Category Archives: Language

The Bald Ambassador

We had some business at the American embassy a couple of weeks ago. Because of the pissing match going on between the spoiled brats in Washington and Pyongyang, security at the embassy is tight. It’s a good thing we were early for our appointment because it took twenty minutes to get inside.

army knife with quarter

They didn’t go so far as a cavity search, but they did confiscate Rochi’s 1.5 inch Swiss army knife. It would have taken some pretty serious Shawshank Redemption style effort to do any damage with that. I was starting to lose my patience when, at the final checkpoint before entering the hallowed ground, a guard asked me to take off my head scarf. I stared at him, raised my hand as if to touch it and started to shake my head, “No.”

I’m usually a fairly cooperative and obedient citizen when it comes to things like that, where arguing usually causes more trouble than it’s worth, although it does piss me off when they make old ladies take off their shoes and get out of their wheelchairs to hobble through airport metal detectors. This wasn’t so very different from that. I understand security and one rule for everyone, but I will not be balded at the entrance to the embassy.

The guard stared back at me. I could see him mentally clicking through his training manual, then his eyes flew open and he said, “Gan desu ka? (Is it cancer?)” Too annoyed to be surprised at such a direct and personal question from someone it is safe to assume is a normally reticent Japanese, I raised one of what was left of an eyebrow and slowly nodded once. He let us pass.

As annoying as the experience was, the story gets better with time. I told a gay friend about it and he burst out laughing. “Did you just use ‘bald’ as a verb? I guess if you can ‘out’ someone, there’s no reason you can’t ‘bald’ them.” Indeed.

me in pink

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How to Name a Typhoon

Screenshot-2017-10-25 Typhoon Committee Typhoon Committee is an intergovernmental body organized under the joint auspices o[...]

When I went to bed on Sunday night, the media were calling #21 a massive typhoon (technically a tropical cyclone). It turned out to be a proverbial tempest in a chapot. I couldn’t sleep that night but that’s OK since I’ve always been a fan of violent weather. Well, almost always. When I was a little girl, there was a huge tree right outside my bedroom window and every time there was a storm, I was convinced the tree would fall onto the house and crush me to smithereens. I would cry and cry until one of my parents came up to comfort me. And, boy oh boy, the lies they made up to get me to shut up! One of them once said the roof was made of rubber so if the tree fell, it would just bounce back off again. I believed it. Kids are dumb.

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So I lay awake and listened as the rain pelted the windows and the wind whined a bit, but that was the extent of it. There were no broken flowerpots or tree branches, no upturned old ladies, no banshees wailed, no witches sailed past on broomsticks. Although it’s been raining for what feels like months, the typhoon passed by within an hour. Despite all the dire warnings, typhoon #21 inspired yet another media circus about a non-event.

The next morning I got a message from a friend in the States implying that the Western hemisphere is more civilized than this one because they use names instead of numbers for what they incorrectly call “hurricanes”. The US uses people’s names, alternately male and female. They were all female until 1979 when a lot of women burned our bras in protest and they changed the rules.

So I thought I should look into this matter.

It turns out that Asian typhoons do have names but we don’t use them here in Japan. There’s a super secret group called the ESCAP/WMO (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific/World Meteorological Organization) Typhoon Committee who are responsible for naming typhoons in the Western Pacific. The Committee has 14 member countries, all in Asia except, for reasons that escape me, the United States, who got together and made a list of names. Each country contributed five names and the names are used in sequential order according to the alphabetical ordering of the English names of the member countries, starting with Cambodia and ending with Vietnam. Our #21 was called Lan, a name contributed by the US. Last week’s typhoon, #20, was called Khanun, named by Thailand. Currently, #22, Saola (Vietnam), is kicking up her heels somewhere around Guam.

Japan’s contributions to the list include Kujira (whale) and Usagi (rabbit). I wonder who was responsible for that one? “Quick! Latch all the windows and hide the cabbages and carrots! Typhoon Bunny is coming!”

Long story short, it turns out that the reason we use numbers instead of names is that many of the names on the list are too hard to pronounce in Japanese, which has a very limited syllabulary, and our newscasters are very lazy indeed.

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Mystery solved.

 

Stasis

On the plus side, the sun is shining and  the sakura is popping.

On the minus side, I’m stuck in a third basement studio all day.

On the plus side, this morning’s yoga was particularly pleasant, accompanied as it was by two fuzz  monkeys rasseling in the corner, and neither of them peed in the bed today.

