The Simple Present, academic speech and political correctness

The shortest sentences possible in English are overgeneralizations.  That is, simple S-V constructions along the lines of “They run” describe stereotyped behaviors rather than any situation that ever has to occur in the real world, certainly not in any chronological or physical proximity to the speaker.  This is a problem, what with the modern distaste for “labeling” – our language makes the broadest, most sweeping stereotypes the easiest to articulate.

More justifiable when Dio said it

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Responding to microaggression

Yesterday at Uniqlo at Sagami-Ono Station Square I had another of those experiences where a clerk, for what he must have imagined was expediency, switches to a combination of gestures and broken English in order to communicate.  In this case he was trying to say that I should take a tag marked #1 in the fitting room and hang it on the hook outside the fitting room curtain.  What came out of his mouth in addition to lots of pointing and pantomime was ワン wan “one”, which coincidentally is the sound that dogs are said to make here instead of arf or woof.

(Side note: There is no katakana rendering available for w+high back rounded vowels (oo as in mood) or near-high near-back rounded vowels (oo as in foot), so official readings for words like would and wool are ウッド uddo and ウール uuru, simply leaving off the w in addition to the usual katakana alterations.  A dog park near us named Woof gives the reading of its name as ワフ wafu.  I guess they realized uufu would be unreasonably silly even by katakana standards.)

I am unfortunately the type who ruminates long and hard over incidents like this, whenever they happen at cafés, parking garages, train stations, hardware stores, or any of the other places where treating the customer as an invalid based on phenotype has unfortunately not begun to be considered bad service yet.  One of the things I think about afterward is how else I could have responded.  I’ve come up with a list, because that’s how the Internet works.

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Simulated cleanliness

I once surprised a Japanese coworker by Purell-ing my hands after work and before dinner.  She expressed to me that such fastidiousness was unnecessary because Japan is clean.  Yes, apparently so clean that bacteria die on contact with its pristine wabi-sabi surfaces.  You might now be expecting me to simply contradict this, and I will, to an extent.  I also want to explore the process by which various behaviors have become so associated with cleanliness in the cultural vocabulary that they sometimes serve to conceal any objective cleanliness.

Dead metaphor, thriving bacterial jungle

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Noun is difficult

Polysemy is one of those concepts I got from Steven Pinker and was totally hoping would be a part of my Applied Linguistics MA course.  It wasn’t, of course, since it is more relevant for philologists and other deep parsers of language than ESL/EFL teachers.

In a nutshell, polysemy is the ability of words to have several related meanings, for instance “supermarket” referring to both a business and a building.  In English we use the preposition “at” to show our location with reference to the former and “in” with the latter (“at the supermarket” not necessarily being physically inside of it), which shows that the conceptual difference is there even for people who are not explicitly aware of it.

In keeping with my general theory of language, in essence that everything affects everything else, I did some wondering about how the lack of plurals in Japanese might affect polysemy in ways other than the obvious – that each noun has to stand for multiple instances of itself in addition to the usual (for English at least) one.

“Sumo” – the sport, the person, the people

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Houses, hair, Engrish, and normality

The old joke, “What do you call French bread in France?  Bread.” does not work in Japan.  If there is such a thing as “Japanese bread”, it sells at specialty shops for 2000 yen a loaf.

The term “Japanese” itself exists even in Japanese as a form of marking alongside those for other cultures and countries.  As a modifier for a noun, it lifts that noun out of the normal exemplars of its category and says, “this is a special kind of this thing, unique to Japan.”  Thus, the “Japanese garden” in the pictures below is not a typical garden in Japan, but one ostentatiously evocative of traditional (another loaded term) gardens.









In the common idiom, “Japanese” means not “that which is normal in Japan” but “that which is regarded as unique to Japan and elevated enough to represent it on the international stage”.  Normal, everyday things follow what may be considered an international standard, albeit interpreted through a Japanese view of the outside world.  A well-known example is the banality of Engrish, a way of “internationalizing” public communication in a way that has few counterparts in other countries.  This paradox, that common things in Japan are considered inauthentic examples of Japanese culture, and things considered truly Japanese are rather rare, occurs in fashion, housing, and language.

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Good goodbyes

It’s April, and most years we’d be completing a routine round of hellos to new students and goodbyes to old ones.  This year is special of course in that we’re closing for good in a few months, so we have a lot more goodbyes and not so many hellos.

Students leave for a lot of reasons, some of which aren’t clear to us, but one reliable one for high school seniors from December to February is juken, or entrance exams.  Sometimes the last we see of them is them heading out the door a bit awkwardly while one of their parents sticks behind and explains that the practice exams haven’t been going well, and you see…

We don’t really care about exams, but we care a lot about our students.  Sometimes when our teenage students quit to go on to the next stage of their lives, and we know that no matter what school they get into they’ll be moving away and we probably won’t see them again, they stop by before moving to say a pretty emotional goodbye.  We absolutely love this.  We like to think of ourselves as stridently humanistic educators, and having had an effect on another human’s life and memories means infinitely more to us than whether they got into a prestigious national university or a low-ranked private one.  I’m pretty sure in 20 or so years when we’re looking back and saying to ourselves, “remember when we owned an English school?” we’ll still have some these memories rattling around.  If we are the kind of teachers we like to imagine ourselves as, our students will remember the moments of connection like these too, more than their exam scores.

On goodbyes too we sometimes are lucky enough to get things like this:


Goodbyes like this really make a teacher feel great.

I cook

For the last few weeks we’ve been going to this local baker for cakes who uses sour cream in a lot of her recipes.  Even in things like apple pie she has a layer of tart custard-like pudding that adds something very special, an extra hint of tartness and of course fatty goodness that makes her foodstuff the good stuff.  I’ve made cookies and brownies hundreds of times, and cakes and pies occasionally, but this new discovery inspired me to try making something I’ve never even really liked before: cheesecake.


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Driving in Japan, part 1

…or at least where I live, is a bit like being on safari.  You have a constant stream of random obstacles being thrown in your path, leaving you no choice but to drive everywhere as you would only navigate a preschool parking lot at 8 AM in the US.  Not that you should do this anywhere, but shutting off 90% of your brain and devoting most of the remaining 10% to fiddling with the audio as many do on California highways is a recipe for quik-bake disaster here.

Statistics provided by the WHO show that Japan has less than half of the traffic fatalities of the US, although of course this is per capita, not per mile driven (Japan comes out higher by that standard) or obasan encountered.   Anecdotally I can say that driving safely in Japan demands a lot more concentration than in California, and we and many other people drive through conditions every day here that would only occur in a post-apocalyptic situation there.

Below is a partial list of said conditions.

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