Jeff Smith noon, Nov. 24
- Community Blog
- Confessions of a South Bay Baby
Learning Japanese at Forty
It’s nine-thirty on a Tuesday evening, and I’m cramming for a test. In front of me, on my dining room table, is a small stack of homemade flash cards. All of them bear symbols that are both strange and beautiful looking. They are hiragana and katakana – the primary letters of the Japanese alphabet. For the past hour, I’ve been trying – and mostly failing – to commit these letters to memory.
Ten minutes later, I put down my flash cards with a sigh. Things are not going well. The Japanese alphabet consists of over three thousand letters, and I’m still struggling to remember the first twenty. At this rate, I’ll never pass tomorrow’s exam, which is for an adult language class I’m taking at night.
Discouraged, I rise from my chair and get ready for bed. As I do, I ask myself the following question: is it truly possible to learn a new language at forty? Especially one as complex and demanding as Japanese?
Much of the scientific evidence suggests no. According to recent studies, the human mind gets slower with age. This is especially true once we hit the big 4-0. At that point, the genetic material within our brain cells slowly begins to disintegrate. And the first genes to go are the ones related to memory and learning.
So if that’s true, then why am I doing this? And why now?
In the end, I think the answer lies with my upbringing.
I’m what the Japanese call a hafu – someone who’s ethnically half-Japanese. I was born in Japan in 1971, to a Japanese mother and an American father. My birthplace was the Atsugi Naval Air Base, where my dad worked as a civilian employee. I lived the first year of my life in Japan, until dad retired from his job and returned to the United States. When that happened, I traveled five thousand miles west to a new home – the great city of Chula Vista.
What followed was a very Americanized childhood. Like most kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I saw Star Wars a hundred times, ate countless hamburgers at McDonalds, and obsessively watched TV shows like Happy Days and Donnie & Marie. Although I looked different from the other children in my neighborhood, I didn’t act different. I wouldn’t have even known how.
I’d like to say I was curious about my Japanese heritage, but the opposite was closer to the truth. To me, Japan seemed like an odd, distant land. Everything about the place – the people, the culture, the religion, the language -- struck me as unappealing. By my early adolescence, I had essentially turned my back on all of it. As my mother once told me wistfully, “you don’t want to have anything to do with Japan.” And that was my attitude right up until my mid-thirties.
Why was I so hostile to Japan? I suppose it was mainly because I disliked being unique. Back when I was a child, Chula Vista was hardly a center of diversity. Mostly it was a white neighborhood with a growing Hispanic minority. There were few Asian faces and even fewer Japanese faces. And like most kids, I hated the idea of being one-of-a-kind. My only real priority was fitting in. To me, this meant embracing the values and culture of the west.
It also didn’t help that my childhood was virtually barren of Japanese culture. I never heard a Japanese song. I never saw a Japanese movie or TV show. I never read a book about Japanese history or culture. Due to a shortage of funds, I was never even able to visit Japan and meet my Japanese relatives. So for all practical purposes, Japan was invisible to me. And because it was out of my sight, it was also out of my mind.
But then something happened. Something that changed my attitude dramatically.
It was the death of my mother three years ago. Her passing left a void in my life, one that felt almost impossible to fill. Suddenly I felt consumed by a need to understand her better. To understand the forces that shaped her spirit and her character. And in order to do that, I felt I needed to learn more about Japan.
To assist in this quest, I turned first to the Internet. And what I discovered there was astounding.
A vast amount of Japanese culture was now available on-line. Through the magic of streaming video, it was now possible to watch many of the most popular Japanese movies, television and music programs. And even more astounding, much of this material was available with English subtitles. For the first time in my life, I would be able to see and understand the popular culture of my mother’s home country.
And so for nearly an entire year, that’s exactly what I did: I sat down and watched hundreds of hours of Japanese drama, comedy, and musical performances. And what I discovered was that it was good. Extraordinarily good. And it was filled with people who thought and acted in similar ways to my mother. It turns out she wasn’t as unique as I first thought. Instead, she was part of a larger society. A society that I was slowly falling in love with.
Six months ago, I decided to take my love of Japan to the next level: I wanted to learn the Japanese language. So I signed up for a class. That’s why I’m here at my dining room table, at the age of forty, with a bunch of flash cards in my hand.
I know my progress will be slow. Maybe it will take me a decade to learn this language, perhaps even longer.
But it’s a journey that I will enjoy.
And at my age, that’s all that matters.