Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Three Years On A Rock

A few years ago, I had to tell a midwife in Lockerbie how to offer someone an enema in Japanese.

Shortly after we moved here, we mentioned to the librarian that we had lived in Japan and were all more or less literate in Japanese. Her sister was friends with someone whose cousin's neighbor happened to be a midwife. This is a small town and even the most piddling piece of news tends to spread quickly: when a pregnant Japanese woman with less than perfect English skills showed up in her clinic, the midwife appealed to her neighbor, who talked to her cousin, who talked to her friend, who went straight to her sister, who got in touch with us. The next day, I was flipping through my English-Japanese dictionary, translating such sentences as Are you comfortable? and How often are you getting the cramps? Then, after tearing my hair over spinal anesthesia, thrombosis, and catheters, I grappled with the following sentence for a good thirty minutes: May we shave a small section of your pubic hair?

Just in case you are interested (and even if you are not) here is how you express that in Japanese:


I count myself lucky that in all my seventeen years in Japan, I never had to say that to anyone and no one ever said it to me. But you never know what will come in handy and fortune favors the prepared. And since it took me a good thirty minutes to figure out how to say it, I feel the need to share it with someone.

Where we now live, we are virtually the only Japanese-speaking people for miles around, so that serendipitous translation job was something of a fluke. Still, the Japanese language is part of our lives and we use it on an almost daily basis. I am not saying that we always use it naturally or fluently, but we use it all the same.

For instance, it comes in handy when we are in public and one of us decides a trip to the toilet is in order and wants to inform the others in an unembarrassing way. No one else will understand our references; no obviously euphemistic Number 1 or 2 for us when we can say it in Japanese! Or when one of us needs to leave a note to tell the others that we'll be out for a few hours and the front door key is in a certain empty paint can in the potting shed: we write our notes in Japanese, and no one in this town could crack our code. Japanese is what we use when one of us has noticed that someone's fly is open or has a runny nose. Both children used it when jumping rope or playing paper-scissors-stone; and all of us still mutter the obligatory O-jama shimasu -- "I'm invading your space" -- when entering someone's home. We can't help ourselves.

The other day, I took the bus to Edinburgh. It was Remembrance Day, and the bagpipes were shrilling away as I passed the crowds on my way to the bus stop. I was to meet three Japanese women at a bistro and I had in my bag four Japanese sentences that I wanted them to check:

Souten shiro! (Load your rifles!)
Ugoku yatsu wa ute! (Shoot anyone who moves!)
Hoi shiro! (Form a circle!)

I intended to send the sentences to a man I've been corresponding with in the States, a former POW of the Japanese who is writing his memoirs and wants to make sure his Japanese is accurate and natural. The more I thought about it, the more ironic it seemed. Me, an American housewife, walking through a Scottish town with those three sentences in my pocket, off to meet Japanese friends in Edinburgh. It seemed especially weird as I passed the war memorial, a monument dedicated to the Scots who died in both World Wars, some at the hands of the Japanese.

Last night I did my damnedest to explain to my twelve-year-old what the Japanese proverb Three years on a rock means. I'm not the world's best teacher, so it was tough going.

"I don't get it," she said flatly.

"Don't try and translate it literally. Just tell yourself it means Patience wins the day."

"How come it's three years?"

"It just means a long time."

"And how come it's on a rock?"

"It has to do with meditating. Priests used to go and sit on rocks for a long time to try and achieve nirvana. So Three years on a rock means that you find a rock, you sit on it for three years - and that's not an easy thing to do after all - but after you've done it, you've arrived. Gotten what you wanted. " I looked at her hopefully. "Get it?"

She shrugged. "I guess. Whatever."

She was born in Japan, and Japanese was her first language. In fact, she used to speak it so well that I could hardly keep up with her, and I sometimes feel guilty for taking her away from Japan: she has forgotten so much. So every once in a while I sit her down and try to teach her as much as she can bear. I do this with both kids, and it hasn't been easy. I'm probably one of the few parents in Scotland who has read through the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese (with my eldest) but the youngest -- less literate in Japanese and far more stubborn -- was much harder to motivate.

A few years ago, I got a big break. The author Alan Temperley came to our youngest's class to talk about his newest book, Harry and the Wrinklies. Holding up a Japanese translation of his most recent novel The Brave Whale, he laughingly asked if anyone in the class could read it -- almost a miracle, since even the youngest's teacher was unaware of her tenuous bilingual status at that point. My youngest raised her hand and read out the first three lines of the long Japanese title, thus earning the awe and respect of her entire class -- and a free book from Alan Temperley. A book that came in pretty handy for me, too: we had finished Shiro Yamada's Hare Tokidoki Buta -- (Fair, Then Partly Piggy in English) -- and I had been wracking my brains for something new. It took us a good three months to read the Japanese translation of The Brave Whale together. Three hard months that might as well have been years...

