I look back across my life and wonder at the time and space that extends from now into the past. As many of us deep in middle age can attest, our life experience makes a storyline from the time when my father took me fishing and I caught a fish at eight years old or my uncle taking me out on the road as I learned to drive a car, or failing a math test, or changing a diaper or trying to remember where I left the keys. Each event, each experience becomes a story in our heads as we gobble up experience after experience, loading our minds with these moments.
But what if instead of waiting for an experience we dove headlong into one? What if you decided to climb Everest at 50? or take on a very challenging project? Those thoughts, about going into an adventure or path or course of study with purpose is what brought me to studying Japanese from an old textbook in Albuquerque New Mexico in 2015.
For years, I wanted to study an Asian language. I started with Tibetan because of my practice in Vajrayana Buddhism. The problem was, I found the access to information and sources very limited. Online sources can only take you so far and access to books and review materials is scant (especially if money is a limiting factor).
Before leading a group of students to China in 2006, I dove head first into Mandarin after being given a huge set of textbooks and cassette tapes to study. I memorized the characters and could recognize a few of the 2500 or so in daily use in China. The problem was my pronunciation was weak (at best) and the time it took to practice the spoken language outstripped the time I had available.
A couple of years later, I thought about learning Japanese. As I got to understand some of the language, I realized that the work I had done in Mandarin helped support my understanding of Japanese as many of the characters I studied were roughly related to Japanese kanji. A friend gave me an old Japanese language textbook and I started to dig in. Opening the textbook for the first time was overwhelming. While Mandarin characters had a specific pronunciation associated with the ideograph, Japanese Kanji had multiple pronunciations, adapted from the Mandarin and identified with native phonetic pronunciation. Almost every character in Kanji had two (or more pronunciations: the Chinese ON and the Japanese KUN pronunciations.) That first hour of reading threw me into a kind of tailspin….HOW was this process easier or better or more time efficient than learning Tibetan or Mandarin? And, as I am sure you are wondering, what the hell was I doing trying to study an Asian language in the first place?
I did some deep soul searching about what I wanted to accomplish. What purpose did studying an Asian language serve? I mean really, what was the whole point of delving into a language I was likely never to hear spoken in Albuquerque New Mexico?
Truthfully, my drive to understand another non-western language was a desire to know. Since I was a small child, I have wanted to know and understand all kinds of things from the place where a piece of Edwardian furniture was made to listening to the stories of elderly folks in Georgia. I wanted (and want) to know.
Some might call this desire an attempt at cultural appropriation. A way for me, one of the whitest people on the planet, to learn something to take, seize, steal, and appropriate for my own use. For example, taking someone else’s story about their life and use it in my own life. A means of appropriating ideas, emotions, thoughts and incorporating those lessons into my own psyche. Or maybe wanting to know is a kind of way to rise above; to create distance and space between the knower and those who know less. To create a kind of cultural and social hierarchy of knowledge that can be used to dominate and control.
Learning Japanese really wasn’t and isn’t about cultural appropriation at all. It was and is a chance to understand in a way I have never understood. Rather than appropriating the culture, I wanted to understand and, in a very real sense, engage with rather than dominate. I found my practice.