Love's Labors Considered
What night classes and Saturday morning school in Japanese couldn't do, romantic and family ties can, writes a UCLA alumna living in two cultures.
At dinner, Ichiro sits back and scratches his head, utterly unable to understand our truncated Japanese jibberish.
By Julia Robinson Shimizu
After moving to Los Angeles from New York, I overheard a snippet of a conversation about the affordability of airfares to Tokyo from Los Angeles. I was intrigued. The very next day, I started calling friends to borrow money for a trip to Japan. I stayed only two weeks but fell in love with Tokyo. I came back to Los Angeles joking that I wanted to marry a Japanese man so I could visit Tokyo again. They say words have power. Within the year, I had met and married Ichiro, born and raised in Tokyo.
When we first met, my goal was to learn Japanese so that I could go to Tokyo more often. Ichiro’s goal was to learn English so that he could stay on in Los Angeles more comfortably.
It was the '80s and Japanese classes were overflowing. The James Clavell page-turner Shogun had been translated into a TV miniseries, Samurai commanded a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit, and Japanese corporations were snatching up the Bonaventure Hotel, Rockefeller Plaza, and Pebble Beach. In Los Angeles, sushi was the most popular meal in town, and shouts of arigato echoed through the city. Japanese fever had taken hold of Los Angeles and I guess it was only natural that a Japanese guy would catch my eye. But Ichiro was no Samurai and no corporate suit. He worshiped The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Jean Cocteau, and Yukio Mishima.
We had been roller skating at Venice Beach and had shared an omelet dinner at Figaro Café on Melrose Avenue when Ichiro announced his intention to love me. Before we settled into his tiny yellow Honda, he reached into the backseat for a thick bundle of books wrapped in plain brown paper, a full set of Mishima's tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. "You should read these. I would like to know what you think about them." As much as anything else, I was delighted to realize I had convinced this fascinating man I could read, if only in English translation. I decided the next step should be to learn to read in Japanese. After years of night and weekend classes, I was able to enter UCLA as an undergrad transfer student, completing my BA in Japanese language and culture in 2002.
I studied with Japanese American freshmen who—like our son, now in his 20s—hated Saturday Japanese Language school. For eleven years, our son woke reluctantly on Saturdays, dressed, and was dragged to Hollywood Gakuen Japanese Language School, armed with Japanese comic books and half-completed homework. "Why can’t I stay home and watch TV like everyone else does?" His most compelling memory of his Japanese school experience remains the annual struggle to compose his entry for the springtime Hanashi-Kai, Speech Contest. He worked dutifully but never won. Each year, Ichiro and I sat on dented metal folding chairs in the Hollywood Gakuen auditorium, glowing with pride and whispering every line of the well-rehearsed speech. Our son knew we were there and, as at every turn of his language learning experience, knew we were listening. He also knew language was one of the ways we could celebrate our family.
I share with our son the quirks and bad habits of speech peculiar to having learned Japanese in the non-immersive cultural collage of Los Angeles. As a family, we have done our best to communicate in Japanese—to respect Ichiro’s language and culture and to align with the bicultural compass of our lives. When our small family sits down to dinner, and our son relates an adventure or opinion in his halting Japanese, I often nod or disagree and interject my own opinions while Ichiro sits back and scratches his head, utterly unable to understand our truncated Japanese jibberish. It happens with Ichiro’s English as well. I have come to understand what he means, even when he interchanges similar sounding words with entirely different meanings. "Resolve" instead of "dissolve," "grand floor" instead of "ground floor." When Ichiro is unhappy with a waiter or a department store clerk, his English-as-a-Second-Language stumbles can accurately sum up the piss-poor service: “Ah! Such incontinence!”
At UCLA, my Japanese American classmates outshone me at every turn, quickly mastering vocabulary, kanji, and grammar. They were helped, I believe, by the soft echoes of a gentle baa-chan (grandma) urging a treat, rather than by their enforced studies at Saturday school. Now grown and not fully fluent in Japanese, our son nevertheless enjoys an ease with the language that continues to elude me. His ability to understand effortlessly, and his sense of nuance, despite his reluctance to speak, surely hinge on childhood chats with his father and Japanese grandparents, as well as the formal education. Stumbling efforts to communicate take flight whenever his grandmother, his beloved baa-chan, comes to visit from Tokyo.
Robinson Shimizu is a writer in North Hollywood. Her recent work includes a short story, "Foreigner at the Funeral," and an essay, "Guns Kill!", in Downtown LA Life Magazine.
Published: Thursday, February 01, 2007