Three years on a rock, they say. Sometimes I feel like I've been sitting on my rock for a whole lot longer than three years.


Eryl Shields said...

I'd love to be bilingual, I once wasn't too bad at Italian because my best friend lived there and she made me order my own meals in restaurants etc. But it's all gone now. I also tried for five years to learn French. I can still only do numbers and food. I keep thinking I'll go and live somewhere for a year or so and that should do it, but the time never comes.

Carole said...

I got a wee bit nervous when I read the three sentences about guns and shooting you were translating. Here you would have been locked up immediately until we could decide if you were a terrorist plotting evil. But your story ended happily and I realized Scotland is not as afraid as we are.

I should think your daughter would have had the most wonderful day, the day she read the first three lines of Temperley's. Most Excellent.

Kara said...

or playing rock-scissors-stone

Don't they have paper in Scotland? It seems as though they should.

I'm bilingual. I speak Danish. World's most useless language unless you want to freak out tourists. Can't write it worth crap, though. It's a silly language. Sounds a bit like a backwards Beatle's album.

Kim Ayres said...

3 years on a rock?

Take a cushion...

The Anti-Wife said...

Love the idea of having another language available to communicate things the general public shouldn't hear.

Kappa no He said...

This is so awesome. Yes, we do that too: use Japanese when in America as our secret language and then use English when in Japan. Although, on more than one occasion I've been found out by some listener who actually understood, broke our code!

The book story is fantastic, truly a miracle. I mean what are the chances she'd happen to have Japanese version and hold it up and your daughter be there to translate.

Also you get bonus points for reading Harry Potter in Japanese. I considered it....but then figured it took us long enough to get through the English versions.

Okay, one more thing. The friend who is a POW sounds fascinating. I giggled at the shaving statement and the very obvious military orders. You sound perfectly fluent but if you ever have a question feel free to ask. I may not know but my husband is Japanese and we'd love to help.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Numbers and food are pretty handy, and I'd be happy if I could get those straight in French. I keep telling myself that if my husband couldn't speak French pretty well, I'd somehow find that I could, but I suspect the truth is that nothing will help me manage French naturally.

Carole -- I felt anxious asking my friends to help me with those sentences; I never happened to learn the Japanese for 'rifle,' for instance, and I'm not much good at men's language (men and women speak slightly different dialects). Also, I felt nervous bringing up the excesses of the Imperial Japanese Army when the war has been over for over half a century. But for all that Japan has changed a lot in fifty years, the stories of the ex-POWs ought to be told. Fortunately, a number of Japanese people feel the same way.

Kara -- Eeeek! Thank you for catching that! I can blame that on the fact that I've been suffering from awful insomnia for the past three weeks (made worse by bronchitis) and haven't been compos mentis for God knows how long.

Danish is a great language, and how interesting that you are bilingual in it! I know a whole family who up and moved to Denmark and all learned the language. I've heard them speak it and it sounds so cool. No language is useless when you can have fun with it the way you do. I assume you learned it as a child...?

Kim -- Cushions aren't allowed when you're doing your three years. In fact, I think cushions defeat the whole purpose of the venture. You've got to sit the whole three years directly on the actual rock and I don't think you're even allowed sunglasses.

Anti-wife -- I just wish I could still use it for more than that, but I tell myself that one day we'll go back to Japan. Until then, it's our default option for talking about embarrassing subjects in public.

Kappa -- Uwa, ureshii! Yokoso to my blog, and feel free to code switch English and Japanese with me anytime! Are you based in Kanto, or somewhere else?

My ex-POW friend has the most amazing stories I've ever heard. I'm just hoping he'll keep plugging away at his memoirs, because they are riveting.

We went to a Dir En Gray concert in Sheffield a while back, and there were a couple of Japanese kids standing in front of us in line. They kept looking behind them to see who in the world could be speaking Japanese: I have an accent, but I've been assured that my eldest sounds like a native. She giggled herself silly when they didn't realize that she was the guilty party.

I'm relatively fluent, but I often have questions (especially about translating and interpreting), and I'm always happy to find translating buddies for whom I can return the favor.

Brian said...

I speak two languages quite well

Australian and Bad


Ello said...

Gosh I love your stories! This was great! My parents would speak Japanese in front of me and my sister whenever they didn't want us to understand what they were talking about. Would drive me crazy. I used to spell everything out with my hubby but now my kids can spell so that is out and I am terrible at pig latin. Boy I'm jealous over your Japanese.

Mary I did the same thing as you. Always bugging my Japanese friends for translations. They are a big help!

Christy said...

Oh, I love the secret language idea. I've been struggling since my oldest learned to spell. So now my husband and I just need to learn another language faster than the kiddos and we'll be all set!

Kappa no He said...

Your Uwa~ ureshii made me laugh outloud. Yep, you're perfectly fluent! And yep, there are always questions aren't there. Heck, I have questions about my mother tongue English.

