The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] There and Back Again [Chalice]

Presented March 8, 2009, by John Hayashi

Listen to a recording of "There and Back Again"
26:16 minutes - 10.5 MB - There and Back Again .mp3 file.

I'd like to start out with a little overview of my experience. From late March of last year until February of this year, a total of about 10 1/2 months, I was an exchange student in Japan. I lived in a fairly large suburb of Tokyo called Tama, about 25 miles west of central Tokyo and close to another city, Machida, where I attended school. For 10 1/2 months, I lived with a Japanese family, went to a regular Japanese high school where I was the only exchange student, and ate something like four bowls of rice every day. I learned the language, cramming hundreds of frustrating, beautiful characters into my head and struggling with a grammar so unlike that of English that I often felt like giving up, though in the end the rewards offered by my proficiency, namely, the ability to make and understand Japanese puns, satisfied me immensely. Immersing myself in a foreign culture made me think a great deal about not only Japanese culture, but also what we mean by "culture" in general, and how foreign countries like Japan are viewed in America.

Since I have returned to Quincy, countless people have asked me "So, how was it?" At first I couldn't respond. How would you respond if someone suddenly asked you "So how has your life been for the past 10 years?" - because that's what it feels like to me. To try to come to any final "conclusion", to be able to make some sweeping generalization about my experience in Japan is very difficult, and there is no way I could possibly cover all my impressions and thoughts in a brief, coherent answer, or even a twenty-minute talk for which I have had plenty of time to prepare. Therefore, today please bear with me as I jump from one subject to the next, with only some semblance of smooth transition.

Something nearly all foreigners anywhere have to deal with is being seen not as an individual, but as a representative of their respective country. This was especially difficult to get used to because in my day-to-day life in the US I almost never have to represent anything at all. Indeed, before I went to Japan I had given little thought to the fact that my ideas of whole countries had been shaped by a handful of friends. When I think of Russia, India, or Italy, one of the first things that comes to my mind is the people I know from those countries. In some ways this is a very good thing that shows how important it is to meet people from other countries, because it reminds us that these countries are just like the U.S.: filled with individuals, real people just like us. At the same time, this can be a dangerous thing because we forget that these couple of acquaintances are people we just happened to meet, people who likely have no intention or desire to represent their country, but who we, unthinkingly, cast in roles as The Russian, The Indian, The Italian, etc. As Donald Richie, the noted writer and film critic who has lived in Japan for most of his adult life, writes in his wonderful memoir The Inland Sea, "I answer as best I can, aware-as one is always in Japan-that I have ceased being myself. Rather, I have become-once again-a Representative of My Country. I cannot begin to describe the sensation except to assure you that it is both tempting and disagreeable. I find myself, quite suddenly, a spokesman, and my every word seems accepted as literal truth. At the same time I realize that these boys are not looking at me as another person more or less as themselves . . . .At such times I want to strike the table, stand up and bare my breast, strike attitudes, shout loudly that I am myself-take me or leave me. But I do nothing of the sort. I am patient, I pause, I consider. I become what every American longs to be-a teacher."

Before I went to Japan, I had a brief orientation where soon-to-be exchange students gathered and listened to a volunteer from AFS (my organization) tell us all about our responsibilities as ambassadors. I felt this responsibility particularly acutely because of the blow I felt America's reputation abroad had suffered due to a certain administration and its policies. I felt a responsibility to show people that although our leader at the time was elected "democratically", there were million of Americans strongly opposed to him and his policies. Wanting to project a positive image of my country, while at the same time wanting to be seen as an individual and not be pigeonholed as The American, I found myself in something of a quandary. Some questions were so ridiculous that I had no trouble answering, like "Where does your father keep his gun?" and "John, are all Americans as cheerful as you?" However, I was often asked questions like "What do Americans think of Japan?" which were complicated and terribly difficult to answer truthfully in any succinct way without descending into a "Well, you see, there are a lot of people in America, and I can really only speak for myself and those I know, though I have impressions of what other people in my country may think, but like anywhere it's hard to know what other people really think, and even though it's my own country there's an awful I don't know about it, and the answer I'm going to try to give might be completely off the mark, because most people I know live in what I consider to be a pretty atypical smallish town, and I have no idea of how representative of America as a whole my town is, though when I go other places I don't feel like things are that different, etc.", which is really no answer at all and is not something people want to hear, especially given my Japanese, which for a time would have rendered the previous rambling sentence completely understandable to anyone, including me. While I hated my identity as The American, I realized that we are to some extent products of the culture we grow up in and to try and establish myself as a super-individual would be foolish and wrong. So as I told my Japanese friends that my dislike of McDonalds is maybe not "normal", it also isn't very rare, and the same goes for my deep interest in foreign cultures and hate of coffee. Furthermore, perhaps the only truly unusual aspect of my personality, likes, and dislikes, I thought, is my fanaticism when it comes to puns (more on that later). I finally decided despite all the progress I had made rhetorically, I'd try to stick to being thoughtful and polite at all times and making friends, because really, people often care more about how you act than what you say.

