Learning Japanese in France

In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.

I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.

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Our textbook, whose title means something like “You can learn Japanese!” or, more realistically, “Japanese is possible.”

Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.

So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!

Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?

I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…

Why Japanese?

kana chartsMaybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.

My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.

I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.

photo_2019-07-04_08-54-05He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.

My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.

These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.

In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.

Rachel and Jun
Rachel and Jun

A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.

So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!

Learning Japanese in French

Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.

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Some notes I took early in my first year.

My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.

Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.

Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.

Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.

Is Japanese really that hard?

It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).

The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.

On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!

But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!

Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.

Learning how to learn

It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.

Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.

Japanese keyboard iphoneI’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!

Double gaijin

I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.

And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.

This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.

Meeting the challenge

So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.

Cover image from Yasujirō Ozu’s Ohayō (1959).

Ten years in France

One fine day in April of 2009, I packed a large green suitcase full of stuff and headed to the airport, a shiny French visa in my passport. It authorized me to enter the country not as a tourist, but someone who was allowed to stay past the usual 90 consecutive days. I was finally doing it! After years – actually decades – of wanting to live in France, the dream was at last coming true.

Ten years on, I’m still here.

It kind of shocks me that this many years have sped past since the day I first arrived, which in many ways, as people say, does feel like yesterday. I don’t feel so different myself. I still wear some of the same clothes from those days. My hairstyle (long, straight, boring but classic) hasn’t changed. I really feel like the same person overall, much more so than compared to 1999 to 2009.

In 2009, I’d recently learned about a renewable three-year French residence permit designed for people from outside the European Union called the Carte Compétences et Talents and the time seemed right to take the plunge. I’d finished my university studies and was freelancing but otherwise was kind of at a loose end. My work allowed me to live anywhere, so why not France?

(to be continued)

 

 

Stranger in a familiar land

After eight years living abroad, already well aware of the differences between Paris and Midwestern America, I usually still feel a shock when I go back for my annual visit. A culture shock, naturally.

It’s normally just details like the abrupt change in what people are wearing once I deplane in Chicago—a lot less black, way more baseball caps—and other things like hearing English all around me and noticing strangers striking up conversations with each other. Although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish true culture shock from the disorientation I feel after an eight-hour flight and no sleep.

This kind of reverse culture shock is usually but a momentary disorientation, fading after a day or two once I re-accustom myself to my former everyday landscape. I shouldn’t even really call it shock, since I know about and expect these differences.

During my last visit earlier this summer, though, the differences for some reason seemed greater. I also found myself paying more attention than usual to all the little things that had changed in my home city since the time I first left. Improbable new flavors of Mars Bars and M&Ms at checkout counters. A laundromat that had become an electronic cigarette shop and a parking lot that used to be a bank. New teenage clothing styles I hadn’t noticed before. And most disconcertingly, large flat-screen monitors at the train station playing mass-shooting survival instructions (similar to these) on a loop.

And then I had a strange experience that went way beyond normal culture shock.

I had been cozily isolated at my parents’ house in the Wisconsin countryside for a week or two, not venturing into town much but spending my time with family and taking advantage of the large kitchen to try out new recipes. A visit to my sister in Minneapolis was next on the agenda, and on the way I would need to stop by my bank to reset the PIN number of my debit card.

I felt fine when I entered the mainly empty branch office, where I was greeted by a tall, solidly built man in his 30s who looked inordinately happy to see me. A dark-haired young woman behind a counter seemed to share his feeling. To my surprise, this unnerved me. I stopped where I was for a moment, halfway between the door and the counter, to collect myself while the two of them smiled broadly in my direction as if I were a celebrity. This was of course completely normal, I knew, especially in a semi-rural area of the Midwest. But their attentiveness somehow struck me as aggressive. I went up to the woman to explain what I was there for, hoping I could get the PIN number changed without too much delay.

“How are you doing today?” the woman asked, before I could speak. I had a curious urge to back away and almost narrowed my eyes at her. How can she be so personal when we’ve never met until this moment? And yet, countless times in my life, I reminded myself, strangers had inquired as to my well-being and I’d never been bothered. In fact, it was nice that she’d asked. Feeling more and more out of place, I managed to react as a normal American would, telling her I was fine and returning the question before going into the situation with my card.

