Wednesday, December 15, 2004

So my friend Tadashi gives me little Japanese lessons almost daily to supplement the ones I get on Friday nights from Karina. He has been teaching me some phrasal verbs that just don't make any sense to me. A lot of Japanese I learn quickly and accept it, but every once in a while something comes along that my brain resists so badly that it feels like I've just slammed on the brakes of a car and am doing a 180 so that I can stamp on the gas and go back the other way. Real fast. Recently I tried to tell Tadashi, "I just got back from the post office." I can't remember how I said it, but in any case it was wrong. He *understood* what I said. He knew what I meant, but it sounded strange. It isn't how Japanese people would say it. I think I said something like Watashi wa yubinkyoku kara dake kaetta. Which literally translated means: I the post office from just returned. You know, I just returned from the post office. Right? Nope. This is how you say it:

Yubinkyoku kara kaette kita.

Post office from return came.


Okay, so he drops the "I". You drop the "I" and "You" and "He" and "She" in Japanese all the time. Apparently they don't need to know who the subject is. It's implicit. You mention the subject person the first time, and ever after you can drop it. When you start to speak about someone new's actions etc. you then bring up the new person as the subject. It makes sense. That's not my problem. I'm used to that. Using "Kara" makes sense. It's just "from". I used that in my sentence too. "Kaette" I used in my sentence too. It means "return" or "go back" etc. "Kita" though, is "came". My head kept saying, "I came return from Post Office." Nope. Then I thought, "I came back from the Post Office." They're just changing "return" and making the verb back. I dealt with it. Okay. Got it. Wakata.

But then.....

He teaches me this phrase:

Chris ga nagoya ni yatte kuru = Chris is coming to Nagoya.

what's up with the yatte? It's one of the ways to say "do". Chris is doing come to Nagoya? "Why do you need the 'do' in there?" I asked. He doesn't know. It's just how it is. Hmm. I've heard that one before.

He then shows me this sentence:

Chris ga nagoya ni kiteru = Chris is in Nagoya(now).

Screeeech, once more.

Kiteru is the present progress of come. So it means "is coming". This is how I would have made the previous sentence, which apparently they don't do it that way. They want the "yatte" in there to say "is coming". So I ask, how in the world are you making the present progressive "is coming" mean "is in"?

Answer: It's just how it is.

My response: I find this unacceptable.

T: Just accept it!

Me: You suck.

Tadashi then asks, "Well why in English do you say, I'm going to take a nap. I'm going to take a pee, etc. You can't take those things."

I think for a while. Yes you can. You're not taking the nap itself or the pee, but a space of time to do those things in. It's a break from a routine your taking to do those things in. Makes sense. I then ask for him to find an explanation that makes sense for his silly phrasal verbs.

Let's just say I'm still waiting for an answer.

But I will accept the (*rolls eyes*) "yatte" being thrown around like so much confetti into sentences that don't really need it (in my opinion) and sure, I'll accept changing the verb "is coming" into "is in" (and that's a total leap of faith for me). But I will not accept these things without being a bitch about it. So on my laptop's desktop, I've created a file for things that are going to take a lot more time for me to learn because they're wickedly rule-breaking, and have labeled said file, "Evil Japanese Phrases That Make No Goddamned Sense".

And that makes the pill go down a little easier.

On yet another side note, whenever I speak Japanese, Japanese people go crazy. This is kind of cute but also a little like, well you know, you're able to learn English, what's so weird about me learning Japanese? I think mainly they're often struck by foreigners learning Japanese because they really don't need to. You can get by here without knowing Japanese. You'll run into some hassles and things will get confusing in some ways, but you can do it. And a lot of foreigners never do learn it. But I still sort of smile fakely when someone says, "Sugoi! Nihongo jouzu!" (You're good at Japanese! Amazing!) I will even say something really appropriate, like "Iie, mada dame desu." (No, it's not good yet.) But anyway, today one of my student's mother came to pick him up from school. He's one of my very favorite students, Shoki, a seventh grader with a mysterious illness that I still haven't been able to find out from the teachers what it is. He has to wear a fanny pack that has tubes coming out of it which go to who knows where. When I first got here, I thought Shoki wore that little fanny pack as a sort of affectation and I thought it was cute, until Hiraga sensei told me he has a disease and whatever it is that he needs to be healthy is in that fanny pack. I should have known better. Japanese schools are all uniformed. A fanny pack would diverge from the uniform and that wouldn't be allowed. But Hiraga sensei didn't know the name of the disease in English and Fujita says she's not sure what it is. Maybe she knows and just isn't saying for some reason. But in any case, Shoki is probably the best English speaker at the school. He's amazing. And so today his mother came to pick him up at school and as she and another teacher and Shoki were walking to her van, I was walking to my car, which was parked next to hers, and Shoki told me in Japanese that he'd see me tomorrow, and I told him in Japanese that he wouldn't because I was going to the elementary school on Thursday, so I'd see him on Friday. And Shoki's mother looked startled and turned to the other teacher and said, "Amazing! He can talk." This of course is the literal translation of what she said. She didn't say, He can talk Japanese, but it was implied. I translate into direct English sometimes and when I heard, "Amazing, he can talk," before carrying it out to what she really meant, "He can talk in Japanese," I was a little ruffled. Of course I can talk!!! What the hell!! hehehe. Then I just got over it in the next moment and joked around with Shoki until him and his mom left.

