Monday, April 18, 2011

Unfamiliar Ceilings, part 3

Before my bottle of "Let's Vitamin!" was half finished, I looked up to see a sign-carrying functionary from Akita University had already arrived at the other end of the Arrivals area, and was already being approached by a group of excited-looking Japanese students, mostly female.

Perhaps I hadn't gotten the memo quite right, or I'd been too focused on reflecting on the taste of Let's Vitamin!, which turned out to be somewhere in the vicinity of lemon-grapefruit-flavored Mountain Dew, and not at all disagreeable, as these things go. I walked towards the group, trying to look far less nervous than I felt. I introduced myself in Japanese to the functionary, and took stock, feeling the conversation around me grow quiet, and eyes turn in my direction.

An interval of near silence followed--an awkward moment that over the next few days I came to know well, as everyone tried to decide whether, and in what language to address me.  My briefing material on AIU had said that most of the students had come to the school to learn and practice English on live foreigners. I hadn't exactly come prepared for silence. There was nothing for it but to try a flustered jikoshoukai.

The jikoshoukai, literally "self introduction", a brief, slightly formalized speech giving, at minimum, one's name bracketed by pro forma expressions of best wishes for the future of the new acquaintances' relationship, is the first task most American students of Japanese are taught, and for good reason.

My textbooks had pointed out that the practice of self-introduction was culturally institutionalized to such an extent that a competent speaker always has the set speech memorized in several different versions, incorporating more or less content as the situation demands. Most famously, this includes one's job title and corporate affiliation in business contexts, rendered in a form that when translated literally into English tends to imply that one is the property of one's organization-- a piece of cultural trivia about the Japanese that armchair anthropologists love to dissect for dubious insight into the Oriental mind. As a sometime viewer of Japanese TV, I was also aware that a frequently repeated scene in dramas involves the practice of bringing newly transferred students to the front of their homeroom classes to run through their spiel, with comic or dramatic variations, a favorite being Teacher's inability to correctly spell the elaborate, obscure name characters of a new student from old money (or space, as the case might be). "Introducing oneself in this way", the books had learnedly intoned, "allows the listener to determine the speaker's social position and begin to get an idea of how to approach him or her without threat of embarrassment through mistaking social roles", and as I was quickly discovering the hard way, it's therefore a decent icebreaker when people you don't know are trying to figure how much longer they can stare before they have to open their mouths.

The only problem, I quickly found, comes when the conversation never gets beyond this safe and familiar ground. I can't remember the first few conversations I had with my new classmates, but the following summary is, sadly, a pretty good equivalent. In the best tradition of bad science fiction writing, all Japanese lines are <enclosed in greater/less than marks>,  while I'll just put the English in quotation marks.

Me:  <Hi! Nice to meet you, I'm David Ranzini! I hope we'll get along!>

Japanese Student:  "Umm... Where... are you from? "

Me: <I'm from America. Do you know the state of Virginia?>

Japanese Student:  <Whoa, you're good at Japanese! How long did you study?>

Me: <Oh, you needn't say that! I've only studied about 3 1/2 years and all>

Japanese Student:<Wow! Only 3 years! You're really good.>

Me: <Really, I'm sure that's not true. After all, you studied English for years, didn't you?>  "I mean, we could chat in English too, right?"

Japanese Student <I understand a little. Wow, you're good at Japanese!>

Me: <...>

Flailing around for something to stoke the fires, I quickly found myself doing all the talking, never really getting beyond the surface level on my partners, while running me into the ground. If I didn't do something soon, any international exchange as happened would end up stuck in one direction!

The bus pulled away from the airport as I struggled valiantly to pry personal details out of the other passengers, and made its way down from the sliced-off airport mountain to flatter land below. I noticed, as we rolled past hills covered with a conifer whose name I didn't know, that we were riding on an expressway-sized road, complete with off-ramps, that seemed hilariously outsized for the job. On either side, the occasional house swept by-- larger than the houses I'd seen in Tokyo, most two-storied, with pitched roofs of shiny black tile, and most all surrounded by the Tohoku rice fields I'd been promised. The effect was hard to place, somewhere around a mashup of Canada and the colder US states, the drained, flat paddies looking a bit Saskatchewan-y, but hemmed in with steep hills and brooded over by the huge, snow-capped mountains I'd seen from the plane.

The bus took a right turn suddenly, and pulled up in front of a complex of low grey buildings. We'd arrived, apparently, but I still had to find out where the new "here" was.

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