Our bookshelves, when I was growing up, housed a small Japanese-English dictionary. I don’t know where it came from; certainly my parents had no special interest in Japan or, for that matter, foreign languages. But I did.
As a child I memorized the words in a Spanish-English picture dictionary, especially the ones for animals: el pero, el gato. In elementary school, where foreign language was sometimes a diversion, a game played for a week, I was frustrated. I wanted to learn Spanish.
Later, in middle school, it was French that I gravitated toward but couldn’t study. The sixth grade included an overview course called “Foreign Languages” in which students could learn a smattering of Spanish, French, Esperanto and sign language. (I cringe now, at the implications – when did users of sign language become foreign? Why did the made-up words of Esperanto become a language necessary for sixth graders to learn in 1983?) My parents kept me out of the course saying I wouldn’t gain enough knowledge of any one language, real or made up, spoken or signed. I spent my year learning something else, though now I can no longer remember what.
The course foretold of my parents’ threshold with the school, for in seventh grade I was placed in a private school, where I began learning Latin. Joyfully. I loved it. I loved it despite the fact that it was a dead language, despite the fact that I could never, would never speak it in a foreign country. I loved the symmetry of it, the organization, the rules, all of its many secret passageways. I felt I knew something special, a secret only I had been let in on, a code that only I could break. I ran my tongue over words like declension and case and recited amos, amases and amats like a meditation. I loved the precision of it, and it was easy for me; I was a master of memorization. I giggled when our class sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin at a holiday assembly, but I still remember the words, and whenever I hear the hymn, they come back to me, an incantation of the past.
Venite, venite in Bethlehem
Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus
I returned to public school for high school, and it was there that I was finally able to take my French. I soared through it, coasting through the vocabulary and the grammar, for it was like Latin with an accent. My best friend Mercy took French too, and we spent Saturdays wandering around Annapolis pretending we were, in fact, French. We felt cool and sophisticated and when we didn’t know all of the vocabulary for what we wanted to say, we made it up. My senior year I worked for an elderly Naval Academy French professor, writing summaries of French news shows for fresh-faced midshipmen. I won awards for my French prowess. But I was not loyal. With an extra hour in my schedule I joined beginning Spanish my senior year too. But Spanish held no appeal. The words seemed too simple, the pronunciation too easy.
Still, there was that Japanese-English dictionary on my bookshelf. I discovered the word for love in Japanese and learned to write the character from the dictionary. I didn’t yet know about stroke order when it came to writing out kanji, so I am sure that my ai looked lopsided and childish. I made cards for friends and family that were written in as many languages as I could learn to write my message in. I was attracted to the aesthetic of Asian language though, the intricate details of the characters, and the fact that no one I knew would be able to read what I wrote, or to tell if it was right or wrong. Writing Japanese characters I found in the dictionary was like keeping a secret, or communicating in a code.
I wasn’t loyal to Japanese, however, not then. It was the aesthetic of Asian things that I stuck to. My grandparents used to travel around the world on cruises and bring back gifts from China — jade figurines, and colorful paper cut designs. These I loved too. It has been this way with me. If it looks Asian, it has an appeal. In elementary school, my other grandfather introduced me to stamp collecting. While he was clearly most interested in the U.S. stamps, I had eyes only for the international ones. My favorites were beautiful, colorful stamps from Japan and Hong Kong. They had a composition and a glossy sheen that pleased me, and I liked just to look at them.
Still, I had no conscious desire to learn an Asian language. I guess I just didn’t believe it was a possibility. My suburban Maryland hometown contained no Asian faces then, and the most exotic food you could get a hold of was an egg roll at the Hawaiian restaurant.
When I began searching for colleges, my system was very simple, though undoubtably naive: I read the brochures. Stacks and stacks of them arrived, thanks to registering for the SAT, and I scanned the lists of majors for languages. I thought I might become a French major, but I wanted something more exotic available, just in case. Russian or Chinese or Japanese were all acceptable possibilities. Brochures that listed only French and Spanish or that third-place sidekick German -they were no use to me.
I settled on a school that offered Japanese in addition to French, Spanish and German. After a first year of false starts, I began studying Japanese, and immediately I knew it was the right thing. I relished memorizing the tiny syllables of hiragana and katakana and the stroke order of the kanji. After six months in an intensive language program in Sapporo, Japan and another two years of advanced study, I was quite conversational. I could find my way through a newspaper article, with the help of my kanji dictionaries.
So it didn’t seem daunting to go to Korea after graduation. I had been to Japan and survived, I thought, so Korea can’t be any more difficult. Korean is from the same language family as Japanese, and it doesn’t use as many Chinese characters. Once you learn the Korean alphabet, you can read. I assumed I would have no trouble picking it up. Some of the words might even sound the same. Even the language seemed somehow inconsequential–I simply wanted to be back in Asia again.