Book me a Train Trip
I went into downtown Tokyo the other day, a trip I
don't make very often these days. My printmaking work is all done in
my home, so there's no commuting, and most of my shopping is done
locally here in Hamura. But there is one kind of shopping that I
can't do here in this neighbourhood, and a few times each year, when
my 'stock' is getting low, I have to make the trek downtown for
replenishment. My stock ...?
My stock of books! You see, although there are
literally dozens of bookshops here in Hamura, and in every town right
across this very literate country, they aren't much good to me. They
aren't much good, because I'm still pretty much illiterate. Even
after nine years living here now, I'm not yet able to pick up any
book at random and read it. Now I say 'illiterate', but perhaps that
is being a bit too tough on myself ... I can indeed read quite a
number of 'kanji', the Chinese characters, but 'quite a number'
doesn't really go very far, not when the total in daily use is nearly
2000! If the topic of the written material is something close to
home, such as woodblock printmaking, then I can usually acquit myself
honourably, but ask me to read an average newspaper story ... and I
will run out of steam very quickly.
The random nature in which my reading ability is
being acquired causes quite some confusion among people I meet. For
example, a short while ago, I was describing my printmaking project
to an interviewer, and as part of my explanation, I showed him the
newsletter I produce, which is bilingual - Japanese and English. Now,
I don't do the translations from English myself, but after they are
finished, I do all the input into the word processor, in both
languages. I then proofread everything, print it out, and paste it up
for the printer. Hearing me describe this process apparently gave him
a certain impression of my level of Japanese literacy, and he was
shocked a few minutes later to find that I couldn't read very much of
a sample of his magazine that he showed me.
Perhaps the best way to describe my Japanese
ability is to imagine a huge mosaic picture, made up of many tiny
tiles. In the beginning, these tiles are all hidden, but as one
learns characters and words, one by one they become visible, until
finally the complete picture stands clear. I am learning Japanese in
a pretty much random fashion, picking it up bit-by-bit here and
there, and as a result, the 'tiles' I have learned to date are
scattered thinly all across the entire surface, with only a few
clumps here and there where some particular topic has interested me.
I can see only the vaguest form of the overall picture.
Someone like my daughter Himi on the other hand,
who is learning Japanese at school in a highly structured
step-by-step fashion, can see nothing at all of the upper part of the
picture, but has completely 'filled in' the lower portion. And of
course, her knowledge is expanding upwards year-by-year until it will
eventually encompass the entire 'canvas'.
Just three or four years ago, she used to come to
me frequently while doing her homework; "How do you read this
character?" she would ask. Those days are long gone, and it is I who
now ask her, "Himi-chan, please ..." I have been grappling with
Japanese (I can't honestly say 'studying') since just about the time
she was born, and my knowledge has progressed slowly, slowly upwards
since that time. But although she started years later than I, she is
now leaving me far behind.
The only excuse I can offer for my sluggishness is
that I am 'busy' making a living. I don't have time for studying.
Actually though, that is not true. It's simply that I don't like
studying. I would much rather learn Japanese the same way that I
learned English; by drinking in whatever written material passes in
front of my eyes, and trying to figure out what it all means. I don't
remember those days at all, but my mother tells me that when I was
very young, I used to try and read the cereal boxes and milk cartons
on the table at breakfast time, and that anytime she took me out for
a walk, I would try and read the signs on the buses, etc. I think it
must have been an exciting time for me, faced with that vast puzzle
... what do all those squiggles mean? And I'm sure there was a burst
of pleasure each time I was able to successfully 'decode' something.
How can I be so sure of that? Simple. Because I'm living those times
again, right now! Now, at age 43, I'm living again the life of a
wide-eyed curious three year old. What do all those squiggles mean?
And the pleasure that I feel when I successfully decode a new one and
add it to that slowly developing 'mosaic', is very real
Because I don't spend any time at all in formal
study of Japanese, at the rate I'm going, it will be a long, long
time before I can feel comfortable in the local bookshops. And that's
where those occasional trips to Tokyo come about. Up on the third
floor of an office building near one of the main train stations, is a
used book shop with a difference ... the shelves are all full of
books in English. I don't have to wander along the rows, slowly
decoding characters one by one, searching for something that looks
like it might repay the immense effort it will take me to read it.
Instead, I wander along, head turned sideways reading the titles (I
sure wish we could easily write English vertically ...), and usually
find that, perhaps due to my months of 'isolation' since the last
visit, everything looks interesting.
I keep choosing until I've got enough to fill my
backpack, then pay the exhorbitant bill and struggle off homewards,
of course dipping into the bag while on the train. This load will
keep me going for a few months, until the 'not yet read' shelf starts
to get bare again ...
So I live in the best of both worlds ... I'm a
literate adult, with plenty of interesting reading material always on
hand, and yet at the same time, I'm a wide-eyed three year old,
enjoying the feelings of infinite challenge and accomplishment that
come with exploring the new world of language.
There's just one thing missing. Back in those
early days, my mother sat together with me, and read out loud while
tracing the words in the books with her finger. I think that this was
an essential part of the learning process, and I'm sure that we spent
many happy hours together that way. But who is going to do that with
this (forty) three year old ...?