Are you keeping up with kids and the Japanese culture? You may be thinking it’s a good idea for your kids to learn Spanish…but that was so…80’s. How about Japanese? How many of your kids own a DSi, watch Anime or read Manga comics? My daughter has immersed herself in Japanese culture and frankly I’m having a hard time keeping up. She’s taught herself how to speak and read. It’s hard to find instruction in the Japanese language here in Central Florida so she did it herself. Hiragana and Katakana are the scripts and Romanji based on the Latin alphabet (I had to ask her). She knows the alphabets and the pronunciations…she is now building her vocabulary. It’s pretty scary because when I see a symbol I have no idea how to look up the translation.
In a futile effort to keep pace I purchased Rosetta Stone. We will see where that leads. But that’s not the point of today’s essay. In honor of Japan’s economy slipping to number three behind China I want to tell a story that I wished “never happened”…from a file I wish, “didn’t exist”.
A few weeks ago we were flying back from a visit to Northern Virginia. On the plane down to Orlando a family from somewhere in East Asia was sitting ahead of us. They were speaking in a language my daughter hoped was Japanese. We could not hear them clearly due to the din of the engines. With them was a little girl about my daughter age of eleven or twelve. The two girls kept making eye contact with each other but both were too shy to speak. My daughter wanted me to break the ice but I’m pretty shy about talking to strangers and the opportunity never presented itself.
Fast forward two hours and we are standing at the baggage carousel. The Asian family was still close by and in fact we were alone with them. It seems two sets of luggage remained behind at Dulles Airport although we were yet to figure that out. So with the unexplained spare time and some prodding from my daughter I was able to muster the courage to break the ice. I approached the women who appeared to be the little girl’s mother and asked her as innocently as I could what language she was speaking. She immediately smiled and in a very friendly voice said Chinese. My daughter was immediately bummed as I could catch her shoulders drooping in my peripheral vision. Undeterred and wanting to receive some credit for a long summer of self-study, rather than the possibility of creating an international incident, she blurted out, “I’m learning Japanese”. The nice women took it in stride and immediately delivered the accolades that my daughter was seeking. She said, “…Japanese was a good language to learn and that she must be very smart to learn Japanese”. But then she took it one step further. She said, “...Chinese was also a good language…and you should learn Chinese too because you might find it useful in about ten years”.
Before I had time to digest what she had said, she called over her sister and introduced her to my daughter. It turns out that although the mom did not speak Japanese, her sister did. And so began my daughter’s first cultural language exchange.
Meanwhile we figured out that our luggage was not coming so we moved our United Nations exchange over into the lost baggage office. While we waited at the desk out came my daughter's English to Japanese dictionary and the dialogue continued. Now I’m not trying to say this was a fluent conversation in Japanese. This was an exchange of words. How do you say this? How do you say that? But I was unable to keep up and it was clear my daughter knew what she was talking about. I was blown away. And then it was time to depart.
One thing my daughter has taught me in Japanese is how to say Thank You or Arigato. But that’s easy. What I didn’t know is that saying, “Arigato” alone is the casual form. If you want to be formal you say, “Domo Arigato”. Which is exactly how my daughter thanked her new language partner. Instinctively upon hearing the formal thank you the women stiffened, dropped her hands to her sides, and bowed to my daughter. It blew her away…and I was speechless. It was really cool for my daughter and more than worth the drive home without our luggage, which wouldn’t be delivered until the morning.
But as we were driving home my mind reached back for the quote that was so innocently dropped on us by the nice women from China. “…you should learn Chinese too because you might find it useful in about ten years”. Was it a threat? Was it useful advice? For now I’m going with useful advice but with today's news about China over taking Japan to become the world’s second largest economy I might just be shelling out a few more bucks for yet another version of Rosetta Stone…just saying.