Last month, as Polar Bear Pete and I slugged dark mugs and pints of Guinness at Mona’s, he tried to teach me bits of Japanese he had gleaned when he lived there some years ago. He taught me what to say when a meal begins (forgot it), what shopkeepers will shout at me when I enter their store (forgot that) and what to say when I want to communicate that I only know a little Japanese (forgot that as well). My inability to retain the phrases troubled me and, though I know quite a few vocabulary words (thanks to my darling Peaches and my love of sushi) and quite a few certainly pointless phrases from the Yatta video it all serves to remind me that smatterings do not a language make. If I am going to live in Japan for a year and if I want to make the most of my experience, there’s no getting around it – I must learn Japanese.
When Peaches took Japanese our Freshman year at NYU, she told me that there are three writing systems. “Madness!” I thought. Eight years later, as I stare at web pages of hiragana, kana and kanji it still sounds – and looks – nuts. In my few days of study, I’ve discovered that as soon as I commit a character to memory, it – maddeningly – flees my head. During some down time at work last night, I began to try spelling out the names of Japanese words in hiragana. Laboriously, I wrote “tako,” and as I admired my shaky handiwork, I simply couldn’t imagine ever being able to draw the characters fluidly.
I decided to try the reverse in my self-study. Where had I seen Japanese characters on line before? I remembered with glee that I had seen many Japanese characters in videos I saw on youtube that had been made when a certain band did concerts in Japan.
(“A certain band,” she says. Of course, I mean my beloved O-Zone. Lighting up my loins, teaching me Romanian and now, helping me learn Japanese – is there anything my boys can’t do?)
I selected a video featuring only Arsenie and hot hot Dan Balan and paused it when the first set of Japanese characters came up as Arsenie and Dan began to lip synch to their famous “Dragostea din tei” amid the shrieks of Japanese schoolgirls. Painfully, I began to identify symbols in no particular order, writing down whichever I found on my hiragana and kana charts first, scribbling something of a hangman phrase on the back of an old work schedule. Like Ralphie with his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, I worked diligently and excitedly. First: _ _ _ hi. Then: _ i _ hi. After some minutes, I beheld – to my great delight – the phrase encoded in the Japanese script: “MAIAHI.”
I beamed. While I know that being able to read one four-character string of Japanese is nothing in the grand scheme – what of base verbs? grammar? – I couldn’t help but feel proud, as though I’d taken one teeny tiny step in cracking a mysterious code.