Japanese Class

I’m studying Japanese again. I tried it at 55, but was too old. Now I’m 82, and it feels just right. This is a little like saying I’ve started practicing standing on one finger again. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be a good student. My teacher is young and patient with me. We meet one hour a week, one on one. She’s a long-distance runner. There is a special word for it, unless I’ve misunderstood: Ha shi ru, to run through the mountains. Don’t hold me to it. I may have misunderstood. But it’s a word I could adopt to describe my task at being confronted by the Japanese language.

She introduces a concept: ga ski des (“e” as in nest). It means to like/love something or someone. She says, “Homework, five example sentences.”

I go home and set to work. I write my sentences vertically, top to bottom, starting on the right side of the page, one hiragana letter after another. Top to bottom, right to left. I’m a writer, so I’m not satisfied until I’m telling a story. I plunge in. A male figure tells a female voice that he loves her.

He: I love you very much.

She: You love the idea of love, not me. Men hit or pout.

My teacher protests, aside from making massive corrections in red ink.

“We don’t think that way. In marriage, the woman often walks behind her husband. Three to five paces.”

I say, in Spanish or English, “But you might not think that way” — walking behind a man.

She says, “We don’t write it that way.”

She continues reading my play. I’ve plucked words out of my electronic dictionary. It’s like reaching into a box blindfolded and pulling out a raffle ticket.

He: “That’s not true.”

She: “You fear women. You’re incapable of intimacy.”

He: “I like looking at you. I like looking at your smile. You are warm-hearted.”

She: “Incapable.”

He: “You are kind and funny.”

She: “Very strange. All of it.”

He: “I am happy when I see you.

She: “Really?”

My female character is coming around. It appears my man is something more than just hitting or pouting.

The verb to like someone turns out to be an adjective. (I may revise this opinion later when I find out more.) My assumptions about Japanese psychology and culture are also off the mark. I’m having trouble looking across into my teacher’s culture, not to mention her language.

We speak in English and Spanish. I am more advanced in those languages. I don’t correct her very often. I used to be a language teacher and know better. We are also separated by the pronunciation of all three languages. That places a burden on my understanding of things. She can’t say “r”. I can’t reproduce the sounds she makes in hiragana.

I write down corrections or examples in my notebook. I use a 5mm lead in my Parisian mechanical pencil made in China. The lead breaks just when I’m writing down a key point.

It’s hard for me to believe a woman still walks behind her husband. While running through the mountains of Mexico, does my teacher run behind her boyfriend?

I don’t know the answers to these things. If I did, I would write them in my notebook where my teacher could correct them with her red ink. And there might be a brief moment where I would enjoy the illusion of balancing on one finger, or at least on two — when it comes to understanding.

We move on. Last Tuesday, my teacher taught me a new concept.

“Do you like Coke?” she asks.

I say No, then Yes. “Well, yes, I like it but it’s poisonous.” I hold up my two index fingers, making a cross to block the power of the Devil.

“What about beer?” she asks.

“Not very much,” I say. My brother has just died of bladder cancer. I have decided alcohol is not good for my bladder.

My teacher, who is at least forty, if not fifty years younger than me, returns to Coke.

“Say you friend offers you Coke.”

I nod.

“Your friend asks, ‘Would you like a Coke?’ She has just taken two Cokes out of the refrigerator. Clearly, she likes Coke and is assuming you might like one, too.”

She explains the situation. “You don’t want to drink a Coke, but it would be insulting if you said, ‘I don’t like Coke.’”

She writes quickly in hiragana on the whiteboard. It’s a long string of words with no separations between the letters, written this time from left to right and horizontally. “You have to write it this way, say it this way. You have to say: ‘I don’t dislike Coke.’”

It’s a double negative, with a positive meaning, written with a felt black felt pen, and the letters pass through a reflection from an overhead spotlight, momentarily disappearing. I’m squinting on several levels. I don’t know how the verbs are conjugated, or even if they’re verbs.