On the minus side, my knees hurt and my claustrophobia won’t let me ride in the coffin-sized elevator so walking down the stairs to the studio was hard.

On the plus side, I’m getting paid to sit on this comfortable couch and share these thoughts with you.

Also on the plus side, I discovered this morning that they’re finally changing the name of my bus stop. I doubt you can begin to grasp how humiliating it is to get off at Nichidaiseibutsushigenkagakubumae. As of April 1, it will be simply Nichidaimae.

For some reason, this makes me very happy.

Nichidai

I assume this is not an April Fool’s joke. I sincerely doubt the bus people have that  much of a sense of humor. Bus stop naming is serious business, after all.

So all in all, the plus side wins. Yay!

Murder Is Bad

murder-meme1Peas and Cougars is one of my favorite blogs and the woman who writes it, Rae, pointed out that I would be a bad person and bad things would happen to me if I didn’t share this meme. Just to be safe, I decided it deserved a whole blog post. Allow me to explain.

It’s true that English, especially American English, greedily gobbles up words from other languages, generally mangling the original pronunciation in the process. Excellent examples include kimono, karate and karaoke. I learned the latter here, so the first time I heard it in the States, I had no idea what the person was talking about.

American friend: The place has carry-okie on Thursdays.

Me: Oh, is that some kind of ethnic food?

The other day, we were recording some English lessons for sixth graders and part of one lesson was, ‘I want to be…’ We had ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be a farmer.’ ‘I want to be a patissier.’ The narrator pronounced that last word American style with a hard R at the end. I told the client the correct pronunciation, pointing out that since it was not an English word, we should probably use the proper French pronunciation. Better yet, we could use the perfectly good English equivalent, ‘baker’.

Client: Oh, no. We can’t change the word and we have to use the American pronunciation.

Me: But it’s not an English word. There isn’t an ‘American’ pronunciation. If you say that word to the average American, they won’t know what you’re talking about.

Client: That’s OK. Japanese understand it.

Me: (Carp face.) Uh…OK.

There was a time when such an exchange would send me into a murderous rage, causing my head to explode and raining sticky bits of brain onto the client and anyone else unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby.

But that didn’t happen. I shrugged. I sighed. I let it go.

Meditation Cat says…

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Yoga is good. Meditation is good. Not murdering anyone is very good.

Another Grand Day Out

Destination: Yokohama

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Maya wanted to go to Chinatown and that seemed like a good idea, so we headed there in time for lunch.

The thing with Chinatown is there are about a gazillion restaurants to choose from. We knew enough to stay away from the fancy ones on the main drag (Bah! Those for the tourists!) but that just left a half gazillion smaller ones on side streets. I figured it was best to just dive in, so chose one because the woman standing outside trying to coax us in had a Chinese accent–usually a good sign.

We got lucky. We ordered and then indulged ourselves in a feeding frenzy worthy of several schools of piranha who had been locked in a closet for a few weeks. Chopsticks flashing faster than a Benihana chef’s knives, we devoured everything except the furniture. Yum! ‘Nuf said.

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So we hauled our bloated bellies toward Yamashita park and the port area where we saw a stingray. That doesn’t often happen. I morphed myself into E.T. to take the picture. (See shadow.)

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We next visited the doll museum which is rather boring but at least everyone else thinks so, too, so nobody was there. We enjoyed the peace and air conditioning.

Then there was this: Marine Tower.

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I have always avoided Tokyo Tower and have no interest in Skytree but we’d been looking for new experiences.

I had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

It’s only 94 meters tall. That’s about 30 stories. I’ve been up buildings taller than that. No bid deal, I thought. So we got into the elevator to go up. And the little glass box started to rise…and rise…and rise.

“Oh, cool. It’s a see through elevator. Love those. Look at the steel girders sliding by. Oops. What was that? My stomach just hit the floor. Uh-oh. Can’t breathe. Was that Willie Wonka and Charlie I just saw flying by? There goes the wicked witch on her broomstick. And wasn’t that Harry Potter chasing a Golden Snitch? This can’t be happening. Help. HELP! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

And then the doors opened. We crept out, hugging the internal wall. I could barely move and could feel myself shaking.

“Oh, no. That’s not you,” said the affable woman wiping fingerprints off the glass. “It’s quite windy today so this thing wobbles all around. I have to keep the glass very clean or people get dizzy trying to focus on the distance.”

Oh, my.  Do.Not.Retch.

And to add terror to an already frightening experience, there was this:

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Maya is not clowning. You step onto that sheet of plexiglass and your heart plummets to the depths of hell. You can feel your soul being sucked out through the soles of your feet. Not for the faint of heart, my friends.

