Since the day classes started, the university's main thoroughfare has been a moshpit of club recruiters attempting to lure any and all passersby into their nest. They deck themselves out in official sportswear regardless of whether or not their particular club is even tangentially sports-related, trying to convince you to take an informational pamphlet, similar to those that get handed out for restaurants and so forth, but if you accept, they own your soul, and most people don't find out about this until it's too late.
Also, showing even the mildest interest will cause a swarm of their counterparts to converge on your location like so many Zerglings on a lone Marine, so the correct response, by and large, is to ignore them. Do not allow a pause in your conversation, do not look up from your cell phone, or if neither of those options is available to you, you can even just straight-up blank them. Actually, it must be a fairly unnerving experience, to have everyone pass you by like that; at the very least it should give you a good idea of what it would be like to be a ghost.
Techniques vary in their degree of obnoxiousness, from the mousy bespectacled girl who hesitantly extends a pamphlet while meekly inquiring if you would be maybe interested in possibly considering their club if it's not too much trouble, to the strapping lad who actively impedes your progress with his outstretched arm. That said, they tend to remain rooted to the spot, lest the enemy slip through a gap in their defences. What they generally do not do is chase after you at top speed and hunt down you specifically.
“We're the University Neeewspapeeeeer!” the girl sings with entirely too much enthusiasm.
I'm so startled by this new plan of attack that I actually break stride for a second and turn to look at her. I have to laugh.
“You've got good energy,” is the best I can offer, because yeah, sorry, I'm still not interested, whatever it is.
“Take it!” she insists in English, playfully annoyed, and I notice for the first time that she's in one of my English-taught culture classes. A sexy, leggy 18-year-old, she got back from two years of US high school last semester. I turn around and walk back. She's trying to give me a copy of the semester's first edition. Perhaps using her womanly wiles to divine the quickest way to secure my attention, she switches back to Japanese. “You can read it, right?”
I don't know what would give her that impression (or even who told her that I'd understand if she spoke Japanese to me), because no, I really can't. A text message conversation or online chat is fine, and I can work my through a simple passage if armed with a kanji dictionary, but anything of a formal or academic nature is beyond me. This was especially ironic to me because I'd just gotten out of a class where this was made painfully clear.
One of the things I'd decided, roughly five minutes after deciding to study here, was that I wanted to take some classes in Japanese. Like, not language classes – regular classes. Taught in Japanese. I did it during my high school ryuugaku, although at that time I'd technically already graduated and nobody expected me to do any work in the first place, so it didn't matter that I couldn't follow the material.
But that was four years ago, and I've improved like 389,000% since then, and hey! Maybe I can just audit the class! That would be cool, right? Attend the lectures, listen for the experience and the Japanese practise, be as inobtrusive as possible, but don't do any of the work or take the exam. I started talking about this to people, thinking out loud really, and one of the Germans, upon learning that my major is Philosophy, suggested that I attend a course called 日本思想史, or basically “Japanese Way of Thinking Through the Ages.” Rock on.
I walked into the first lecture and spotted him sitting with a Japanese girl and foreign girl; all four of us live at the same dorm. I know that both he and the foreign girl are higher level than me, and I have to admit, it really irks me. For one thing, and I really hate to make sweeping generalizations about entire cultures, but the Germans I have met in the last couple of weeks all seem to acquire a slight edge of arrogance about their Japanese once it reaches a certain level. This is true even when their Japanese is actually demonstrably lower than mine, and is particularly irritating because it comes part and parcel with otherwise fun, kind people. I have no idea why this exact personality defect has congregated in this particular demographic, but that has been my personal experience. Weird.
The other girl I have a little less respect for. The story goes that she is more or less the highest level out of any foreigner in the dorm, and she achieved that level of success by very legitimate and admirable means: She spread her books out on her desk and she bore down and studied, hours and hours per day, for months (this on top of whatever ability she already had when she arrived). Accordingly, this was the first time I'd ever even seen her. I never, ever thought that I would find myself with anything but praise for somebody who sees a goal and sets out to accomplish it through guts, hard work and their own power, but I kind of can't help but think that if you want to lock yourself in your room and learn Japanese from books and CDs, you can do that in your home country. It's just such a waste. Also, and I confirmed this with my own two ears, thanks to her self-imposed exile, her speaking is absolute shit.
Probably a little too much of my sense of self-worth is invested in my Japanese ability relative to that of others', but then again, these types of encounters always make me doubly determined to improve and surpass, so I guess it works out.
As the verbiage and handouts started flowing, I quickly realised that I was definitely in a little over my head. I had no problem discerning the subject on which the instructor was speaking, but I had no idea what kind of point he was making about it. But that's ok, I realised. I'm not going to actually take the class, anyway.
As ryuugakusei, we spend our first week hauling around a map-sized sheet of paper depicting the schedule of all language and culture classes, with spaces for writing in anything else you might want to take, like badminton or something. We are then required to get written permission from each teacher whose class we intend to take; to use the language of my home university, it's as if we are waitlisted for every single class.
Such being the case, following the lecture the three of us approached the teacher to receive his signature. I had prepared a fairly lengthy explanation in my head of what I was hoping to do, i.e. attend the class without taking it, in the hopes that enough of it would be sensical that he would eventually interrupt and take care of it. Hikikomori Girl observed with a rather self-satisfied smirk.