“Wa ta shi wa coca-cola ga ki rai ja nai (like eye) des.”

Wa ta shi = “I”
The second Wa = signals that that Wa ta shi is the Subject of the sentence.
Ga = signals a second Subject, although she sometimes calls it an Object. The signal for one or the other is Ga.
Ki ra-eye means Dislike.
I don’t know what Ja is, nor whether it’s connected to what comes before it or after it.
N-eye means Does not.
And Des means something exists.

She asks whether I understand. From my frowning it might appear I don’t. Maybe it’s a more comprehensive squint. I say I don’t understand what the sentence is communicating.

“You’re being polite when you say it this way,” she says.

“So you’re choosing politeness over truthfulness and clarity and your own preferences,” I say.

“You don’t understand,” she says. “You have to be polite.”

I write down the sentence in my notebook. The 5mm lead breaks a few times. I squint the whole time at the hiragana sentence I don’t understand. The reflection from the overhead spot light adds to my need to squint.

“You understand?” she asks.

I’m locked into my frown. I’ve done that all my schoolboy life, especially in algebra classes. I get stuck in Don’t understand.

“You think too much,” she says, encouragingly. “You already know this.”

Actually, there are two elements that are new: “dislike” and “do not.”

“We need more time,” she says. “One hour a week is not enough.” She is sweet and very kind.

If I could have, I would have chosen that moment to say, “I don’t dislike more than one hour a week.” But the truth is, I need a whole week to think about and practice all the things I don’t dislike. Like the sentence on the board. Because the truth is I don’t dislike Japanese. I like it. I don’t dislike not understanding. I don’t dislike a challenge, or even when she says, “Don’t think so much — in Spanish or English. Or: that “dislike” and “do not” hover between adjectives or verbs. I don’t even dislike the reason for saying “I don’t dislike.” Because it seems to capture my New England upbringing, where indirectness was a virtue. One never came out with what or whom one liked. Or even loved.

Eight months before my father died, he had a heart attack. In the emergency room, leaning over his bed and the tubes entering and leaving him, I said, “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I want you to know I’ve always loved you.”

It was a momentary lapse in how we spoke. My father, near Death’s door, replied, “I want you to know I feel the same way.”

For many years, I criticized his inability to speak as directly as I had. But now, with the help of my wonderful young teacher and the Japanese language — and being much nearer to the point my father was at then — I have to admit that I don’t dislike the way he said it. I knew what he meant.

3 thoughts on “Japanese Class

  1. Bennett-sensei, I loved reading this essay! This is Si. I’m your former Japanese teacher when you took a Japanese summer course at UC Berkeley, and I was a graduate student instructor. I remember you asked me to give you private tutoring, too, and you told me why you were studying Japanese…as part of the work you were trying to do at your university to broaden the scope of international studies, to embrace different languages, to bring in others outside of academia to help educate students about broader possibilities in the world. I think you were also just really curious! You inspired me then, and still today, to believe that I could stay curious my whole life. I also remember your wonderful sense of humor, in trying to figure out how to say things like “juice of cow” for milk in Japanese, while another student–a tenured professor in another field–seemed intent on catching my mistakes in class, perhaps to cover his own insecurities about being a beginner in something again. I hope I can be a beginner in many things throughout life. Thanks for sharing the connections in your writing about learning and living fully.

    1. Oyama-sensei, thank you so much for writing and thank you for remembering me! How amazing that you remember me! It seems like a hundred years ago. It was in fact 27 years ago. I am very touched by this. I’m 82 now and very happy to be studying Japanese again. That was a very stressful time for me at Berkeley. Please send me a picture of yourself and please stay in touch. sterlingbenn@gmail.com, Si! And please tell me more about your life!

  2. This is so wonderful. Lots of layers! Vivid and funny. What a human, what a writer you are!!!

    Hope you’re feeling well. Xox, Josie

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