But man dealing with the nuances of a language that drops a lot of implied meaning is difficult. One day Kyoto Sensei (Head Teacher) came to me and said, "Chris san, Gakko ni Doyobi." Chris, School, Saturday." That's it. I was like, Okay, I understand, what about school and Saturday? (We had to come in to work on that Saturday for a special PTA day). So I'm standing there waiting for him to finish his sentence and Fujita sensei says, "He wants to know if you're coming to school on Saturday."

*Makes brow furrowed scrunchy nose open mouthed face*

How the heck am I supposed to know he asked that unless he SAYS the whole sentence???

Well next time I'll know. But damn. I'm not part of the hive mind. I NEED more information to respond!!! Some Japanese people understand this and because of that, I understand them completely when they speak to me. Others, like Kyoto sensei, don't realize English doesn't drop so much info and expect someone to understand it. So I always end up looking like a stupid dork with him even though I do fine with people who make complete sentences around me. Kyoto sensei will probably, in later years, think of me and how I never tried to learn Japanese because whenever he spoke, I couldn't understand him.


Blogger David Moles said...

It helps to remember that "kiteru" comes from "kite iru" (that's "iru" meaning, like, to be somewhere: "Gojira ga Tokyo ni iru" = "Godzilla is in Tokyo") and that form, what my profs used to call the "resultant continuative", stands in for both present continuous ("Kogeki shite iru" = "He is attacking") and present perfect ("Nagoya ni kite iru" = "He has come to Nagoya").

Leaving aside the question of what tense the main verb is, it does make a certain kind of sense, something like the archaic "I am come" in English. ("Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.")

"Dake" does mean "just", but in the sense of "only", not in the sense of "just now". For "just now" I think you'd use "tokoro": "Kaijushima kara kaete kuru tokoro da" = "I've just come from Monster Island"; "Kaijushima kara kaete kita tokoro deshita" = "I had just come from Monster Island". (Note in that last that "kuru" and "desu" have both been changed to past tense -- I think that's correct but I'm not 100% sure.)

Don't ask me to explain "yatte kuru", though. :) I'd probably cheat and say something like "kuru tsumori da" = "I intend to come".

Oh, and if nobody else has told you yet, I should warn you about "wa" and "ga". There's a tendency to teach that "wa" indicates the subject, and it does, but not in the way you'd think -- it's more subject-as-topic than the grammatical subject. The best way to think about "wa" is that it means something like "As for X", or "Speaking of X": "Gojira wa Nagoya ni iru" = "As for Godzilla, he's in Nagoya"; "Kaiju wa, machi o kogeki shiteiru!" = "The monsters, they're attacking the city!" As with the definite article "the" in English, there's an assumption that the topic has already been introduced -- if you just wanted to come out of nowhere and say "Monsters are attacking the city", you'd have to say "Kaiju ga machi o kogeki shiteiru!".

(And if you think that's confusing, try explaining to someone when they can use "the" and when they have to use "a".)

"Ga", as in that last example, =does= indicate the grammatical subject. What's extra-tricky is that even though structurally it's a subject marker, it can sometimes act as an object marker: "Uchu-kaiju ga kirai desu" literally means something like "Space monsters are hateful" but idiomatically means "I hate space monsters"; and you can take it farther and say "Gojira ga uchu-kaiju ga kirai", "Godzilla hates space monsters".

Any questions? :)

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am giggling far too much when i read stuff like this. i can feel your frustration, because i experience it every time i have to suffer through a telephone conversation with my grandma, whom I adore, but with whom an adult-level conversation is pretty much impossible since i can barely communicate at a three-year-old's level.

on the thing with the kid--"Chris san, Gakko ni Doyobi." --there is a subtle upturn somewhere in the latter part of the phrase (don't ask me where, because it's totally dependent on that person's style of speaking) that indicates it's a statement that just wants confirmation. if that helps, which i know it totally doesn't. :P


1:34 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

David Moles sucks too.

haha, just kidding. Hey David, I knew about the wa/ga placements. It took awhile to get that, but finally it sort of clicked. No one says I use the wrong wa or ga anymore, so I figure I've gotten that sort of figured out mostly. If Tadashi would have explained the roots of kiteru, that would have made more sense. Thanks for sharing what your profs told you about it. But yeah, yatte kuru, wtf?

