June 06, 2000

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My View: Getting out of a warm bath


While I was attending college in Tokyo in the mid-80s, I stayed for one year at a women's college in Georgia as an exchange student. I lived on a wooded campus with elegant, soft-spoken Southern ladies.

It was my first time living in a foreign country and using a foreign language. The biggest difficulty I had with English during that period was when I was talking with Professor Elizabeth Evens, my advisor. It was hard not because she had a very heavy accent, nor because she looked like a rugged farmer unlike the other professors, but because I could not address her simply as "you."

I come from a culture in which you explore the age and social class of the person you are talking to sensitively, and alter your way of speech according to your findings. I can't call professors "you" in Japan. They should be addressed "Sensei (teacher)" all the time.

In those days in the deep South, I could not get used to the idea that anybody around me could be called plainly "you." My classmates, the mean roommate I had, the convenience store owner who always gave me an extra chocolate, the old black cleaning lady, and my professor -- everybody around me is equally just "you."

It was impossible for me to call Professor Evens frankly that way, so I could not help omitting "you" from my sentences every time I talked to her. Of course, anything I mumbled to her did not make any sense. She got irritated, and often shouted at me, "Who did what on whom?"

Her question, "Who did what on whom?" is a major theme in colloquial Japanese. Generally speaking, you are encouraged to make this issue vague in daily conversation.

For example, suppose you want to say, "I told him that you came home." In Japanese it becomes something like, "Came-home-him-told." So, even among Japanese people, you have to keep asking each other questions such as "who did?" or "to Whom?" all the time.

It might sound confusing, but, believe me, it can be comfortable. It is like sharing a warm bath called "us" with all others, not pointing at each other and not making yourself stick out. It feels as if you were a floating fetus in a womb of mother tongue.

The last time I went home was December 1998. It was a visit after a one-year absence. I was exhausted with my first job in the United States, with my relationships, and primarily with life in a foreign country.

I flew from Boston to New York by United and changed to All Nippon Airways, a direct flight to Tokyo. When I stepped onto this plane at JFK Airport, I could immediately tell that the air inside was exactly like the warm bath called "us."

It was so because almost all the passengers were Japanese. And the flight attendants spoke to me in Japanese, and all newspapers and magazines I could browse were written in Japanese. My skin shielding myself from the outer world started to become thinner and all my being inside the skin began flooding into the air.

I sat next to a punk kid, who was filled with naive excitement over his first visit to New York City. I started to talk with him about what was going on in Tokyo in the "Came-home-him-told" manner, pleasantly sharing a warm bath with him.

Staying two and a half weeks in Japan, though, I became tired of asking who was doing what to whom. So I started to apply the speech manner that I acquired in the U.S., talking just like "I told him that you came home." Every time I did this, all my friends and family members stared at me and shook their heads saying, "Chikako, you have been Americanized too much."

So here I am. My skin is as thick as armor. Sometimes I feel drawn again toward the womb, but one of the big reasons I live in this country is that I somehow prefer the way that I construct myself as "I" and others as "you" clearly and separately. I often get lost, feeling as if I'm standing in the middle of the desert without anywhere to hide. But I know that I cannot take a warm bath forever.

Chikako Atsuta is a Japanese freelance writer living in Gloucester.

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