In 1976, my parents emigrated to the United States. In as much time as it took them to get through customs, they realized that their quickie Berlitz course (taught by Brits) had done little to prepare them for the realities of the American English-speaking world. My mother still tells the story of the day a DMV employee – impatient with her faltering English and heavy accent – barked at her: “Whatsamatta, lady? You speak Chinese?” My father had his own problems: while working at a hospital cafeteria, he realized he couldn’t understand the customers’ orders and, to compensate under pressure, simply served everybody in line hamburgers.
Minor setbacks nonwithstanding, my parents persevered. According to them, it took about a year to feel as though they had English under their control. My mother once told me that in her early days in America, she enjoyed watching Sesame Street as a way to help her improve her English. “That, and soap operas,” she says. “I watched Another World and got hooked! I didn’t know what the heck they were saying, but they were so much fun!”
When it comes to buffering my own Japanese skills as an ex-pat here in Japan, I employ many different means. I’m fond of quizzing myself on kanji while reading signs in the trains, searching through my cell phone dictionary to find new words, memorizing the Japanese translations in my school’s textbooks but by far my favorite means of boosting my Japanese power is listening to music: specifically J-Pop. I feel no shame in admitting that if a song has a bubbly ‘hook’ I will probably need to listen to it on loop for a week.
Many who know me would agree that my greatest power is Memorization. This is perhaps why learning kanji has felt simpler to me than understanding grammatical rules.
The memory is a blessing and a curse. I have been terrifying people my entire life by remembering some minute fact they told me once:
“So I went back home to see my folks.”
“Oh, was it nice to see Trixie?”
“Uh, yeah, it was, but, uh … how did you know the family turtle’s name?”
“Well, you told me.”
“Yeah! Remember that time, at Ben’s party, last year, after we all did the SoCo shot? Raita complimented Gwen’s tortoiseshell barrette and you said you hated tortoiseshell accessories because of your family’s turtle, Trixie. And then you told me about how your family got Trixie at a carnival playing the dart game and your sister named her ‘Trixie’ because you all thought the carnival dude was trying to trick you into taking her over the other turtles… Marcus, are you okay?”
“Dude. You’re sick. Get away from me.”
And in my secret heart of hearts, I cry … or I assuage my tears by listening to a song a few times and come away remembering half the lyrics. It takes a bit longer when listening to Japanese songs, since I understand little of the lyrics but nonetheless, it still works. If I’m armed with an English translation I can easily learn grammatical structures and phrases far beyond my level.
In fact, my ride to Japan more or less began after my dear friend Guppy referred me to this clip:
At the time, I had been toying with the idea of moving abroad (I had, indeed, already signed up for my Global TESOL course) but was still undecided as to where I would go. I joked that I would eventually choose the country with the best boy band. I have since learned that Happa Tai – the nearly naked dancing dudes – are not a boy band, but are in fact, a comedian troupe. Since I adore all things ridiculous, they blew my mind upon the first viewing and within a few weeks I had the lyrics and their meanings memorized. This is how I am able to recognize and sometimes use conditional verbs and urge people to “try keeping dogs – they’re cute!” It is also how, at karaoke, I am able to convince strangers that my Japanese skills are far higher than they are.
For my birthday in March, Sean gave me a copy of Learning Language Through Lyrics (Volume 1: Classical Japanese Pop Songs). Thus, my next J-pop obsession became Iruka’s 70’s hit, “Nagori Yuki” (“Lingering Snowfall”):
Though I have not yet unleashed my rendition of this wistful love ballad on my karaoke friends, it is coming. I have delighted many older adult students by referencing this song. I also have the word for “snow” burned in my memory and can say that “X is even more X than last year.”
Here is the latest J-pop song I have become obsessed with: RSP’s sample of Miki Douzan’s 2001 hit “Lifetime Respect,” first encountered when Meir belted out a truly respectable rendition at karaoke last month.
Hooked on J-Pop works; though I only have a couple of lines memorized so far, my skills have developed to the point that I can tell you that the chorused couplet of “issho, issho” means “lifetime, lifetime.” Further: the “woah-oh-ohs” mean “woah-oh-oh.” On fire here.
In related news, I have – after a bit of goading from Sean, Meir, and Steve – decided to submit my application to take the 4-kyuu part of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test that is given every December. I originally resisted the idea because taking the lowest level of an exam (the only one I currently qualify for) didn’t seem like much to blog home about but my friends have encouraged me to have a change of heart. While taking the lowest level of an exam is not very exciting (Sean, Meir, and Mike will be taking the 2-kyuu), studying for it will force me to really polish my skills. Applicants for the 4-kyuu must have a command of basic grammar, be able to read and write simple sentences in Japanese, know about 800 words and about 100 kanji (I know about 400). So while it is the lowest level of the exam, it is still somewhat involved and passing it is something I couldn’t have even dreamed of a year ago.
Thus, respect for a life time. Woah-oh.