Saturday, October 29, 2005

Students of Chinese, Students of Japanese

In his wistful book on his adopted home country (or perhaps I should say "first adopted home country," as I believe he spends most of his time in Thailand now), Lost Japan, Alex Kerr talks about his days doing Asian Studies at Yale. A professor of Chinese would give a grandiose lecture on the first day, saying, "Should I start with the efflourescence of the High Tang? Or one millenium earlier with the unification of China under Qin Shihuang and the construction of the Great Wall? No-- [pregnant pause]-- I will begin with the rise of the Himalayas!" A professor of Japanese would invite the students over to his house for a night of sushi and Japanese dancing. Kerr says he asked people who'd spent time in Japan the best moment of their lives, and they'd say "I was meditating in a monastery, and when the abbot walked by I heard his robes swishing in the breeze." While the people attracted to Chinese studies were restless and analytical, those attracted to Japanese were subdued and sensual.
When I read that, I knew I had made the right choice. Chinese all the way.
Chinese always came easy to me. Sure, it is tonal, but once you get past that, the pronunciation is quite simple and the Pinyin system is very straightforward. And the characters-- sure, you need to know thousands to "read a newspaper" as they say (of all the things you could read in Chinese, why would you want to read the newspaper? Why is that the benchmark?), the characters break down into a fairly manageable system of bits and pieces which combine in sensible ways. And the grammar-- no tenses, no articles, no conjugation-- just stick the words in the right order and you're just about there. After studying for a couple years, I headed off to Taiwan. Then after a couple years there, I considered myself fairly fluent.
Later, I had the opportunity to move to Japan, so I took it up, thinking I could absorb Japanese like I did Chinese.
I was in Japan for a couple years, but never got to the point with Japanese that I did with Chinese. Maybe it was because I was older, maybe I was just less motivated, I don't know, but Japanese just didn't click for me. Kaku changes to kaita-- where'd the second "k" go? How can I recognize these words when they keep changing? How can I remember them when they are so long? It took me a couple weeks to remember the thing I sat in in my house was a "hori-kotatsu." People at 7-11 seemed to be still rattling off their thank-you-come-agains even as I was out the door. And reading that one little character for "east" as "higashi"? Three syllables-- you must be joking!
Well, it started to click a little bit, though for months I had to hum "u tsu ru tta nu mu bu nda..." to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" every time I had to conjugate a verb. Maybe it started to click because I began to appreciate Japan more. I think I resented Japan a bit at first. So many of these people fawning over Japan as they meditate in the temples and hear the abbot walk by, I thought, look down their noses at China even though so much of what they love about Japan originated in China. Japan was just too perfect, and everything made too much sense. Then I started learning that Japan wasn't so perfect, and under the surface all sorts of contradictions and tensions raged. In my eyes, Japan became a frustrating, maddening place.
That is, I came to like it. It may have been in the way of a student of Chinese, but I came to like it very much.


Matt said...

It's funny, I feel the equivalent way about Chinese. How am I supposed to understand it when there aren't any verb endings or particles? And what's with the huge number of words that are just one syllable long? Madness!

(By the way, it must have been really satisfying when you started studying bungo and learnt where that second "k" in "kaita" went.)

amida said...

That's one reason why I wanted to learn Classical Japanese--to see where the "k" went! In for a penny, in for a pound, they say. I knew there was going to be a reason for this sort of thing.

Azuma said...

I wonder where I stand in this. I started with Japanese, but for various reasons continued it only as an independent study and took Chinese formally first. Then went to Beijing and got much better at Chinese than Japanese, before coming to Japan and reversing that these last two years, big time.
To think that there was once a time I thought "dong" before "higashi" or "tou", sigh.

I think you're onto something there. I was always interested in Chinese, But that "interest" can't compare to the very emotional attachment I've always felt to Japanese, even when my Chinese was much better. I can't imagine I ever would have plugged away for years at Chinese on my own.

amida said...

I think one part of it is your motivation for learning the language. When I first started doing Chinese, there were things in Chinese I really wanted to read--no matter that the language was way over my head. I'd spend a lot of time with a dictionary to figure it out. I tried to work my way through the (wonderful) comic books about the Chinese classics by Tsai Chih-chung 蔡志忠 and stuff like that. I originally didn't have much actual use for Japanese. It was there, it was in Asia, and it used Kanji, so I was curious, but I had no burning desire to work my way through any given text. Of course, now Japanese has the lure of the new for me, while Chinese is just old Chinese, the one that puts the food on the table for me and lets me communicate with the people I need to communicate with. Using Kanji all the time seems almost prosaic to me now--couldn't we just save them for the important words? Ha!
Had I actually gone to Japan before getting involved in Chinese so heavily, things may have been different. Though still I doubt I'd be waxing lyrical about the sound of the abbot's robes.

h&t said...

I couldn't agree with you more, amida, and I remember nodding my head vigorously when I read what Alex Kerr had to say in Lost Japan too. Chinese has always seemed so much more straightforward and sensible, though hardly as romantic as Japanese. There's an interesting book by Peter Quennell called A Superficial Journey Through Tokyo and Peking. He wrote it after teaching for a while in both cities in the 1930s. Strange how his observations about the people of both places is so similar to my own (and perhaps your) feelings about the two languages.