Sunday, 30 December 2012

RBA complains about his roommates

So last night I set the scene that plays itself out every day in night in my school's international dormitory, and apart from explicitly saying so I hope I made it clear that it's a lot of fun.

But not everything about this living situation is exactly wonderful. It's full of children, for one thing, and people really need to learn how to wash dishes. Arzenchia sometimes speaks Spanish and, worse, whistles...all the damn time...interminably. It makes me want to punch her front teeth out so she can't do it anymore. It makes me wish I'd named her Whistler, except then I guess people might think she was from Whistler. Europeans eat incredibly loudly and can't keep their fingers out of their mouths. And, as you will find in any group of people, several occupants are just plain stupid.

However, the worst complaint I have to levy is that almost nobody speaks at all. Six Japanese domestic students live among us, speaking almost exclusively in Japanese, often simplified for their interlocutors' benefit – one girl consciously tries to repress her Kyouto-ben around those she knows will struggle with it – and I truly admire their patience in trying to communicate with with people whose language skills are still immature. Yet in spite of their efforts, the lack of interest in learning the language is staggering. It's the reason I didn't feel like I'd arrived in Japan until several days after I actually had.

You might naturally assume that Japanese would be the primary mode of communication for a group of students living in Japan. It makes sense. We have all different native languages, after all, so Japanese should be our zone of common understanding. But if you were talking about my dormitory, you'd be dead wrong. I hear that in other places people try a little harder, and that even where I am things were better last semester. Unfortunately, nearly all residents' Japanese is incoherent at best, and that presents a significant obstacle to this lifestyle. They fell back on the lowest common denominator.

For the time being, English still functions as the auxiliary world language, so the dorm's lingua franca is English. It's incredible. Can you believe that some of them complain about people not speaking good enough English? Bad enough that they vilify each other for it, every once in a while somebody will slip up and condemn a Japanese person for not having the good sense to have mastered a difficult language that is barely used in their own country, where they were born, and currently live. I'm inclined to think that the onus is on the foreigners to, you know, learn to speak Japanese, but I guess that's naiive of me.

But maybe I need to get off my high horse? Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have years of experience, a much deeper interest, and, hey hey, probably a great deal more talent than any of the people around me, but I can always look at it in terms of “What if I was in Korea right now.” I'd be going in with almost zero knowledge of Korean, but see, in that case, you can be sure as shit that I'd also be doing everything possible to acclimate myself to the language and the idiosyncrasies of its particular communication style, and I'd be properly grateful anytime I found a Korean person with the patience to play ball, in either language.

It's funny to watch the advancement of the different classroom groups, though. My own Level 4's, the highest group, have advanced at a predictable pace, given the foundation and motivation you would expect them to possess, having already come this far. In particular, we have begun to broach academic Japanese, which, as in any language, contains an entirely separate paradigm utilised nowhere else. Meanwhile, the Level 3's have at least gone from being almost incapable of producing speech to having simple conversations. And the Level 1's are like the 350-pounder who's just started on a diet, rocking progress in terms of sheer percentage. With some measure of completely unearned pride, I've watched them grow from total cluelessness into people I could almost bear to be seen together in public with.

No, it's the Level 2's that really vex me. It's as though they got here, found out they weren't in the lowest group, decided that that was pretty much good enough, and proceeded to show absolutely no improvement whatsoever. They treat Japanese like a toy rather than a tool. Nothing wrong with playing around with it, but show a little respect! This is the language of the country you live in. Doesn't matter that you won't be here this time next year. You have all the means at your disposal, so take advantage of it. Instead, they're all more concerned with going out for dinner, Skype calls home, and unsuccessful skirt-chasing. It's embarrassing.

Don't think I'm letting the more accomplished speakers off the hook, either. It isn't always easy to keep the Japanese flowing amongst them, either. I'm not saying that it needs to be constant. The Koreans speak Korean amongst themselves, for instance, and honestly that's fine. Lord knows that with pidgin mumblings and self-censorship persisting for days at a stretch, talking with Anarchy in the UK is the only time I get to draw upon my full range of vocabulary, complexity, and colloquialisms, written exchanges notwithstanding. Where it gets stupid is when a couple of people amongst mixed company unwittingly start up a side conversation just by hitting the ground running in a language that no one else can follow. It's unsociable and just plain rude. Yes, it's a little weird for two white people to speak Japanese to each other, deal with it for five minutes.

It's not fair to expect fluency from everybody. I don't. I just want people to let a little air into their sterilized biosphere.

By the way, when I said up there that almost everyone in the dormitory speaks in English at all times, I wasn't being completely truthful. I could more accurately have said that almost everyone on the third floor, where I live, speaks English at all times. On the fourth floor, everyone speaks in Chinese, and on the second floor, nobody speaks at all.

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