To have another language is to possess a second soul.
It began as a routine trip to Borders. Once we had arrived at the mega bookstore (or as I sometimes refer to it, the FAO Schwartz for the literate), David went in search of a copy of American Art Collector (the most recent magazine to feature his fine art photography) while I scoured the display tables for anything new and promising in paperback. When David returned to my side ten minutes later, five hopeful prospects had already been tucked under my arm."No luck, huh?" I said, indicating his empty hands.
Shrugging, he said, "I guess I'll have to be patient and wait for the copy they're sending."
"Better you than me," I joked. "With the patient thing, I mean -- you're much better at it than I am. Here, be my boyfriend and carry my books for me?" I struggled to look coquettish while handing off my heavy treasure. Reaching the T at the end of the aisle, I turned right toward the language section rather than left toward the cashiers.
"You still want to learn Japanese?" I asked David, who was following close behind, sifting through my selection. This is how big things sometimes begin -- with a simple question. David's baby blue eyes shot up from the book jacket they'd been examining and he flashed his teeth and dimples in a quick smile. "I'll take that as a yes," I said, before turning around to scan the language aisle shelves for the letter J.
David has occasionally mentioned the three semesters of Japanese classes he took before we first met. He has frequently expressed his desire to get back to his lessons, but despite his interest, he hasn't made the time. It takes more than intention to bridge the gap between wanting to do something and actually doing it -- it takes enthusiasm, which is where I came in. David handed me back my stack of novels, sat on the floor, and began sifting through the binders of Japanese language workbooks. A flutter of excitement coursed through me. I was about to discover something new , to demystify and understand a foreign language, which would forever change my perception of the world, and I couldn't have been any more impatient to get started.
I thought about our choice to learn this language over the many others that seemed so much more practical. I knew why David had chosen it -- one need only spend some time with him or simply glance at his space or his art, without ever sharing a word, and instantly understand his strong attraction to the Japanese culture and aesthetic. I remember the first time he took me to a sushi restaurant. The sushi chef had asked David where he had learned to handle his chopsticks, for his table manners were on par with what the chef himself had been trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his teenagers.
Simply drop the first letter from my love's name and you are left with his zest for all things proper. Much of the Japanese culture is based upon this sense of formal politeness for which David strives. This was evident in one of the first phrases he learned in class -- osakini , an apology used when one is first to leave a room that literally translates as "Pardon my going first before you."
When we arrived home, I removed the books one at a time from the large plastic bag and set them side by side on the counter, but not before inspecting the clean, smooth jackets and diving nose first into the pages, where I simultaneously tested the texture beneath my thumb and sniffed deeply of the printed paper, my favorite perfume. The workbooks were the last to come out of the bag. I placed them left to right in the order they would be tackled: Hiragana, Katakana, and Japanese for Busy People I (the Kana version).
"I would love to read haiku poems in their original form," David said, leaning over me to finger the hiragana workbook. David, who would rather sit on a cliff and lose himself in the rhythm of the waves crashing below than attend any party or see any movie, has a reverence for nature that borders on Shintoism. The simple, elegant, and nature-inspired poetry native to Japan encapsulates those qualities he holds most dear. "You know," he said, "in Japan they honor and cherish nature. Everybody, whether they're young, old, men, or women, everybody gets excited about the cherry blossoms every year. Many of them believe that a rock or a mountain can have the same kind of soul that a person has."
Detecting the note of profound respect in David's voice, I smiled at him and then looked down at the 46 elaborate, picturesque characters printed within squares that were neatly stacked in a way that was reminiscent of the Periodic Table of Elements I had studied in my high school chemistry class. They looked like the marginal doodles of an expert calligrapher. Loops and lines, meticulous strokes, there was that flutter again -- this was all so foreign .
"You know why I want to learn Japanese?" I asked David. He looked at me in expectation. "Because I want us to be able to talk about people who are right in front of us without them knowing what we're saying." I took delight in imagining the expressions that would appear on the faces of confused shoppers upon overhearing two gaijin like David and me using the Asian language to discuss the price of ground turkey. (Gaijin is the Japanese word for any person who is not Japanese -- literally translated, it means "barbarian.")
"Yeah, that would be fun," he said, but he knew we'd both cringe at the thought of being so rude as to deliberately exclude someone from our conversation. I conjured the image of an impressed-looking sushi chef who had just heard me casually ask him to pass the soy sauce in his native tongue.
"I mean, aside from the fact that we plan to visit Japan someday," I said, tracing my finger along the character that looks like a horseshoe. "I want to learn Japanese because it's a cool thing to do."
"Me too," said David.
Coolness was a factor not to be underestimated, but my real reasons remained unarticulated. Like David, I am taken by the language's grace and formality, and a part of me believes that learning to speak it will help me to obtain these traits. But it was more than that. I needed something like this. I needed a project in which I could immerse myself, and not just any project, but one that required some level of isolation.
Language is the tool that brings people together, but in learning Japanese, I finally saw that language could also be used to distance oneself. I have these phases during which I just want to get away -- shut off my phone, drive somewhere far and simply be .
Now, instead of hopping in my car and disappearing, I can virtually escape to a far-off land. I can process my thoughts in a foreign tongue and watch simple objects around me transform into something exotic and new -- a chair is not just a chair anymore, it is also an isu. My hand is also a te, and my eye is one of two meh .
"I can't really explain it right now," I said to David, who was bent over, balancing himself on the counter with his elbows and flipping through the katakana workbook. When he glanced up at me I chided myself for assuming he had any way to know what I'd been thinking. That happens when you spend as much time with someone as I spend with David -- you begin to assume he can see your thoughts. "But I'm really happy we're doing this," I continued. "And it's going to be so much easier and a lot more fun because we're doing it together."
" So desu ," David said softly, and I thought perhaps he had heard the inner workings of my mind after all. "It means, 'that's right.'"
"Yeah," I agreed. "So it is. I mean, so desu ."