Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The "Shoulds"

Since discontinuing new posts to my old blog about 5 months ago, I've continued to receive new comments. Because the blog is, for all intents and purposes, an archive and not an active blog, this is rather puzzling. People are clearly not paying attention to the dates on the posts when they read them or are indifferent to the fact that what was said was sometimes said a year ago.

Some of the comments are clearly spam and I reject those ones. Some of them are from thoughtful people who found my blog after I put it down for a permanent nap. A handful of them are from hateful, angry people who feel that I'm their dog to kick after a bad day at work. The last group of people are the ones that are the most irritating as I don't like being the virtual punching bag for anonymous people's negative energies. More often than not, these angry posts take one sentence or portion of a post out of context and leap all over me for it. One of them jumped on a post where I talked about studying Japanese saying essentially that the Japanese have nothing to say so who would bother waste their time studying the language. I didn't post that one.

A lot of the angriest commenters have been from people who have disapproved of how I choose to live my life in Japan and dictated how I should be living my life in Japan according to them from what I should eat to what I should watch on T.V. to what I should read. The most recent angry person was informing me that I ought to be using a Japanese operating system on my computer and I should be completely fluent in Japanese by now. I was accused of living in a "gaijin bubble" based on a small portion of one post. Trust me, my friends, when I say that I am so far from living in a nice, protective gaijin bubble that it's not even funny. Sometimes I wish that were the case because it'd be less stressful to retreat into a "gaijin ghetto" (like the nice, cushy one in Hiroo where all the gaijins living on expense accounts get to live) than to live amongst the seemingly ever-gawking, ever-pointing, ever-gossiping-about-me natives. Living in Tokyo for a very Caucasian (pale skin, blue eyes, red hair) person is like being African American in a rural all-Caucasian town in the U.S.

Getting back to my Japanese ability, I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not fluent by a long shot. However, I can and have used computers in Japanese (both PCs and Macs) for over a decade and the thought of using a computer in Japanese doesn't cause me the least bit of concern or stress. In fact, I could use a Japanese OS PC better than a Japanese person who could perfectly read every kanji character on the screen (not that I ever met a Japanese person who could read every character, oddly enough) because I knew what I was doing when it came to computers. Does that mean a Japanese operating system would be my first choice? No. Anyone who thinks a Japanese person in the reverse situation, but who is also fluent in English would ever choose an English OS over a Japanese one should think again. Like me, they may be able to use one in a foreign language, but they're more comfortable in their native language.

Every person in my former office needed to know their way around databases, printing, layout, e-mail and Internet searching techniques. Not one of the Japanese staff could type their way out of a paper bag and not one of them knew how to use a computer beyond the most rudimentary functions with the exception of my Aussie boss and I. One could say that they should know how to perform all the tasks on the computer that were a part of their job, but they didn't. Many of them worked there for years and still used Excel for any type of awkward-looking "layout" work (like making brochures or flyers) because it was the only piece of software at which they weren't utterly hopeless. I didn't judge them for their lack of proficiency. I just helped them when they needed help.

This is what a Japanese person has to remember to attempt to read English.

When it comes to reading Japanese, I can read the phonetic alphabets (of which there are two), but can't read many of the thousands of kanji. I have students who are 20 years old and can't read a newspaper without difficulty because they don't know the kanji, and I guess they should be able to read the paper in their own language. However, I'm not judging them because the whole system of using Chinese characters is stupidly complex, difficult to learn and easy to forget. It is so overwhelming that it takes the average Japanese child 4 years longer to reach a similar level of fluency as a Western child. By the time little Johnny in Ohio is reading at a 10th grade level, little Koji in Minato-ku at the same age is at a 6th grade level because he's bogged down learning kanji. It doesn't help that there are multiple readings for the same character such that Japanese people can't even get them right. I can't tell you how many times I've been told the wrong name for students because their names in kanji have different readings.

This is a bit of what you have to learn to read Japanese (not all 2000 "everyday" kanji pictured, obviously...yeah, that's right 2000 "everyday" characters almost all of them with multiple readings to memorize that vary based on the characters that precede them...there are more kanji than the "average" 2000). Click this picture to see a version that is large enough to make out the details.

I also teach a lot of women who are 25-35 years old and don't know how to cook, clean, or shop for themselves because they still live with their parents and their mothers have always done these things for them. I guess one could say that, by that age, they should be taking care of themselves and they should know how to cook, but really, how is that any of my business? It's not like I am going to have to take care of them in the future or pay for their restaurant meals when they can't prepare their own food.

One can go on and on and on about all the "shoulds" they could slap on other people as they judged other people's lives using their own choices and opinions as the yardstick with which they measure life's roads best taken. I'll admit that there are some "shoulds" that I wholeheartedly endorse. One is that people should be kind to one another. Another is they should follow the golden rule. They should also mind their own business. There is way too much judging going on in the world and far too many people using others as stepping stones for their egos.

I still try, occasionally, to work on my Japanese skill a bit at a time. I haven't given up entirely, but I'm not stressing out about it or pushing myself to pass proficiency tests to satisfy all the angry people out there who need validation for their choices in their lives by having me make the same ones. I also don't buy into the notion that I have to try and be Japanese because I'm currently living in Japan. I'm never applying for citizenship. I didn't even apply for permanent residency (that'd be like a green card back home) even though I am qualified and it'd have saved me lots of annoying repeat trips to the hellish immigration office. I actively do not want to see being here as a permanent thing so I take it one visa renewal at a time. I'm not married to a Japanese person nor do I have kids in Japan. I don't plan on living here forever. I never planned on being here as long as I have and I have no plans to use Japanese in the future when I go back to the U.S. And, I get by with what I already know. In the end, how does my Japanese proficiency affect anyone's quality of life but my own?

I hate to add this but some arguments are so inevitable that they need to be forestalled. Before anyone says I force the Japanese to offer materials in English or hire English-speaking staff, this is not America where Spanish is rapidly becoming a default second language. The Japanese government does not offer help in English except for the immigration office (and only then as a limited phone line) and these services are paid for by people (like me) who pay a $40 per revenue stamp to get their work visas. Japanese taxpayers aren't forking over their dough to accommodate me.

(Note: I shut down comments on my former blog yesterday with some regret. It attracts too many jerks and too much spam. I regret it because I have run across some really nice people through their comments on that blog, even after it was shut down. The very charming and interesting Dateline Osaka came to my attention very recently through that blog. I'd hate to think that any other jewels like her are going to be missed because of the bad apples, but I've just grown weary of moderating certain types of comments.)