Using the word “you” to address her suddenly also felt odd, overly intimate. But there is no “vous” in English. I wanted to reach for a more formal equivalent that just wasn’t there.

For a debit card problem I would need to speak with Doug over there, the woman informed me. She motioned to a corner, bracelets clinking, and I turned to see the tall man grinning at me from the entrance to his padded cubicle.

After shaking his hand and going through another how-are-you-good-and-you, I dutifully sat down, with a growing sense of unease, in front of Doug’s desk while he called up my account details on his computer. This took a few moments, which gave him time for chitchat. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

What? My mind raced. Why would he ask that? The question took me off guard—it felt invasive and wrong, the way it would be if a casual acquaintance at a dinner party asked you to state your yearly income. I fidgeted with my cardigan, pulling one side up over the other. “I’m spending a few days in Minneapolis with my sister,” I confessed, unprepared to make up an alternate story but feeling a bit violated. Come on, I told myself, he’s just being friendly like everyone else here. I got more flustered and began inspecting my nails.

“Small world—I’m going there myself tomorrow to see some old college buddies,” he replied. “We’re going to the beer festival. Have you been to the Twin Cities before?”

Somewhere around this point, I felt myself sort of split into two. The American me recovered her senses and joined in the talk without missing a beat. Yes, I’d been there many times since my sister moved there ten years ago. Yes, I liked the city and we did have some fun things planned to do during my stay. The non-American me (I prefer this to the overly restrictive “French me”) was appalled at his presumption and mentally crossed her arms over her chest. What’s it to him if I’ve been there before? What’s he after anyway? Say you’ll be really busy so he doesn’t get any ideas. Say it!

Meanwhile, American me kept talking. She made a final few remarks about the size of the art museum and the nice restaurant scene in Minneapolis before moving on to the second order of business: finding out how to deposit a check remotely. Doug explained that I could download the bank’s app and just scan it. “Here, let me show you.”

American me turned on her phone and went to the App Store but remembered she had no network there with her French phone plan. “The coffee shop just next door has wifi,” Doug volunteered. “You can download it over there. I’ll go with you if you like.” Non-American me poked American me in the shoulder, a little too hard. Why would he go so far out of his way to help? We’d better get out of here.

The encounter ended without incident and I was soon on the train to Minneapolis, musing over my bizarre experience. It had been like inhabiting two sets of consciousness at once, with two simultaneous sets of reactions. Two identities superimposed in the same body. Clearly, the bank representative hadn’t had any ulterior motives in my regard and was just being friendly. If he’d been after something else, American me would have detected it. But non-American me was taken aback by his approach, automatically filtering it through the prism of what would be normal in France, and couldn’t help wondering what he was up to. At the very least, she was so unused to a stranger showing an interest (however transient) in her personal life that she was disturbed by it.

For the first time, I had experienced American culture directly through foreign eyes, having the visceral reactions of a non-American myself rather than just imagining what someone would think or feel in a given situation. The new identity I had developed over the past eight years could not so easily be set aside.

Even if unfamiliar with French culture, you will have deduced from this story that customer service in France, where I live, is quite different from the American approach. In France, the default behavior of people working with the public is one of businesslike straightforwardness largely devoid of emotion, an attitude that often strikes Americans as cold or rude (but actually is not). In your everyday life in France, whether you’re buying bread at the bakery or trying to return the wrong size shoes at a department store, you’ll usually be assisted by no-nonsense individuals who greet you courteously but don’t act like they want to be your friend. There’s no “How are you?” because that’s perceived as nosy.

Customer service people also don’t fall all over themselves to assist you. They’ll help you when they’re good and ready. If you’re standing at a grocery store check-out, your items on the conveyor belt in full view of a cashier already busy stocking a shelf, they might come over only once they’re done. And this isn’t meant to offend; there’s just an understanding here that customers need to be reasonable and patient.

Smiling is purely optional. Even catcalling men on the streets of Paris have never told me to smile. (What do they say, you ask? Just last week, one of them trampled upon all the rules of civilized society and yelled Bonjour! Ça va? in my direction.).

To be fair, most of my experiences with France are concentrated in Paris, and as any non-Parisian will tell you, this city is not representative of all of France. Like in most countries, attitudes in smaller towns tend to be friendlier than in large cities. Parisians themselves are aware of their general reputation for unfriendliness. In this short comedy sketch from 2003, French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables, Mood Indigo) plays a Malian immigrant who quickly learns that his natural friendliness is not welcome in Paris. He decides to assimilate to the culture of his new home, becoming just as grouchy, unhelpful and unapologetic as everyone else—a move that earns him the approval and respect of his next-door neighbor.