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After a while, I did manage it, but what you can’t see is that I am staring resolutely into the distance, my white knuckled fingers making indentations in the wooden handrail.

Closed eyes, deep breathing and a meditation mantra are the only things that got me back into the elevator and down to street level.

Been there. Done that. Don’t ever have to do it again. Amen.

By comparison, the ride home on the nearly empty train felt like pure bliss. We were only going forward, not up, and the gentle side-to-side rocking was a comfort, not the erratic shudders of a spindly tower with the structural integrity of a Slinky.

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Maya has made an impressive effort to learn reading and writing. As we pulled into our station she turned to me looking perplexed and asked, “Garbage is dangerous?”

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Well, yes, that’s pretty much what the sign says. One of the things that makes Japanese so difficult is that even when you can read something, that doesn’t mean it will make any sense. While the illustration shows a relaxed looking hand calmly dropping a piece of paper, which didn’t strike either of us as particularly dangerous, what the text implies is that it is dangerous to toss garbage over the wall and into the street. The thinking is that if they use an illustration of, say, a tattooed thug tossing a beer bottle over the wall, then that’s what will happen. Or something like that.

(Gallic shrug.) It is what it is.

We ate, we laughed, we had a lot of fun. Once again, it was worth the effort and I’m glad we went.

P.S. Diana, this is for you. It’s the hotel where Napolitan spaghetti was invented. You’re welcome.

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Good-bye, Testicles

We’re in the process of filming a couple of very basic English education videos for 3-4 year old kids. “Tedious” is a monstrous under-description of what that entails, and I have to be there  and conscious for every pains-taking, aching, dragging, agonizing minute. In the early days, I often went nuclear: “For Pete’s sake, it was fine the first 47 times! Why do we have to do it again?” But I’ve learned a lot over the years. There are still so many technical things that I don’t understand. There is almost always a reason why thirty or so people are standing around waiting with our thumbs up our noses. At this point, I could walk Job through Patience 101; one would not survive this kind of work otherwise.

It helps that the work is sometimes rather surreal. After all, what video would be complete without a potato salad Christmas tree?

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAnd Kiko’s Dorothy Gale Meets Barbie the Hooker costume was hard to ignore. I may have nightmares about it. I know she does.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAOn the second day, I was sitting with Randy and Melinda. Randy is the funnyman in this series of videos, a down home Southern gentleman from Alabama and qualified circus clown. He wasn’t all that tired.

Melinda (the mother of the kid in the videos) and Skyla (the kid in the videos) had just flown in from the States, a fourteen hour flight. They’d come directly from the airport to the studio. They were tired.

I had sat through fifteen hours of filming the day before and we were coming up on the eighth hour of the second day with no end in sight, knowing we had two more interminable days ahead of us. I was tired, too.

And that’s when the sillies kicked in. I discovered a collection of truly inappropriate children’s literature

testicles…that had sent the three of us into paroxysms of giggles.  Most of the crew smiled indulgently at our antics.

Eventually, near silence once again descended. Melinda was shopping online. I was doing an online jigsaw puzzle. Randy was playing a game. It was pretty quiet.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAWithout warning, Randy (remember he has an Alabama accent) looked up and demanded to know:

Who you callin’ paranoid?

Fifteen minutes later, as we clutched our aching sides and wiped the tears from our faces, we finally pulled ourselves together. This time, most everyone ignored us.

After all, everyone knows all foreigners are nuts.

The Nicobitch

One of the latest manifestations of the Evil Nicodemon is flat out grumpiness. While it is perfectly normal and to be expected when one quits smoking, I was feeling pleased and even a bit smug that I hadn’t really had that problem. I mean, I’m a fairly grumpy person by nature, but quitting didn’t seem to make that any worse.

Then the other day I had a meeting. The woman I met with is nice enough and sometimes quite funny, but she’s also rather stupid (unfortunate) or at least pretends to be stupid (even worse). I’ve worked with her off and on for years and she never learns anything. So there I was explaining extremely basic grammar that I had already explained to her a hundred times and I started getting annoyed. Really annoyed.

Drawing by The Oatmeal Used with permissionDrawing by The Oatmeal. Used with permission

The more annoyed I got, the more nervous she got. She talks like a rapid fire machine gun anyway and it just got worse. After a while she might as well have been speaking Swahili for all I could understand. And to make matters worse, she kept touching my arm to try and calm me down, and this is simply not done in Japan. I actually shook her off at one point.  She was sitting next to me and I was sorely tempted to gently place my palm on the back of her head and then smash her face into the table.