“The thing is,” I began, “I really have no confidence in my Japanese ability for taking such a difficult course, and I--”
“Oh,” he said at once, “don't even worry about it. Did you get the basic idea of today's lecture?”
“Well, I think I understood it very generally--”
“Yeah, that's enough. You're an international student, I don't expect you to be able to grasp every detail even if you take the class. And if you need any help, you can ask me, or ask those two. Look, in this course, there's going to be a bunch of different levels of understanding, right? So there's the most basic stuff on the surface, the two kanji I mentioned today – and then there's deeper levels under that, of course, but I don't care too much, if today you were able to understand what I was saying about those two kanji, that's good enough for me. Don't even worry about it.”
“I understand, but--”
“Don't even worry about it.”
So, somewhat contrary to my intentions, I am now taking a native-level university class in a language in which I am sometimes not able to conduct my daily life. Yikes. Hopefully he's serious about the double standard. A Japanese ten-year-old would have a better chance of passing this class than I have.
Exiting the building, the foreign trio caught the eye of some preppy kid. “Harro!” he called. Asshole. I pretended not to notice him, but ten steps later he'd sidled up beside me. “Where are you from?” He seemed friendly enough. All right, fine, you want to practise your English. I humoured him for a bit, until he introduced his friends and I responded with a casual “Yoroshiku.”
“Ahh!! You can speak Japanese!!” he informed me, his face actually awash with relief. He didn't want to practise English at all – in fact he rather would have liked to have avoided the whole experience entirely, if only he'd known – he was just trying to be friendly. He asked if I was “together” with the other two, and in an effort to succinctly explain that we are not from the same country and don't even really know each other, I basically implied that I'd have him please not lump me in with those losers, so they maybe hate me now. We chatted until we part ways and he promised to come talk to me next time he saw me.
“So I'll see you at Science and Technology later today,” 18 tells me perkily.
“I was actually thinking of doing Theatre and Film instead,” I tell her.
“No! You should do Science and Technology. It's really easy and it's fun, and the teacher is cool. And also there's no tests! It's all discussion. Yeah, it's definitely my recommendation.”
As it happens, just minutes earlier I spoke with another girl, an adorable 23-year-old I met at Sanjoubashi. She's dating a polarbear-like Korean guy who's studying law at the campus's grad school. She warned me about the Film teacher, saying she was a bit of an old bag and heavy on the homework. So now I was having one hot jgirl pushing me away from Film, and another one pushing me towards Science. I wonder how many times in my life I've made a decision on this basis. I tell her I'll think about it. It's pointless pride. She knows I'll be there.
The class is as simple as it's been billed, not to mention quite small, which is good for me since I kind of want to avoid being overly chummy with my fellow foreigners. That's a good way to trap yourself in a gaijin bubble. I then follow this up with a Japanese Literature class. You know how some foreigners have lived in Japan for 20 years, speak no Japanese, wish they could be anywhere else and know nothing about the country? This teacher was basically the exact opposite of that. His Japanese is better than mine, he majored in 12th and 13th Century Japanese poetry, and he's here by choice. He also assured me that, as the only native English speaker (among a cast of Japanese and Europeans), I'll have a pretty easy time with the course. Deal.
That evening I visit the Conversation branch of the English Club. At first I was hoping for something a little more Japanese, like kendou or ouendan (my secret calling), but on the other hand, what could possibly be more Japanese than English Club? More importantly, rumour has it that most participants' English is extremely poor and thus going to English Club is a great way to improve your Japanese. This turns out to be almost painfully true. I'm sold. I start to walk home with a different German guy and we go for late-night Chinese...ish...Japaneseish type food. We sit at the bar.
I've researched and located another class, 京都文化論 (Kyouto Culture, uh, Argument), and I've done it independently of the aforementioned twats, so when I walk in the next day I'm the only foreigner in the joint. This is somehow more gratifying and enjoyable.
Having lived in Kyouto twice now, a class on Kyouto culture seems to make sense. The teacher spends the entire lesson talking about the different resources available to students. At least a third of the students in my field of view are openly sleeping, as you do, and if Japanese were my native language I'd be just as bored, but I'm rapt. Yes, teacher, I absolutely understand how to access and make use of this website that I will definitely never use! Tell me more! Following the class, of course, I have to go through the same prostration as before, and amusingly, this time I get basically the opposite reaction.
“Ah, yes,” he nods, “if you're just going to come and listen, then that should be fine.”
I resolve that I will absolutely not be late to or absent from this class, ever. It's different for those I have an actual stake in, but when I've specially received permission, as a guest, it's a privilege I am not going to take lightly.
Finishing the day with some kanji review, I realise that a more serious portion of my studies has begun. Reading class is kicking my ass and 日本思想史 feels like I'm watching a gunfight and may be hit by a stray bullet at any moment. If there ever was a time for fucking around, it's over now.
On the other hand, I swell with pride a little too. Everyday tasks are becoming simpler. I've encountered some cuties. My life for the next six months is now cemented. A few random encounters and suddenly I've got some friends.
In the words of Toukyou Drift's Sean Boswell, I think I'm getting to like this country already.