In the US of course, people working in customer service are encouraged and expected (by their managers, by society) to be very friendly, smile a lot, and make small talk. This is famously interpreted by many non-Americans—not just the French—as fake and superficial, as they suspect these people are not really so happy to see them. Yet when you know the culture, you understand that there isn’t any duplicity in it because the other players of the game (other Americans and people living in the US) already know that it isn’t meant to be genuine, that the friendliness is intended to last for the duration of the encounter, to create a cheerful ambiance.

Of course, these tendencies are merely the default; exceptions can always be found. Smiling customer service people do exist in Paris, although this is more likely to reflect their genuine mood of the moment, and I certainly encountered some gruff, grumpy characters during this stay in the US—most notably, and just as genuinely, at the DMV.

I had a few more culture-difference annoyances during this stay, particularly at restaurants. I myself worked as a restaurant server in the US for years during my university days and completely understand the reasons behind a waiter or waitress’s accommodating—some might say obsequious—manner. But I was more irritated by it this time than during other visits back. I just wanted to be left alone, even if it meant I would have to chase after the waiter in the event of a problem.

And now I will reveal a paradox. In spite of my reactions at the bank and the restaurants in the US, in spite of what I’ve grown accustomed to here in France, friendliness among strangers (to a point!) is one of the few things about the US that I miss.

My context-independent, innermost feelings about smiling and being friendly are complicated. Despite my nationality, I am by nature a rather solemn, poker-faced individual and an introvert, a condition that’s only exacerbated by working as a freelance translator. So on the one hand, my natural disinclination to smile too easily means that I’m comfortable (to a certain degree) living in a non-smiling place. But on the other hand, I’m aware that smiling can be good for you, physiologically speaking, as long as you don’t feel forced. And it can be contagious, helping lift the moods of people around you even if just by a little. When I’m in the US I find it’s good for me to be prodded by social situations into smiling and opening up a bit rather than staying encased in a shell as I would otherwise, or as usually happens in Paris.

I will admit I’ve sometimes given in to the temptation to make small talk in France (strategically, to the right type of person—recall my reaction to Doug), partly out of a real need to talk to someone besides my cat.

If it were up to me, I would probably dial American effusiveness down a bit and turn up the volume on smiling and small-talk in France. Some people are just never satisfied. 😉

Just how American am I now? How French/non-American have I become? I’m sure that my inner core is still quite American, having been forged in the US over several decades, and that if I were to move back I would shed my non-American reflexes after a while. But for the moment they’re still firmly in place.

The very last day of my five-week visit, I was back at that same train station with the mass-shooting video and nearly collided with a woman coming the other way around a corner. At a speed exceeding that of rational thought, an apology in French rather than English burst out of me. Whatever my cultural behaviors might be, the default public language of my operating system has clearly been reset to French.

Something from nothing

As a translator, I’m not used to creating something from nothing. I’m not accustomed to writer’s block or, as they say in French, l’angoisse de la page blanche (blank-page anxiety). Always, in my work, there is some existing something to be transferred, transposed, flipped or otherwise shaped into another form. It’s just a matter of starting, as I always have a lump of predetermined raw material waiting for me in what we refer to as the source file.

Freestyle writing, as it could be called in contrast with the writing of a translation, offers a tremendous amount of freedom. If a sentence isn’t working out, I can abandon it and move on to a new idea rather than being stuck molding and massaging until it reaches a satisfactory state, no matter how long this takes. It’s a bit like being used to walking with heavy shackles around your ankles and suddenly being freed from them. Now you can easily go anywhere. But then the page blanche question pops up: where will you go?

After reading blogs for many years without any intention of starting one myself, I’m now curious to give it a try. Partly to share my culinary experimentations, travel discoveries and anecdotes from a life lived abroad, but also as a reason to more regularly practice original writing—setting down some of my own ideas for once.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that I’ll be creating something from nothing. But it won’t really be from nothing. Like with any kind of writing, there will be a formless something hanging about in the ether that needs to be caught and expressed. I don’t know quite what it will look like, but finding out may be kind of fun.