Clearly, I wasn’t going to fit in. I looked around the room miserably. The two other students, David and Carl, were way ahead of me in Japanese. I didn’t belong in an advanced class, but the other class was filled with students starting their second year of Japanese. I was ahead of them, but behind the advanced students. I was beginning to regret the intensive summer I’d spent at the Middlebury Japanese Summer School. Not only had I not fit in there either, but I’d hated every minute of it. I’d been in a class with a group of people who’d all used the same textbook and knew what itanda ebi were.
In 1976 there were just two choices for college level Japanese kyōkasho. My college used the less popular Nakajima and Young series. The vast majority of colleges used Eleanor Jorden’s books. Though we might have learned most of the same grammar points, the two texts seemed to have used entirely different vocabularies. Only one other student had used Nakajima and Young. He was an older man from Switzerland. Japanese was his fifth language and he wasn’t having the same adjustment issues as I had. In other words, he was having no pain.
To make matters worse, we were only to speak Nihongo, even outside of the classroom. This was a Middlebury rule, but the other language students were required to have three years of the language under their belt to even apply for summer school. It made sense for them. For us, not so much. My roommate and I cheated like crazy to stay sane.
Our director that year was a hard-nosed Japanese academic and she was determined to run things the Japanese way. We would all need exercise and she declared that volleyball practice was mandatory. I don’t do sports. I skipped. And she put her foot down. I immediately jammed my yubi during the next practice. It swelled up and a faint purple line appeared. Naturally, I asked to go to the clinic and naturally she told me it was fine. The next day she succumbed to the obvious and indeed my finger was broken; no more volleyball for me.
There was just a week between the end of Japanese summer school and the Associated Kyoto Program that I’d be participating in. I knew I wouldn’t fit in because I was not a student at any of the elite schools that made up the consortium. However, one of my sensei had served as a director for the program two years previously and he, well, pulled some strings. On the flight to Kyoto, students from each college sat together. I sat alone.
Still, though, I hadn’t anticipated that there wouldn’t be any other student at all at my level. I thought I’d finally be in a class where I could dig in and learn. No more “thirty kanji a day” memorization like I’d struggled with during the summer. I’d study hard, but it would be at a more normal pace. Meanwhile, David and Carl were already deep in discussion with our Sasaki-sensei, who was practically drooling over their linguistic magnificence. I hardly got a second glance. The textbook was boring. Did I really need to know how to say “feudal system.” (Unfortunately I still remember this word. See below for proof.)
I wasn’t fitting in at my homestay either. The Inoue family was nice enough, but they had two small otoko no ko and had always preferred to have young men stay with them. They ended up with me because at the last minute I got nervous about getting motion sickness during a bus or train commute and asked to be near campus. They were just around the corner and being able to walk to school in just a few minutes was great. Oddly enough, I never got motion sickness on the buses or trains of Kyoto, but I loved the neighborhood. The little boys were like aliens to me as all I’d ever experienced were my three younger sisters.
I had gotten sick though, the moment I arrived in Japan. It could have been the heat and humidity, the totally strange food, or the long plane ride. Before I knew it, I hadn’t really eaten in over a week and I ended up in the hospital. Looking back, I know there’s a word for it. Natsubate is what I had.
After spending a day or two in air conditioning and a day or two under the care of my director’s wife—who was Japanese-American, but knew darn well that chicken noodle soup would cure me—I moved in with the Inoue family. My director’s wife had kindly hinted to them that I could do with some American food to start with.
That first dinner I was served two small hamburgers and a side helping of frozen peas and carrots. And given a pair of ohashi. I looked around the table to see how I was supposed to manage the vegetables. Luckily I was an old hand with chopsticks so that wasn’t the problem. But was I to eat one pea at a time with them? The answer to that was, no. And for the first, but definitely not the last time, I was introduced to Kewpie mayonnaise in its convenient tube. Apparently we squirted it onto the vegetables and mixed it up a bit. It was then possible to eat the vegetables more easily with chopsticks. Unfortunately, I hate mayonnaise. I somehow ate the vegetables. Maybe I was offered a small fork. I don’t remember. But what I do remember is that there was no way I could eat two hamburgers. So I ate one of them and apologized and said I simply couldn’t eat them both. Mrs. Inoue was unfazed.
“That’s fine. You can have it for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
I smiled. Nice joke, I thought.
The next morning I got a piece of toast for breakfast on my plate next to the hamburger. Which was stone cold. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who eats cold hamburgers for asagohan? Friends later declared my homestay family as weird. But dinner leftovers often appeared at breakfast at any temperature. Eventually I even learned to eat curry for breakfast.
Mrs. Inoue was determined to have me eat a good breakfast. I’d come downstairs in the morning and cheerfully greet her saying, “No egg for me this morning, please” and go into the bathroom to wash my face. When I walked back into the kitchen she’d have a plate waiting for me. With a barely cooked fried egg on top of some even less cooked bacon. It was an impossible situation. It made me gag everyday. I got up earlier and earlier hoping to sneak out of the house without eating her breakfast. Yes. We were in a battle.
- itanda ebi – 痛んだえび Apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jorden that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jorden fail.
- kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
- Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
- yubi – 指 finger
- sensei – 先生 teacher. It’s also used as a suffix after the family name for teachers, professors, doctors etc.
- kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
- hōken seido – 封建制度 feudal system. Make sure you memorize this entirely useful phrase.
- otoko no ko - 男の子 boy or boys
- Natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.
- ohashi – お箸 chopsticks
- asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.
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Believe it or not, I knew the meaning of “Yubi”! My friend Kumi named her cat Ubi.