Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

How Do You Translate ‘Wa’?

In General Principles on December 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I remember talking with Billy, a guy from Vancouver who married a Japanese girl and was living in Fukushima. His son was a few years older than mine, and had so far survived what concerned me now about my two-year-old speaking much more Japanese, at a higher level, than English. Yes, he was only two, but this was the kind of thing I’d rather tackle sooner than later.

‘Kids pick up on these things,’ he assured me. ‘The pronunciation, the details.’ But what he said next gave me pause. ‘They say a kid will keep developing that language base until he’s ten or twelve years old.’ Which made me wonder: first, what if all of a sudden I turn around and my son is a teenager and doesn’t have that solid English foundation? And second, are we still going to be living in Japan ten years down the road?

This was in October. In December I brought my family to the States for Christmas, and after four weeks my son returned to Japan speaking better English than Japanese. It didn’t take long for his Japanese to catch up again, and I redoubled my efforts to not only keep him speaking English but to constantly add new words and expressions to his repertoire. (After years of teaching English as a foreign language it is too easy to fall into the habit of slowing down, and dumbing down, one’s own speech.)

This Spring we spent three months in the US, and in September we moved here for good (for now). Naturally, ironically, my concerns have shifted from my son’s English capacity to his ability not just to hang on to his Japanese but to continue advancing it.

The most common response by far to my sons’ bilingual upbringing is how advantageous it will be professionally. Sure, fluency in more than one language can open doors and broaden horizons. Yet I’ve always placed its value closer to home: I want my kids, now and next year and when they are ten and fifteen and twenty-five, to be able to express themselves like any other kid or teenager or young adult, in either language. If my son wants to his mom to help him with his homework, or explain to him why some kids push other kids around on the playground, I want him to be able to do it without having to think about the specific words he and his mom are using. If my son wants to learn how to fix his bike or throw a curveball, or needs to talk about girls and the pressures of his peers, I want us to be able to understand each other beyond just the words we share.

More than just the familial advantage, I’d like my sons to grow up able to identify with both of their blood aspects. I can go to Japan and talk to people and get around and enjoy the country and culture; yet there will always be things, no matter how good my Japanese gets (and right now it’s getting worse), that my Western mindset will have trouble absorbing. Why would the guy who tends impeccably to the garden across the street be so flustered by our compliments that he’d feel uncomfortable telling us – my Japanese wife even, let alone the gaijin – his name? (True anecdote.) It is my hope that my sons will spend enough time in Japan to feel they have, to a great enough extent, grown up with the cultural mindset and, in turn, never feel at odds with their Japanese heritage. In this, language, I believe, is critical.

 Language and culture are deeply intertwined; there are no adequate translations into English of so many expressions the Japanese use daily to show gratitude, respect, humility – in other words, to preserve the wa. Any foreigner can learn how to say and when to use these, though. The more complex constructs and nuances of communication, both spoken and implicit, are what keep a gaijin like me butting mental heads with the co-worker who goes out of her way to tell me how my rice, fresh out of the microwave and utterly devoid of vegetables or soy sauce or a single grain of salt, ‘looks so delicious’. Miyuki, it’s plain rice. Was she surprised I could heat up a plate of rice? Did she want some? Did she feel compelled to say something nice because I was in the room when she walked in and any less would threaten the wa that had yet to be established? Outwardly I could just say ‘Thank you, I love rice’ or something similarly symbiotic and we could both carry on with our harmonious lunch break. But inside I had to wonder. I still do. Maybe someday my son can explain it to me. If not, at least he’ll understand himself what those around him are really saying and, more importantly, what they mean. And in things far more consequential than lunchtime summations.

The Great Translation, the Perfect Extrapolation, the Transcendent Communication is the final step that I hope my sons will discover as they grow up with two languages. The concept came to me just last week, as I was watching a high school basketball game with my older boy. I know I’ve been away ten years and that I may be experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock, but when did these kids turn into Kevin Garnett? They walked by me and my son before the game, in a slow, attitude-laden line, sporting warm-ups quite possibly sponsored by Nike and each plugged into his own iPod. They loosened up while scanning the crowd, trying and missing fancy lay-ups while Eminem boomed and shook the rafters. Once the game was on they celebrated the other team’s turnovers by jumping and bumping shoulders with each other. They pounded their chests and roared in self-approval at every perceived opportunity. They raised a hand in self-admiration watching the ball they just threw up fly toward the basket instead of (come on coach, what are you teaching these guys?) following their shots. This last example may sound picky but really, to me it stood as the epitome of the prevailing mentality.

These kids were damn athletic, admirably (and appropriately) aggressive, and to be honest a whole lot cooler and more confident with themselves than I ever was as a teenager. They were unbridled in their enthusiasm; they were electric on the court. Watching them, I saw what I hoped my son both would and would never be.

And though the qualifications differed, I felt the same way watching a high school basketball game in Japan. No one seemed concerned about who the high scorer was. But neither did they seem like they’d care much if no one scored at all.

The practical dichotomy between East and West is long gone; the ways of the West have crept into, some say exploded into, Japanese society. Sadly, it isn’t just baseball and Baskin-Robbins. High school boys are wearing their pants halfway down their asses – and look every bit as stupid as the Americans they are imitating. On rare occasion I would hear someone – on the street or in the school hallway or on the train – spit out a phonetically skewed fakkyuu, the overriding impression being that their rebellious pride is not at all vitiated by the fact that they have no clue about the ideas they are actually conveying. On a grand scale, the Japanese have succeeded in taking something utterly foreign and, by adopting it, not only stripped it of all meaning but shown themselves extraordinarily capable of being culturally stupid.

One day my wife took me out for a free lunch at a place called St. Verge.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in Japan though they stick to the soft sell, and so we sat through what St. Verge was selling: a mock-up of a Christian Church wedding. All across Japan there are places like St. Verge where people have complete church wedding ceremonies in fake churches with fake priests and every detail tended to, from the big crucifix and the stained glass to the hymnals and the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which nobody, not even the fake priest pontificating about the Holy Mystery, has the first clue or care about. Fortunately for all involved they skipped the Eucharistic celebration.

They weren’t deliberately denigrating anyone’s religion. Still I had to ask my wife. Do people really think this is cool? My question didn’t fully translate. Neither did her answer.

You don’t need language to imitate someone. It helps, however, to understand why you might or might not want to.

As my family and I look forward to the next chapter of our lives I think a lot about the home I want to create. The ideal would be a mix of the things I value from both the Japanese and the American ways of life: one room with a massive couch for watching Discovery Channel and another with a low table (and a hole underneath for my legs) where we’d sit on the floor and eat dinner together; festive Christmases with lots of friends and reflective New Year’s Eves with family; honesty in word and community in deed; cheeseburgers and tossed salad on Saturday, sushi and miso soup on Sunday.

Individuality. Wa. The best of both worlds.

When my kids go off to create their own lives, under the surface I want them to feel completely at home, wherever home turns out to be. I want them to be fluent in two diametrically opposing mindsets. I want them to know and understand where they come from, on both sides, and choose whatever from each makes sense to them. I want the roads they travel to be lined with choices, the wellspring of human empowerment.

So they might have all this, I want them first to have language. Both mine and my wife’s.

Both theirs.