I mentioned puns just now, which is something I'd like to speak about today. Any of those who know me well are probably aware that I consider a day without punning a day not worth living and often spend hours probing my brain for a pun to go along with a particularly difficult word. I feel like I should give an example of this, and since I so rarely have such a large, captive audience I hope you'll all bear with me and no feel too punished (pun intended). This is from a story I wrote for extra credit in my English class in 10th grade, a story I just found again the other day and although I feel maybe I was trying too hard to fit a pun in every sentence, it's still somewhat entertaining and very interesting for me to read two years later. It's called The Bear.

Once upon a time there was a large bear in a great forest who had the rather grisly habit of tearing rabbits in two. "It's tearible," remarked a wise old oak tree one day, "and I cannot bear it. He's so rough and unprecise about the whole business, he is not one to split hares . . . or is he?" The bear's crime was not completely unjustified, though, for there had been a rabbit crime ring that stole 16 ^carat^ gold bars. One day, however, the bear ran after a rabbit and found himself, no longer in the woods, but in a huge and incomprehensible maize of corn. The bear was terribly confused, he was so used to the quaint little trees of his forest, but these strange tall plants seemed to follow him, to stalk him. The bear made no sound, there were too many ears in the field. He tried to speak but his voice was strangely husky and, weirder still, hoarse. A noise started to approach the bear, it was a foreign, ugly noise that sounded like someone chanting "O, I'll wait till I plow my field. Wait 'til the banana law's repealed. Wait 'til baby calf meat's revealed. Wait till my ankle is heeled. And 'til then I'll put on weight. Wait, weight, wait!" The voice grew closer and from the stalks emerged a hulking mass of a man, who looked rather unpleasantly surprised to see the bear, especially in the bear's state of lost agitation. This pudgy peasant was not a sharp fellow in general, and, having never before crossed the border into bear country, knew nothing about the customs of bears, which could help explain why the fool was wearing a bear foot around his neck, which was furthermore a fake bear foot, committing the ultimate ursine faux paw. The man was able to sense the bear's rage and, his blood vessels nearly bursting in his bulging belly, tried a vein attempt at obeseance. Remembering the bows and arrows of cavemen who had hunted him, the bear misinterpreted the peasant's bow and, in one fell swoop, made the peasant lose his head.

A little longer an example than necessary, perhaps, but I had fun. Anyway, when I first went to Japan I had only learned one of the alphabets and knew only enough words to introduce myself and ask the way to the bathroom. It goes without saying that I was eager to pun in Japanese, but punning well requires a knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and idioms that was far beyond me. Immersing myself in the culture, I picked up the language fairly quickly, but still I would learn that the Japanese words for "island" and "stripe" are both pronounced shima, and while seemingly brimming with potential for punnery, I simply didn't have the tools to make a coherent verbal pun out of this happy coincidence of words. So what did I do? I drew a picture of a striped island, and wrote shima shima, stripe island, at the top of the page. My drawing skills are horrible, but I was able to make a pun, of sorts, in Japanese, a pun that made sense, and this was wonderful. This continued for months, even after I had learned how to speak Japanese, so that now I have a notebook filled with badly illustrated Japanese puns.