Hey Lisa, I know about the subtle upturns also. I give them now myself. I knew he was asking me a question by the tone of his voice and the way Doyobi did go up at the end slightly, but I still really wanted a verb there. I'm used to them sometimes just saying a verb with no subject and I get those no problem. But not as often do I hear subjects without verbs. So it's just another thing I've got to train myself to listen for now. ;-)

5:21 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Be that way, then. :P

If you think =you've= got pronoun trouble, try this one: "Koshikakesaserarehajimetagaranakattarashii."

My Modern Japanese Lit prof claimed he'd heard one usher say that to another at a theater. Translation: "It's almost as if they didn't want us to start seating them."

5:53 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Haha, all I got out of that was "hajimeta". So I would have know something in the sentence was "start". Oh, and I hate how they don't seperate the freaking words. Sure, THEY all know when one word starts and another begins, but no one else does without years of study. No one Japan's a club culture. They've made it pretty damned hard to access if you haven't spent years and years here. David, did you experience any of the club culture feelings of exclusion that I read about in so many Westerners' writings about trying to live in Japan?

1:47 AM  
Blogger Joufy said...

Hmm about Shoki, it sounds as if he has diabetes. I had a friend in high school who had an insulin pump, the tube goes directely into her stomach from the insulin pump which hung on her belt. Maybe being that Shoki is so young and active, they put it in a fanny pack to make it less conspicous and keep it from getting broken? (I know they're really expensive) I heard that the insulin pump really changes the lives of diabetics, making it a lot easier to control. Perhaps that is it? Hmm just a thought.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to hear you defend the English phrase, "Are you going to stay?" :-)

If you want a logical language, you could always learn Lojban...

4:37 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

That's an interesting question. I felt most miserable in my first few months there when I was fourteen, but it's hard to tell how much of that was specific to Japan and how much was just the sudden shock of illiteracy, unfamiliar food, and being fourteen. Once I'd made a few friends at school -- most of whom were fluent in Japanese -- I was as happy as I would have been anywhere. On later trips, I don't think I felt any lonelier or more excluded than I did in, say, England.

I think I've always taken it for granted that Japanese culture isn't any more opaque than anyone else's. And counted on the fact that I look like a bumbling foreigner to excuse most of my mistakes.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Thanks for answering, David. I'm interested in this since it seems like many Americans living here complain of always being outsiders, never being admitted into an intimacy with the culture. There are novels written about that even, such as the McInerney one you suggested. I don't feel excluded here (not by the people so much as not having enough language to be completely hooked into the world around me yet, though that's not going bad either, I'm doing well). Some Americans I know complain about not being able to form intimate relationships with Japanese people. I think that's probably more a language barrier problem than a deliberate sleight on the part of Japanese people. They've always been very welcoming to me. I find that the only times I feel on the outside is when I can't participate sociolinguistically at a level I like.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Oh and what exactly is there to defend about the English phrase, "Are you going to stay?" I'm not quite sure I see the difficulty in it. But that doesn't mean it isn't difficult. I'm inside the English language after all, so tell me what about it is confusing that needs defense.

And who are you, anonymous poster? hehe

3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is I. Sorry bout that.

How can you go to stay? Where are you going, when you go to stay? Is that like dying to live, or destroying the village to save it?

People say the same about the Swiss -- that you can't get to know them. OTOH, other Europeans say (the Swiss are too polite to say this, but if you corner them on it you can get them to fail to disagree, which means they agree) that friendships with Americans are superficial -- everyone claims to be your friend the moment you get off the plane, but they aren't really. As the off-campus life brochure given to some visiting Italian exchange students I once knew had it: "in America, friendliness is freely given, but friendship takes time to earn".

In Switzerland, on the other hand, courtesy is freely given, while friendliness is a reliable sign of friendship, and just as hard to earn...


10:44 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I am going to Japan to stay.

1:37 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

The Swiss sound a lot like the Japanese. (Score two for my Switzerland In '07 plan!)

I think the traditional "I felt excluded" thing is either a generational thing (Japanese are more laid-back and cosmopolitan in our generation than they used to be), an extroverted American trying too hard thing, a language barrier thing, or all three together.

2:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home