As a freelancer, it is very important that I maintain a pleasant exterior. And while it is perfectly all right for me to not like people, it is not all right for me to let them know I don’t like them. Maybe I should change my name to Nicobitch.

I Think I Can Bear It

This has been one of those weeks where I really have to fight the urge to dig a hole and bury myself in it. I’ve still got this Sword of Damocles writing project hanging over my head, although I just finished half of it. As with many recent challenges in my life, it feels like I’ve reached the summit of yet another mountain and can now begin the descent toward the goal.

Twitchy remains one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and therefore a heartbreak since we still can’t touch her. I have to remind myself that she has a lot to learn. She’s never been a house cat before and doesn’t know how to do that. She doesn’t know what petting is or how good it feels. Her survival instinct is to see everyone and everything as a threat. So we just have to wait. She’ll come round when she’s ready. Yesterday as I was getting her dinner ready, she got so excited that she touched my leg with her nose and stepped on my foot. It’s progress and I’m grateful, but patience is not really my strong suit these days.

On Tuesday, I had a tooth pulled by the Happiest Dentist Ever. He chattered away, giggling even, the whole time he worked on my mouth. I wondered if he was nipping at the ether between patients. He gave me a cute little case to carry my tooth home in. (The tooth was gross. You don’t want to see it.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERABeing at the dentist is like riding in an airplane. Once they strap you in, everything is beyond your control so you might as well relax and make the best of it.  So I was trying to be mature and independent. After all, that tooth had been bothering me on and off since high school, so I was well rid of it, yet I couldn’t help wishing my mommy was there holding my hand. The Happy Dentist said the tooth should pop right out. “Here we go. 3…2…1…(yank, yank) 2…1…(yank, yank)” (Eda whimpers.) “2…1…(yank) There we are!” I don’t think I’ve ever actually whimpered before.

The next day, I had a meeting and the client, who is a sweetheart, told me that basically they wanted me to do an impossible amount of work in an impossible amount of time. I am not exaggerating; she wanted 72 five to ten line monologs/dialogs written in ascending difficulty and according to strict grammar and vocabulary guidelines and could I please finish by 4:00 because she has another meeting to go to. It was 2:30.

I try to be professional and cooperative. If I wasn’t already suffering from chemical warfare in my brain, I might have laughed out loud, but my chin started to quiver, and I thought, “Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to lose it. I’m going to start sobbing right here in the office. Everyone will see me as an incompetent loser. I might as well become the bag lady that I am at heart. I will just collect my things and go sit on a bench in the park for the rest of eternity, birds nesting in my hair, dogs peeing on my ankles.”

Instead, I did carp face, opening and closing my mouth but not managing to say anything. In the end, we did as much as we could, which was most of it, but I’m not vouching for the quality.

And then it was back here to the computer slogging through the seemingly endless writing project. So I did this yesterday…

140718_1303~02…and it helped.

And tomorrow I’m going blueberry picking. I think that will help, too.
The world is a better place because of blueberries and bears.

Clear as Mud

So “advise” is a verb and “advice” is a noun. I can advise you or give you advice, but I can’t advice you or give you advise.

Advise is spelled with an “s” but pronounced with a “z”. Advice is spelled with a “c” but pronounced with an “s”.

Then there’s “vice” and “vise” which have totally different meanings but are pronounced the same.

And we wonder why Japanese have trouble with English spelling.

Go figure.

A Samurai Tale

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAllow me to introduce Tony and Scott, two wild and crazy Canadians living in Osaka. They were in town to record songs for a kids’ show. One of the songs was Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. Tony kept singing Christmas Tree instead. After the 4th or 5th take, he got rather frustrated and said quite clearly and directly into the mic, “F*ck!” Everyone in the control room seemed to understand but we were cool about it.

Later during a break, Tony told us studies have been done that show just how powerful that word is. In pain studies, people who said it loud and proud felt less pain than people who didn’t. Then he wondered if there are any words in Japanese that have the same power. Nobody could think of one. Scott suggested that maybe that has to do with the high value traditionally put on stoicism in the face of adversity.

“Right, ” said I. “Can you imagine a Samurai plunging his dagger into his belly and yelling, ‘F*ck! That hurts!'”

“No,” said Scott. “He just leans forward and patiently waits for his pal to chop his head off.”

“Unless this happens,” said I. “Tony, you idiot! You missed! F*ck!”

And Scott replaced his missing scalp with a leftover lettuce leaf.