Furthermore, this punning helped me greatly in increasing my vocabulary. Living with a Japanese family, going to a Japanese school, being surrounded by the language all day, every day, I was constantly flooded with new words. The sheer volume of these new words was far too great for me to retain even 10% of the new words I heard everyday, so I had to rely on little devices to trick my brain into remembering them. Sometimes, for example when memorizing the word for narrow, semai, I'd come up with a saying like "I say my word. This road is certainly narrow." (Which, for someone growing up in Quincy and is living in Japan, is a pretty common exclamation.) When I learned that tako means "kite", "taco" and "octopus", I quickly drew an octopus taco on a string, with a little kid pulling it along below. This, and the joy I felt at creating something that was (to me) so hilarious, locked all of these words in my brain, where I expect they will remain for quite a long time.

Many people who struggle for a long time with a foreign language have very distinct memories of landmarks in their progress with that language: the first complete conversation about what I did today, the first complete conversation about Japan's embarrassingly inept and extremely unpopular Prime Minister, the first complete conversation about particle physics, the first time one asked the time, was understood, and received an accurate (and understandable answer), the first one comprehended an entire newspaper headline, there are all sorts. For me, those sorts of memories almost all have to do with puns. I particularly recall a day in mid-May, when I went to a sushi restaurant and learned that the Japanese word for salmon eggs, ikura, is identical in pronunciation to the word meaning "how much". After processing this, I came up with the sentence shake no tamago wa ikura?, meaning both "How much are the salmon eggs?" and "Are salmon eggs (called) ikura?". My pun was greeted with genuine laughter, and I was overjoyed.

At my school's beginning-of-the-year ceremony in early April, I gave a short speech, basically written by my host mother, in broken Japanese. I introduced myself, saying that among my hobbies were playing violins, listening to music, and oyaji gyagu, the Japanese words for puns. Gyagu comes from the English word "gag", and oyaji is a somewhat vulgar term for an old man, so the literal translation is "geezer gag", because those who tell them are so often elderly men. In my personal experience, too, old men make up a large part of the group of my Japanese acquaintances who love puns as much as I do. Following my speech, which I gave in front of the entire student body, I became something of a novelty: the foreigner who likes puns. I would be approached by complete strangers in the hallway, and taught classic Japanese puns, or asked to recite some of my own (though at the time there were very few that were actually my own). Especially at that time, it was a struggle to make friends, and puns and laughter helped immensely.

Continuing on my theme and language, I would get a little more philosophical, perhaps, and speak some about the connection between language and identity. Language is a very important factor in how we define our identity, as shown by the drastic varieties of ways of speaking found in different speech communities, which can be any sort of group, from something large like a whole ethnic group, to something small like members of an online fan group of a particular video game, to something tiny like the so-called "secret languages" that sometimes develop between twins. A single person can often be a member of several different speech communities, and that person's way of speaking will likewise differ from one situation to the next.

Before going to Japan, I had never given much thought to the fact that my own language changes, though not drastically, when I am speaking to friends, family or strangers. When I got to the point where I could speak well in Japanese, though, I felt like a different person, because I was speaking Japanese. When I speak Japanese, I use words and expressions that do not exist in English, I am never sarcastic and rarely ironic, I use "masculine" words so plentiful in Japanese but so few in English, I am in general more reserved in my manner when not with good friends, and I conjugate my verbs and prefix my nouns to be polite when necessary.

That is, I found that the Japanese-speaking John and the English-speaking John are not the same person. Interestingly enough, there has been some scientific research on this very topic. In a study focused on communication between bilingual couples, the linguist Ingrid Piller writes "The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960's, Ervin found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too . . . .When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus "When my wishes conflict with my family . . . " with "It is a time of great unhappiness" in Japanese, and with "I do what I want " in English." Another study by the linguist Aneta Pavlenko showed that many multilinguals did feel like different people when they spoke different languages, largely because the language they were speaking identified them as a member of a community and culture, and therefore their way of speaking and behavior also changed.

I was surprised to find so much research on something to me that had just been a feeling, and the way that personality is affected by language goes to show what strong forces influence our behavior, often without our knowing it. I reacted negatively to being seen as The American, I wanted to be an individual, just me, myself, but I eventually found, in some ways, how little control I have over it at all.

©2009 John Hayashi

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hayashi, John. 2009. There and Back Again, /talks/20090308.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.