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Bridging the Cultural Gap: The Overseas-Asian Experience

  Hajimemashite, Furiya, Desu

    by Linda Furiya

6.05 p.m. Monday evening
Soko Gakuen Japanese Language School’s
Beginning I Japanese Class

"Hajimemashite," Watanabe-san, the language instructor, said crisply. "Hajimemashite" the class repeated.

For the next three hours, Watanabe-san guides the class through drills and role playing; spoonfeeding new words and phrases to willing, open minds. Everyone met only a few short hours ago, yet quickly have shed the initial shyness as they nervously giggle at one another's mistakes.

Watanabe-san explains to the class, "To learn Japanese you will feel like a child and you may think I'm treating you like a child. This is how many of us felt when we first learned English." With this sobering thought, brows furrowed deeper with determination, the class continued imitating Watanabe-san's expertise.

The class is composed of ten adult students. Their reasons for enrolling in the class are unique and varied. For example, a Chinese American businessman wants to communicate with his in-laws and keep up with his children who are learning Japanese as part of their school curriculum. Two Caucasian women representing a prominent financial institution and a Korean American woman employed at an internationally renowned Japanese hotel, hope to establish stronger professional relationships with their Japanese clients and patrons. My boyfriend and I are taking this class in the hopes that we may some day raise our children in a Japanese-speaking environment.

After an hour, pronunciation and intonations are coming back to me. For as long as I can remember, my brothers and I shared a unique bilingual interchange with our parents. They would speak to us in Japanese and we would respond in English. Although my father spoke English at work, at home Japanese was the language of choice. Over the years my brothers and I developed a strong understanding of the language, but found it unnecessary and impractical to learn to speak it.

People have a hard time comprehending why I understand Japanese, yet can't speak it. Yes, I can say a few token phrases, but any deviation from "hello," "good-bye," and "see you again" and I become flustered.

Older issei living in Cincinnati (the closest city to my hometown) frowned on this practice. They would say to us, "You have a Japanese face so you should make an effort to speak Japanese." My parents did not agree with this. Their response: "We are in America so they need to speak English." My parents made a pact never to pressure their children to be "Japanese."

During grammar and high school, the need to fit in with my classmates was paramount. At this impressionable age, people's reactions or behavior towards my ethnicity repelled me from the language.

Sometimes subjected to mimicking, I avoided pronouncing "r" words, like "really" or "right." I was exposed to the same speech patterns as my parents, so my "r's" came out as "l's." Secretly, I was wishing my parents would send me to a speech therapist.

When I saw the negative attention and embarrassment brought on by my parents' accents, I grew more guarded. We purchased groceries in a larger town located 30 minutes away. I recall several occasions when my father asked for assistance from the store staff and was answered with a despondent, "What?! What?!" from the store employee. Angrily, I would step in and "translate" to the employee, who had become struck deaf by ignorance and thrown off by my father's Asian face.

It became a common practice to brief my friends before sleepovers or coming to my house to play. "Just listen very carefully, read her lips, and think about what she is saying." "She," my mother, with her strong accent, was often mistaken as talking in Japanese. To my relief, my closest friends overcame whatever uncomfortable feelings they initially experienced. Unfortunately, those who were unable to adapt to the different environment were not asked back.

Despite these experiences, I was partial to learning more about the Japanese culture, but of my own accord. A turning point occurred when I was 12. My mother offered to take me on her next trip to Japan if I first learned to read and write hiragana and katakana. At the time, there were no schools like Soko Gakuen in or near my hometown.

Though Cincinnati had a Japanese school it was located an hour's drive away from my home. With the aid of a self-taught workbook sent to me from my uncle, George Furiya, I set out studying and memorizing the characters, innocently thinking what an easy way to earn a free trip to Japan. I never thought the knowledge would change my life.

Fulfilling my end of the offer, the long-awaited trip provided an immediate opportunity to apply what I had learned. I could now read some of the bright fluorescent neon signs and the busy billboards in Ginza and Shinjuku, the items in the department stores, and the names of the shiny plastic meals displayed in restaurant windows.

After the success of teaching myself hiragana and katanana, I still refused to seriously pursue Japanese conversation classes in order to prove that a Japanese face doesn't have to speak Japanese and break that assumption that Japanese Americans possess the natural ability to speak the language fluently.

During college, I made a weak attempt to teach myself conversational Japanese with cassettes and books, which ultimately proved difficult without professional instruction. As most Japanese Americans who have studied the language have learned, there is a fine line between acceptance and exclusion by the Japanese people. The line is based on one's conformity to their body language and strict adherence to word phrasing.

When I recited my carefully memorized phrases to Japanese-speaking strangers in restaurants or grocery stores, they immediately switched to English once my Japanese face struggled with the language.

Now I want to learn the language to improve myself, whether it is to one day read haiku in its original form or to raise children in a Japanese speaking environment.

Communicating with my parents has taken a new turn. Now retired, my father speaks primarily Japanese with my mother. I've found our phone conversations are limited by my deteriorating comprehension and their increased use of the language.

With the help of this class, I want to regain the knowledge I've lost and to better communicate with my parents – this time is Japanese.

8:58 p.m. Monday night. Class dismissed.

Watanabe-san covers next week's assignment, reminds us once again to practice, and says we are free to leave. Sheets of paper scribbled with notes are quickly shoved into notebooks and workbooks, which are crammed into book bags, briefcases and knapsacks. Tired and hungry, the dispersing class is eager to head home where, perhaps, a late supper and warm accommodations await them.

From now until the next Monday, the studying aids are homemade flash cards on scraps of paper or thick index cards, a ceaseless language audio cassette, and, if luck has it, a warm body with whom to practice the new material.

Ja, mataraishu. Shitsurei shimasu.

Freelance writer, Linda Furiya, is an Indiana native and graduate of Purdue University. A newcomer to San Francisco, she has lived in Dallas, Texas; Washington, D.C., and San Diego. Miss Furiya currently writes for various publications about her experiences of growing up in a small, Midwest town and how these experiences, combined with her life in San Francisco, has enriched her Japanese American identity.

The Soko Gakuen Japanese Language School is one of the most comprehensive Japanese Language schools in California (since 1915). It is a nonprofit organization. For further information please contact the Soko Gakuen Japanese Language School, 1881 Pine Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; e-mail: sachiko@sfo.com or phone (415) 928-9608 or (415) 776-3158. Web site: Soko Gakuen Japanese Language School’s.

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This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap:   The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in to editor@jadedragon.com!

After reading about Linda Furiya's struggles to regain her Japanese heritage and learn to speak Japanese, explore English in Japan by reading Karen Riley's The Image of Speaking English on US-Japan Interactive web site.

Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.

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