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.