Tell your friend I will most certainly buy his memoirs!!

Ja~mata kimasu yo! 漢字も見えるかしら?

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I can speak bad English with the best of them, but I have trouble believing that YOU can. How bad? Are we talking non-standard pronunciation or hardcore crap grammar with subjective-objective confusion? No -- I've read too much of your writing, so sorry: You can't fool me!

Ello -- If we ever meet, I will speak Japanese for you so that you can stop feeling jealous. A Chinese-American friend of mine used to lampoon her mother's roughly accurate, but hilariously non-native English. After my expatriate experiences raising kids who spoke the native tongue from earliest infancy, I identified so strongly with her mother that I no longer found this funny. My husband and I sometimes try French when we don't want the kids to understand, but my French is so awful that one of us (usually him) gives up in exasperated frustration.

Christy -- I recommend this! Just download one of those useful packages from the internet or check something out from the library. Your kids will see you doing this and want to imitate you, so this is a win-win situation. Fast forward to the really useful stuff: "I'm off for a quick pee" and "I think I'm going to throw up!" and you'll save yourself a lot of time. And don't forget to learn 'candy,' 'birthday,' and 'Can we put this quarrel off until they're in bed?'

Kappa -- Well, I'm definitely fluent in easy stuff. I was once asked to help interpret at my local Amnesty International chapter when a group of doctors from Medicins sans Frontieres came to speak. Just trying to convert numbers like 250 million into Japanese -- instantly -- while explaining third degree burns over 2/3 of someone's body showed me just how fluent I'm not.

And yes, I could read your kanji -- no mojibake at all! What I cannot yet do is immediately produce it on the computer I am now using. But I'll try and get that sorted out and we can start communicating in code!!

Merry Monteleone said...

I love that you can use your 'secret' language in public that way... as long as you're not one of those bilinguals...

And you all know what I'm talking about, the group of two or three people who speak another language, and start talking in a rude way about those around them because they can't understand... I hate that...

It's probably a bad temptation, too, because it would be so easy to call someone an idiot without having to have a confrontation.

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, I just really can't beat your knowing how to say enema and pubic hair in Japanese. That just really is beyond anything I can claim. And, when I translate, it's always at school (uh, this would be Spanish, by the way), so the vocabulary involves things like "your daughter has 17 unexcused absences" or "the police officer found marijuana in your son's backpack."
However, I do know a few fairly useless phrases in other languages.
My ex-husband speaks Mandarin Chinese (he was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and continued to study the language as long as I knew him). From him I learned how to say "this is my wife" (since he'd introduce me that way) and "rabbit stomach" (since it's a funny phrase he'd use when he'd poke the chubby tummy of a stuffed bunny we kept. I can't say that I've ever had occasion to use either phrase.
I know how to say "little hazelnut" in Romanian. (From the words to a folk tune.) Now that's highly likely to come up in a conversation, don't you think?
I also know how to say "girl with a pretty, white complexion" in Russian. Yup. That's a handy one.
In Polish, I can manage "under the tree," which might have some use, I suppose -- except that I've never been to Poland.
But "enema" I just can't top. You win.

-eve- said...

This is a little bit wistful. Gives me the feel of what your blog's name represents. It's almost like Japan is your first home (and great that you speak Japanese so well. Over here, we're bilingual, but no one thinks much of the national language... it's a very basic, limited language). Wonder if your eldest misses Japan ....

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- I've never said nasty things about others in Japanese within their earshot, but I will happily do this in my own home. Doing the former would be taking unfair advantage of the situation. Doing the latter I consider linguistic practice. My kids are sometimes tempted to misuse Japanese this way. I remind them of how uncomfortable they would feel if they were the ones being talked about in, say, Lithuanian. I'm not above saying unkind things about a neighbor of ours who would be a fine person if she weren't bigoted, anti-Catholic, mean-spirited, and nasty to my kids -- but never in front of her.

APW -- I'm pretty proud of my enema phrase, but it would take me a good week to get up to scratch with lockers, marijuana, unexcused absences, etc -- my kids didn't go to high school in Japan. I was always amused to find vocabulary that Japanese friends were ignorant of simply because they were unfamiliar with the context. People without babies were unlikely to know how to say chickenpox; people who didn't teach English could not be expected to know the Japanese for indefinite article -- and so on. I don't know the Japanese for 'little hazelnut,' and no matter how long I study Japanese, my ignorance will still be huge. But that makes what I can say all the more satisfying.

Eve -- My eldest fantasizes that if we had never left Japan, her life would have been perfect. My husband and I know that this is not the case, but we all miss Japan. I really miss living in America, too, and although my husband insists that he does not miss England, I know this isn't the entire story. Being bi-cultural and bi-lingual is wonderful in many respects, but it can also complicate your life.

日月神教-任我行 said...