Be Polite!

…is what people in Japan say when their kids are writing kanji.

Why?  Because of the translations available for polite, one (丁寧 teinei, an adjectival noun) would be more correctly translated as “careful” and the other (礼儀正しい reigitadashii) as “with correct etiquette”.  You hear the former a lot if you work with kids, but seldomly with reference to disrespectfulness – it usually means something more like “slow down and take your time to do it right”.  The latter word is considered a good thing but not an admonishment for kids or a general character trait.

This distinction is a bit beside the point, because when people in Japan describe their own ethnic group and society (these are considered the same), the words they use are やさしい yasashii or 親切 shinsetsu “kind/nice”, not any form of polite.

Apparently this movie is interpretable as both reaffirming and parodying the “Japanese are kind” trope.
It may surprise American readers to hear that Japanese folks generally see their countrymen as sentimental and deeply emotional, not dry and detached “worker bees” as the stereotype goes.  This is an interesting contradiction, because “polite” (but insincere) is probably the first thing Americans think of when they think of Japan.  In Japan however the standoffish and deferential behavior that Americans consider “polite” when they come here is generally thought to be an expression of kindness and sincerity.

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The Uncanny L2 Valley

I’ve had a bit of a conundrum in learning for quite a while that I have found it hard to stay motivated to learn Japanese while living in Japan, which by most accounts is a fine place to learn it.  Before, I called it a Salieri Point, being demotivated by getting just good enough to start comparing yourself to native speakers, who are Mozart in this metaphor. I have another metaphor to share now, and this one concerns how your process in learning to swim is seen by the native-speaking fish around you.

To reiterate, I do have the highest level of 日本語能力試験, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which I got back in 2006, and can read newspapers and most novels at middling speed.  I understate my foreign language ability largely out of habit (nothing is less cool than overstating your language ability) but also because I live in Japan and my reference point is quite high as a result.

Incidentally, the fish metaphor is part of how I explain the seemingly ever-growing difficulty of language learning with the metaphor of a beach – water looks simple, peaceful, and inviting when viewed from above, on land, as a flat plane.  When viewed from the inside it cuts off your air, blocks out the light and seems to extend forever, and all around you are fish who seem to maneuver through it effortlessly.  It’s not the most optimistic metaphor but I think it accurately captures the feeling of looking at a language from the outside as a “thing” vs. from the inside as an environment.  Forests work for this metaphor too – and both (I hope) convey that I might be on hand to explain a thing or two, but they’re the ones who have to paddle/hike.

The ball represents playing another round of Candy Crush instead of studying

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The Art of the Unsatisfying Reply

I guess this will be the 3rd on a series on racism and microaggression in Japan.

I’ve become pretty skilled at answering problematic or microaggressive questions in ways that open doors to bigger, bridge-building conversations or at least leave me happy that I didn’t reinforce someone’s parochial worldview.  I might do this when I see the parochial worldview being evidenced as harmful to me or others like me (“Do foreigners eat cake every day?”), or harmful to the person speaking (usually because it reinforces a negative stereotype about a group that the person is in, a la “Japanese can’t learn languages”), or just because I find it annoying in an indignant enough way that I want to make a strategic response rather than just end the conversation.

By the way, when asked by students, the best definition of “indignant” I’ve been able to give is “the kind of angry that you use to build your identity”.

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I often tell students to look up words on Google Image Search (Safesarch on, of course), but these give no clue as to the edifying joy that comes with indignance.

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The Moody Musician

I’ve sort of added singing to my musical indulgences.  This bit came only recently in addition to my guitar playing, which has gone on since people were still learning the opening chords to Plush.  I’ve wished I could do it for a while but only in the last few years taken my meager voice out in public, dusted it off, and quickly shelved it again, only to repeat the experience after I’ve forgotten how traumatic the last time was.

It was in this spirit that I played half a show/half background music at a special flea market day at our local dog park.  Luckily this time the performance lasted long enough to get over the traumatic bit and enjoy myself eventually.


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The Perils of Self Employment pt.2, Eggs and Baskets

Last month we started telling our students that we would be closing our school at the end of May.  We had a few teary eyes and some expressions of shock, and most surprisingly to me, some (non-sarcastic) rounds of applause.  Most of this month has felt pretty normal.  I also wrote our final newsletter this week, which reminded me a bit more of just how much we’re giving up.

We started our school back in 2005.  By “started” I mean we put some signs up, bought furniture, painted the walls, made a new gmail address, and started answering the phone with something other than “moshi moshi”.  It takes very little overhead if you’re set on making your own materials (a habit I continued throughout the life of our school) and are satisfied with letting word of mouth build your student base.  Somehow we got ourselves to the point where people consider us a school and trust us with their or their kids’ educations.  At our highest point I believe we had more than 80 students – very small potatoes for some of the people I’ve met in the JALT School Owners SIG, but big for one full-time teacher.

So we’re giving up that achievement, as well as the obvious income, and finally the routine that’s defined our Tuesdays to Saturdays (and sometimes Mondays) for the past 12 years.

Not to mention some incongruously professional-looking mascots

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