[lit-ideas] Re: Vanity, vanity (or, Want to put a face to the words?)

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 11 Jun 2006 10:20:34 +0900

On 6/10/06, Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

Very interesting John! I always wondered what you did in Japan. I notice that your wife's language skills are mentioned, but not yours.

Ah, languages. Two years of high-school Latin, two years of high-school German, an additional year of German and a couple of years of French in college, where I started on Chinese (Mandarin, a.k.a., Guoyu or Puthonghua) as a senior, feeling that, as an aspiring anthropologist I ought to try something non-Indoeuropean and inspired by a high school friend who was studying Chinese and Russian at Princeton. That choice put me into the China Program when I started grad school at Cornell, where work on that variety of Chinese continued for three years and I also had a brief exposure to Amoy Hokkien the Chinese language spoken as a native tongue by the majority of Taiwanese. It wasn't, however, until Ruth and I did fieldwork for my dissertation in Taiwan that I actually learned to speak another language much beyond the amo-amas-amat-agricola-fui, wie-gehts?, en petit peu, ni dau nali qu? tourist-verging-on-kitchen level of fluency. I had made the mistake all those years of treating languages as ordinary read-the-book, think-about-it, take-the-test subjects instead of what they really are, skills like playing the piano that take lots of practice to master, if, indeed, you do at all. It was a particularly marvelous day, about six months into our first stay in Taiwan when I stumbled into the store at the end of our alley and said, "Sell me two eggs" in Taiwanese without first thinking about what I was trying to say in English.

As luck would have it I later wound up teaching four years at
Middlebury College, where I used my faculty discount to do intensive
summers of first and second year Japanese and fifth year Chinese
(Mandarin) before heading back to Taiwan for a year on a fellowship
for intensive Chinese language study in Taipei. Thus, when Ruth and I
arrived in Japan in 1980, I was pretty fluent in two varieties of
Chinese and had a solid grounding in Japanese to build on. Now my
Chinese is rusty (can still read pretty well but speaking is back to
the rudiments, never could write worth a damn) and my Japanese is
fluent but limited in range. I have no trouble conversing with ad
industry and marketing people whose lingo I can translate pretty well
without recourse to dictionaries. My passive reading knowledge in the
other areas where we do business is pretty good, too, but nobody is
every going to mistake me for a native speaker, an accolade that Ruth
receives regularly and Kate comes by naturally, having grown up here.
Writing? Like the Chinese, never could write worth a damn. Since my
normal target language for translating is English, that isn't a great

That is the current state of play.

Did you ever think of becoming a Japanese citizen?

Only when someone asked this question. Ruth and I are permanent residents in Japan, i.e., we have the Japanese equivalent of a green card, but still patriotic Americans, thus our more than decade-long involvement in Democrats Abroad and helping Americans abroad to register to vote.

I recall a while back expression admiration for the Japanese only to have one of our more illogical members heap scorn upon me for supporting the Rape of Nanking. I can't recall if you entered into that unedifying discussion.

I don't believe I did.


John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN

Register to Vote in '06 Elections
To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts: