2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Still Fishing for the Right Words

Seika McCoy

I was born in the U.S.—Bellingham, WA, with a Japanese mother and an American father. When I was in preschool, my mom enrolled me into a Japanese bilingual school in Bellevue, WA. Every Saturday, I would ride down with my mom and little brother to the school to meet and study with other kids my age. At this school, we utilize the textbooks imported from Japan and learn math, science, social studies, reading and writing as a child in Japan would—just five times the speed, in Japanese. Because of this, I am able to participate in the normal schools in Japan when I visit; we normally go quite frequently. Since the Japanese population in Bellevue isn’t extremely large, I grew up with the same kids; it started out with a couple classes of 20 in preschool but gradually the numbers decreased and now, there remains one class in my grade of 15 people. This group, to me, is where I truly belong, where I fit in, and what I love.

Maybe I feel like I belong in Japanese School because it is a place where others like me gather; all students at Japanese School are bilingual—they speak both Japanese and English, and have experienced both cultures as well. This is the interpretation that my friends who are not associated with Japanese school seem to take. Unlike my high school in Bellingham and my experience in schools in Japan, all kids at Japanese school have grown up, or are currently surviving the “space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” or the “contact zone” (Pratt 1) between their two worlds and are finding a comfortable middle ground in their language, actions and thoughts. This middle ground is hard to find—neither culture is “correct” or “better.” But as we grow up, we started discovering and finalizing how to be a contact zone that is able to communicate and live with people from either culture—or many cultures.

I clearly remember that day a few years ago when my brother had received a new Nintendo DS. I, enticed by the magical touch screen, kindly asked my brother if I could see the product. Obviously, having been the receiver of this device, my little brother announced his answer—“NO!” Suddenly, I felt the need to grab it out of his hands. We grappled and shouted words of insult and pain, struggling to grip the DS with our flailing hands.

The reason why I mention such a common and seemingly insignificant event is because this was this day that I noticed the true difference of the English and Japanese language. You see—when I had asked my brother for his DS in the first place, I had asked kindly—in Japanese. It is natural, you would think, to use Japanese when referring to an electronic device made in Japan. But this, apparently, wasn’t our reason. My brother had enunciated “No!” in the crisp, clear English language, and we both felt the necessity to use the English language to express our insults. On the other hand, despite the hassle, we still utilized Japanese grunts and phrases to convey “ouch.” Why would we use both languages in such a situation—a situation in which we were neither thinking consciously about our word choice and rather, reacted upon instinct? Might my brother, Japanese school friends and I, as contact zones of the American and Japanese culture, use the two languages unintentionally for a certain reason? That day, I discovered a deeper reasoning to answer this question.

I think that many people think of languages as things that can be translated—a collection of words that have a certain definition and that can be portrayed with the same, exact meaning in another set of words. I understand that people who have learned new languages know that different languages have different connotations in their words, and that some words might not even exist in another language. But language isn’t as simple as this. If this were the case, there would be a lot less confusion in learning a new set of words and it would be a lot less difficult to understand people from different countries. Instead, I imagine words, as a bilingual, as if all languages were combined in a pool of words. One can reel out their preferences when trying to communicate a feeling. In other words, if one language had 100 words in it with 100 meanings, and you knew three languages, you would know 300 words with 300 meanings. Each word in one language differs in definition from every word in any other language, period. So, if someone understood all the languages in the world, they could express any emotion, using whatever words they pick from the pool of languages, and wouldn’t be able to convey the exact feeling again with another set of words. This concept is not explained when you learn a new language in high school or college; we learn language as a different way of saying what we want to say in our own language. I have tried to explain this concept to other people in both Japan and the U.S. I have tried to convey this to all my friends, relatives and peers. It’s a difficult concept when you can’t relate to it.

Let me give you an example. The word, “hello” in English, is commonly known to translate into the word “konnichiwa” in Japanese. But this isn’t exactly true. I have probably never actually used the word konnichiwa towards one of my friends. Konnichiwa is simply a word used in more formal occasions. Hello, too, is also more formal than, for example, hey. But konnichiwa has more than just the meaning of “hello!” behind it. It literally has a little slant towards “Hello. How are you today?” For this reason, it is unusual for people in Japan to ask how you are. They say konnichiwa, which implies that you one, respect the other person, and two, care for them. I have noticed that people in the U.S. greet each other saying more than just “hello.” They normally say, “Hey! How are you?” even if they are not very familiar with the person. When a Japanese exchange student sees this, it’s hard to understand. Why would you greet someone and then ask how they are doing afterwards—especially a stranger? Wouldn’t this just be repetitive? It seems so unnecessary. Such differences are very common.

Some words don’t even exist in other languages. For example, there is a word in Japanese, yoroshiku, which has no direct translation in English. It’s extremely difficult to translate this word into English since no other word explains the feeling, value, and respect that are part of the culture behind this word. I often explain it to my Japanese learning friends as a way of saying “Nice to meet you,” “Thank you,” “Please,” or “I’m counting on you.” Yet, all of these aren’t near what it actually means. For example, if you were at working at the cash register with your friend, and saw that the line was getting long, you might ask your friend to open up the other cash register. In this case, you might “greet” your friend saying, “cash register (in Japanese) yoroshiku!” which would imply that you are thankful, are counting on him/her, asking please, and are happy to work with her. There are many words like this.

In fact, there are words and phrases in the English language that are not available in the Japanese language as well. For example, the phrase “bless you” after someone sneezes doesn’t exist in the Japanese language. No one says anything after one sneezes. It might seem awkward or rude to not comment—to express your worry, but to the Japanese, this has never been an option. They simply have never even thought of saying something after someone sneezes because they don’t have a word for it in their language. Just like we, in English, have never thought of saying something like yoroshiku.

Your expressions and feelings that you can convey are limited by the number of words that are part of your vocabulary—your language. In other words, there are more than just the emotions and feelings that you can portray with your own language. There are more ideas—more thoughts, things, descriptions and colors, that you haven’t even thought about. Because I, other bilinguals, you, and everyone really, have not grown up with all sounds or words invented and yet to be created, we don’t even know all the ideas in the world—let alone explain them.

People in my Japanese school, as well as my brother, understand this. We, truly, don’t understand everyone’s viewpoints—no one does, but we can understand how we don’t know it all. I talked to one of my Japanese school friends, Miho Saikusa, on the phone the other day. During our conversation, we talked about how we really appreciated each other; we noticed how it was so much easier to communicate to our Japanese school friends. Over years of trying to explain ourselves to others, it is definitely easiest to do so in our small community—in Japanese school. At our school, since everyone is bilingual, we can convey our ideas in two languages instead of just one. We don’t have to limit our expressions and explanation of ideas as much, because everyone can relate to and understand two languages. If you listen to our conversations, you will hear a combination of English and Japanese. Sometimes we even use half-words of each language, like, guesuru, which isn’t part of either language. It is partially English—“guess,” and Japanese—“suru,” which means something like “to do.” We often say, “Test de gesutta!” which would mean that we totally guessed on every question on our test. In this way, by using both languages, we can communicate more efficiently and accurately to each other.

Pratt, when sharing her ideas on language or “speech communities,” notes how “descriptions of interactions between people in communication… readily take it for granted that the situation is governed by a single set of rules or norms shared by all participants” (Pratt 4). Here, she explains how people who go to international conferences or observe intercultural connections, don’t realize how blessed they are to understand both the verbal and physical communication; English, normally the shared language at such gatherings, is only a set of rules that everyone abides to so that the observers and participants can communicate effectively. But is their communication actually effective? If there are so many “speech communities” which are “held together by a homogeneous competence or grammar shared identically and equally” (Pratt 4), such as English, or Japanese, or even the contact zone of the languages—my school, and each word has a different meaning, then wouldn’t there be an infinite number of words? If you think about it, words are only sounds which express an idea—nothing more. But each word in every language expresses a different idea; they might be similar, but they aren’t the same. So when one at an international conference explains an idea, could they have used another set of words from another language to better explain it to their audience? Unfortunately, not everyone, including me and my friends, understands all languages and, consequently, is limited by the small number of words spoken in their group.

But why are these words different? How does each language develop with a different feeling? This is what I learned on the day that I and my brother fought over the DS. Recall, closely, which words are spoken in what language. I realized that words that express respect and encourage empathy are spoken in Japanese, while the words that were definite and sharp-edged were in English. Why might I and my brother have unconsciously used a different language for these different feelings? I related this to what I thought was the best explanation—cultural values set up a language; the words that are created in a “speech community” are derived from the morals that are set up high in the culture.

The American culture seems to focus on “individuality” and “freedom.” The ideas developed in the U.S. seem to be centered on the idea of independence; the American flag, Fourth of July, voting ballots, democracy and other such concepts have a lot to do with freedom of choice. To Americans, independence is important. Being firmly grounded in your own ideas and having a defined opinion about controversial topics, is valued since it implies that you are taking advantage of your freedom. I think that most people understand how this comes from the history that the United States has gone through—the civil war, trading, the depression, etc.

The American culture differs from the Japanese culture where it’s important to value the opinion of the group more than your own. A common stereotype of the Japanese is that they are very serious, aren’t able to take humor and are perfectionists. This, to some extent, might be true to an American. My idea—and many of my Japanese school friends’ idea of the Japanese is that the humor in Japan is expressed in a different way; unlike the American culture, it is hard to find humor based off of racial, political or sexual basis. Different puns, jokes, and sarcasm are used by comedians. Also, the connections between strangers in Japan are different. Dave Barry, an American comedian who visited Japan for a month, explains this in his book, Does Japan. He notes that “the Japanese [treated strangers] politely; they rarely treated [them] warmly” (Barry 207). The Japanese aren’t heartless; the respect that is portrayed in Japan to friends and family often comes from genuine kindness. If a Japanese person were to see the Americans interact with strangers, they might find the light manner as “rude” and “uncaring” instead of “friendly.” (In fact, there isn’t really a word for “friendly” in Japanese.)

My point in bringing this up is to explain how the way of thinking is simply different in Japan. It isn’t weird—just different. In other words, what is weird to one person might be normal for another born with different cultural values. I often think of how there isn’t a “normal” person in the world since everyone is different. No one in this world is “weird” either since everyone has different values, personality and appearance. It is normal to be weird, and weird to be normal. As part of bicultural group such as my Japanese school, we start to accept this idea to the point where nothing seems unreasonable—there might be someone out there experiencing a “weird” idea already.

Respect in Japan is very important. Bowing, greetings, traditions and language are developed around the idea of “respect.” Barry says “you find people respecting each other’s property, and respecting each other” (Barry 208). Even a short term visitor like Dave Barry notices this value of respect in a foreign country. This isn’t to say that the Americans lack respect. In fact, I shouldn’t even refer to this “respect” concept as “respect” since the word for “respect” that I’d like to use in this case, is in Japanese. In Japan, “respect” towards someone expresses more than just “politeness.” It has a feeling of affection, care and warmth. So, as a tourist, Dave Barry might have been seeing what is very kind and caring to the Japanese, as detached manners. This cultural value of “respect” and “politeness” generates from the generations of history and change that a country, city or person goes through. Just like individuals are different because of their genetics as well as how they grow up, countries and cultures are also different because of their history and location. So, as the Japanese culture developed over the centuries, it changed into a society of homogeneous and respect-oriented people.

These cultural differences are actually reflected in the languages of each country. In Japanese, words are developed around the idea of “respect” and “conformity.” In America, words are developed around the idea of “independence” and “pride.” You can see this in the simplest of examples such as the word, car. Car in English generally gives people the feeling of freedom and independence because it is the first step to adulthood for many in the United States. Maybe in Britain it would give off a different feeling since they are part of a different “speech community.” I certainly know that kuruma in Japanese, which is known to mean car, to me and many of my Japanese school friends, is defined as a means of transportation but it implies uniformity. This is because we imagine the lanes and lanes of identically white or maybe monotone, small and perfectly parked cars lined up in an inside parking lot in Japan, when we hear the word kuruma. The English word symbolizes independence for many, and the Japanese word might imply uniformity for others.

Cultural qualities are hiding behind the dictionary definition of every word. Here, although I don’t understand every language and culture, I’m assuming that all languages form around what a “speech community” values the most—its cultural values and way of thinking. James Paul Gee says that “words have histories; they have been in other people’s mouths and on other people’s pens.” Each word is much more than a simple definition, and instead, is a collection of ideas that the people in the community have hidden behind it.

The language—the culture portrayed behind each word, shades the Japanese school students’ thinking—the bilingual’s thinking. They are able to understand and respect the individuality in each culture because they realize the complex differences between even the simplest words. But this doesn’t start with language—it starts with the culture in the language. I have often asked myself the question—if I had a choice of knowing a language or understanding a culture, which would I want? At the moment, I would reply that I would rather understand the culture. You can’t know—truly understand a language, without understanding the culture because culture is what lies behind the “sound” or “noise” that people call “words.” When one of my friends is learning a new language I often notice that the dictionaries aren’t very useful. Even they, finding out the hard, embarrassing way, notice that translating dictionaries don’t do much good when trying to communicate with native speakers. You need to grow up with or somehow understand the cultural values in the speech community to speak a language truly fluently.

By understanding more than one culture and language, one develops the ability to accept cultural differences. They become open-minded. As a Japanese school student, I feel like I relate to my friends—not in how we are bilingual and have experienced the same cultures, but rather, that we can accept more than one correct way of thinking. In other words, the fact that my classmates are open-minded to differences is more important in my relationships than sharing the same two cultures. According to Writing Analytically, by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, “our opinions are learned. They are products of our culture and our upbringing—not personal possessions” (Rosenwasser and Stephen 23). Unlike opinions, “ideas” are arrived at after a long thinking process. My friends at my Japanese school, my brother, and I, have been developing—and will always be developing, ideas about languages and cultures. These ideas might be our “middle-ground”—the talent of being open-minded to all cultures and ways of thinking. Finding the middle-ground is part of our life because we were born in a contact zone of cultures; it’s necessary for us to develop a key for understanding others to survive the harsh conditions of living in two communities which tend to tear you in different directions.

I am the most comfortable in contact zones. In fact, I am a contact zone. I have the privilege of being born in a bicultural family. I can’t even begin to explain how thankful I am to grow up with two languages as my first language. I can’t explain the gratitude I feel towards my mom who enrolled me in Saturday school so that I can read, write, speak and think as any other16 year old in Japan can. I am truly blessed to live in the U.S. and understand both the Japanese and American cultures. Due to this privilege, I have experienced the cultural tension between my two cultures. This tension isn’t a fault. It is merely a side-effect, a middle-ground, and is a significant part of what makes bilingualism an opportunity. It is one of the factors of understanding which have helped me and my friends develop as open-minded human beings.

Works Cited

Barry, Dave. Does Japan. First. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession 91. New York. 1991.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Thomson Higher Education, 2006.

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