Thursday, November 1st, 2001

You should see My Darling B read Japanese! I started learning the characters before we left England and I’m still piss-poor at it, but I’m a slug and haven’t been studying. B, to my shame, taught herself one of the alphabets in a single evening! Went out and bought some cooking gunk the next day. It was even the right cooking gunk, not just gunk that looked like cooking gunk and turned out to be useful anyway.

That’s right, I said “one of the alphabets.” The Japanese have at least three, like life’s not complicated enough. When Japanese kids start to read at school, they learn the fifty-one characters of the hiragana alphabet; each character is a syllable, like “ba” or “sho.” Once they’ve got that down, they learn the fifty-one katakana characters – same syllables, different characters, but they use katakana to spell foreign words only, to keep them separate, I guess. I’m surprised the French haven’t thought of that dodge. Finally, they learn kanji, a set of about two-thousand Chinese characters; these are the classic pictograms that stand for an entire word or meaning, and they’re insanely complicated. To make reading as difficult as possible, the Japanese mix hiragana, katakana and kanji at whim, no rules, all bets are off. You’d think they’d all be psychotic from having to read like that.

I’m a big fan of the kanji myself. They’re like little puzzles to solve, sort of like when you read in your schoolbook that the letter A was a pictogram of an ox’s head, but no matter how you screwed up your eyes, you couldn’t help wondering what kind of peyote the authors were smoking that day. The trouble with kanji is that, just when I think I’m making some kind of progress towards becoming semi-literate, I find myself looking at a menu or a sign that’s written almost entirely in hiragana. A tiny little pain in my left temple, sort of like a knitting needle running through my head, distracts me at about that time, and I wonder why I kid myself that I can ever learn this.

Thank goodness B’s a little more determined than I am. She’s trying to get her brain wrapped around Japanese cooking, starting with figuring out how to make miso soup as yummy as we’ve had in the tiny little shops around here. When she’s in kitchen-experiment mode, she goes to the store and buys a bunch of stuff that looks sorta right, then comes home and plays for a while before running out to get a bunch more stuff. She was stuck on the first step, though, because – and I hate to sound like a broken record – we can’t read anything, absolutely nothing, and it doesn’t help that the food doesn’t look like food. It looks like snails and seaweed, and squeeze tubes and plastic tubs full of play-doh.

B’s also working on her degree now that she can go to school, and she can squeeze a Japanese class into her elective requirements. Bang! Two birds with one stone. So the other day, when I crawled out of bed in search of a hot cup of tea after sleeping off a mid, she very nearly dragged me down the stairs to read me the labels on the stuff she’d bought at the store. Even though my brains felt like moldy cotton gym socks, I could appreciate the magic of learning to read all over again. She reads road signs and shop names, every bit of hiragana she can find, just like a five-year-old reading Dick and Jane for the first time.

kanji boy | 9:31 pm CDT
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career | Tags: ,
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