is just that: listening. But after a few minutes, a tune will come on that I love so much (let’s just say it’s SMAP: “Dear Woman”) that I start to mouth the words.

Welcomeようこそ日本へ、

I turn up the volume.  I almost can’t help but to blast my speakers.

君が今ここにいること

Before long I’m screaming along with the lyrics, even if I don’t know what every word means, I’ve heard it so many times that it doesn’t matter anymore. I just know the song.

とびきりの運命に、心からありがとう

I’m sure I look like a maniac when people are stopped next to me at a red light, but I could care less. The window is closed and I’ll never see them again. So what’s to stop my glorious performance?

今日も君が君らしく、青空の下で輝いている

きれいだね、君こそ我が誇りDear WOMAN!

Then I move on to Yuzu “Sayonara Bus”, then Hilcrhyme “Daijoubu”, then Mongol 800 “Chiisana Koi no Uta”….

Can you imagine how good this is for my Japanese, and how good it could be for yours?

I listen to the same song over and over again, and if I realize there’s a word I don’t know somewhere in the lyrics, I look it up when I get home. A good website to help with that is 歌マップ, which is listed on my blogroll. You can search for music by artist, then by song, and you’ll find the lyrics to just about any Japanese song. After checking out the lyrics, I listen to the song again. Next time I drive some place, I can really let loose.

A lot of people are embarrassed to speak Japanese in front of real Japanese people because they are afraid their accents won’t be good enough. Well, there’s no fear when you’re driving alone in your car. No one is listening. No one is watching. You can stink to your heart’s content and no one will ever know. It’s unashamed, unrestrained practice. The more you sing, the more you can work to match your voice with those of the singers. Match their tone, match their pitch, match their rhythm. Essentially, mimic their flawlessly natural Japanese accents. And no one can make fun of you.

There’s another way to look at this whole thing. Is there really any fundamental difference between what I’m talking about here and the mundane listening practice your Japanese teacher makes you do in class?

アリスさんは学校の図書館で田中さんと話しています。会話を聞いたあとで、質問を答えてください。

To be perfectly honest, none of us really care about Alice and Tanaka-san, or how much they wish they could get out of the library and just go on a date already.  But we do care about music that we like. Music stirs up emotion. It’s fun. It takes all the study out studying. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who learned Japanese as a second language, and those who listen to Japanese music regularly are among the most skilled.

So next time you get in a car when no one’s around, blast L’arc En Ciel or Yui and be a rock star. You may never get a record label, but you’ll be better at Japanese.

A Little Competition is Healthy

If you’ve been studying Japanese for a substantial amount of time like I have, or if you take your Japanese experience seriously like I do, then you have probably felt on occasion that the other gaijin around you who speak Japanese exist partly for the purpose of challenging your skills. When I say gaijin, I mean people who speak Japanese as a second language. When I encounter a gaijin for the first time, my thought process is always: “How good is this gaijin? Is he better than me?”

All of a sudden, your efforts at Japanese become about matching or even exceeding this new stranger. Now, conventional wisdom would have you believe that this thought pattern is unhealthy. It’s bad for the soul because it breeds animosity and discontent, and it doesn’t foster friendship. It also seems like a rather insecure and weak minded way to go about interacting with the people you meet. Besides, Japanese is a language, not a competition, right?

Well, not always. It’s good to look for people of greater skill than yours, to measure yourself against those people, to recognize a greater level of accomplishment than you’ve achieved, and then to aim higher as a result.  If you don’t do that, you’re missing huge opportunities for improvement.

Let me explain. Japanese is hard. No one denies that. It’s ranked at most colleges as the most difficult language for American English speakers to learn. Naturally, once we’ve come a certain distance in our Japanese abilities (far enough to converse with native Japanese easily) we are going to feel proud. Japanese custom calls for self-humbling in situations like this, but, even though we say “Oh no, I’m not fluent, I’m just trying my best”, deep down we’re thinking: “I want you to recognize my progress in Japanese! And this is OK. If we don’t allow ourselves pride in our work, why would we ever work hard? We should be proud when we do well, and it should motivate us to do better.

I met a guy this weekend who has a nearly perfect Japanese accent and has studied in Japan. When I heard how good his accent was, I immediately felt competitive. I tried harder to speak correct and fluent Japanese than I have in a while. I strained the muscles in my mouth to create a natural sounding accent. I tried to speak quickly. Basically I pushed myself. Now, I know that real fluency comes when you relax, stop trying and just enjoy yourself while you speak. But sometimes in order to improve you need to focus on things you wouldn’t normally focus on. The sense of competition made me push through certain difficult situations and fight through the exhaustion that comes from hours of such concentration. It was good for me.

I’m not saying that you should always walk around angry and glaring at every other gaijin as if you want to behead them with your perfect Japanese. That’s not nice, you won’t make any friends that way, and it won’t even make you fluent (don’t forget, a certain portion of fluency comes from just enjoying yourself). Besides, a lot of these gaijin make great friends; after all, they’re interested in the same things you are. So don’t take the notion of competition too literally. I just wanted to challenge myself to learn more and get better.

So feel free to compete with and learn from other people in the spirit of friendship. And know that other people will be doing the same thing with you, and you should feel good about it.