Orient Expression

6 June, 2010


Filed under: Cambridge,language — pyrotyger @ 9:53 pm

The classic Japanese toast, to be blurted out convivially while raising ones beer, sake or other beverage of choice.

And indeed, there is some cause for celebration. Through fire and famine, disaster and destruction, hyperbole and hyperactivity, Cambridge’s tight-knit and loose-lipped band of first-year Japanologists finished their final exam of the year on Friday afternoon with an anti-climactic listening exercise. I’ve had quite enough of eavesdropping on the inane conversations of some apparently sexless twenty-somethings, thank you.

In spite of being nearly four times the size of the current second-year class – shedding only one casualty this year from its original complement of 16 students, in the guise of our linguistic friend Callum – we were able to celebrate the culmination of a year’s work (mostly) together, laying in the glorious sunshine on the banks of the Cam at Trinity. A near-miss with a champagne cork wasn’t enough to dampen the mood.

Sadly I was unable to spend more than a meagre 15 minutes socialising in such iconic Cambridge fashion before dashing for the train that never came, but in that brief time we were able to conjure a “Japanologists’ Drinking Song,” which must surely be a testament to our collective prowess in this most taxing of tongues, if not our collective responsibility. We were unable to agree upon a tune or pace for the ditty, but quickly agreed that this degree of uncertainty is a necessary characteristic of most drinking songs.

Kampai! Kampai!
Biiru o nomitai –
Ima wa nomu kikai.
Mo ichido kudasai!

Cheers! Cheers!
We want to drink some beers –
Now is our chance to drink.
Once more, if you please!

It’s simple, silly, and lacks subtlety and elegance. I can’t imagine anything more apt. It might flow better if we switch the middle two lines though.

It really has been a tough year. Others have borne up under the stresses far better than I, both on my course and elsewhere, and they have my admiration and respect. Frankly it was all I could do to get out of bed and attend exams some mornings (let alone lectures!) because the pace of the course has been utterly overwhelming and the sense that it has completely passed me by is quite dispiriting. The more I consider the undertaking that it constituted, however, the less ashamed I feel of whatever shortcomings I will have revealed in those three-hour slices of invigilated hell.

The notion that we should have learned – over the course of two 8-week terms – all we should need in order to converse, read, write and comprehend conversational Japanese, is laughable. The fact that we (or at least most of us – I have no illusions about the fruits of my own indiscipline) were then able to bear up under the painful scrutiny of our exams – including the additional ability to read some century-old Japanese literature and to discourse upon the last few thousand years of East Asian history – is a fact that makes me proud and pleased to have studied alongside these folks. We’re as mixed a bunch as you could hope to find on any course of this size, with a healthy cross-section of ages, genders, orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds and characters, but the camaraderie and lack of clique-formation was surprising and lovely.

I hope to be singing that same song, in the same place, with those same people, in three years’ time. Let’s just hope results and funding decisions are on my side.

Finally, a word of apology to those who’re kind and curious enough to check in on my blog from time to time. For the brevity of this entry and for the conspicuous lack of activity over the last few months, I’m sorry. The former is due to my determination to get something worth saying on here, no matter how short or twee.

The latter is due to being, as I said, overwhelmed. Not to say that I never had two hours to rub together for the sake of bashing out a few lines, but I suppose I do take a little pride in trying to say things that are worthwhile on here rather than just saying whatever’s on my mind, so when it comes to discussing the idiosyncrasies of a break-neck education in Japanese, I try to make sure I’m saying something new. I’d rather be infrequent and interesting than regular and pedestrian. It’s not a “strength” that serves me well in all situations, but it’s important to me that I evince that quality in this blog.

So why did that stop me from saying anything? Well, back in the halcyon days of pre-Cambridge language acquisition (and during the slightly less demanding first few weeks) my brain had the time to do that weird pattern-recognition thing we all do so well, and occasionally to go “Huh… that’s interesting.” Since then, the flow-rate of vocabulary and grammar from pedagogues to bewildered class has been phenomenal, and left our poor withered neurons scant time to cram it all in sideways before moving on to the next lesson. There’s been almost no down-time during which to pick apart our garnered knowledge in moments of reflection, so nothing unusual has had the opportunity to strike me in my little creative lobes.

This is the fretful “Pressure Method” of teaching for which Cambridge University is so famous, and as I’ve said before, it certainly has its merits when trying to properly assimilate a language. This isn’t my first time around the block of higher education, and I can certainly see the difference. It just doesn’t leave room for much else in your brain; I suspect that the last nine months have taught me nothing more than the following things:

  1. Some Japanese, and a bit of East Asian history,
  2. How to row a bit better,
  3. The names of an awful lot of lovely people,
  4. It takes nearly 30 years before you finally accept that you’re not as bright or tough as you think you are,
  5. Time either passes slowly as you waste it away, or flies by as you lit fully. The latter is infinitely preferable, but just as alarming,
  6. Criticism from friends is usually right. Advice is usually wrong,
  7. There’s always time to chase a dream, but the later you leave it, the more you’ll have to sacrifice for it.

The saga continues, then. Did I pass? Will the funding palaver of which I’ve mentioned nothing here scupper my chances of a second year? Will I ever again have anything interesting to say on the subject of Learning Japanese?

Watch this space, and in the mean time: Cheers!


24 October, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 5:13 pm
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

休み休み- resting at times; thinking carefully

It has been, I confess, far too long. Three weeks, almost to the day, since I arrived in Cambridge, and I have yet to update my blog with the very content for which it was created.

Suffice it to say that it was not due to lack of anything to say, but rather a lack of time in which to say it. When asked during conversation classes what we do in our “Free Time” most of the class laughed bitterly. Weekends, we have come to realise, are much like weekdays but without lectures – unless one elects to attend a seminar “for fun”. Only by failing to attend several such lectures today was I able to finish my homework ahead of time and bash out a few lines for your enlightenment, after which I will be hitting the books again.

Is this not what you expected, Mr McArthur? Were you anticipating an easy ride?

In answer to both questions: no, not exactly. Some of you may recall prior to my departure that I was – ahahaha! – slightly worried that my previous study would render the first few weeks somewhat less challenging than I would need in order to get myself up to proper studying speed, and that I might not be sufficiently motivated or terrified when the real work started to hit sometime around November.

Oh, the hubris born of blissful ignorance. Pyrotyger, you arrogant twit, you were so wrong. Not only are there several in my class of 16 younglings who have either spent quite some time in Japan or studied the language extensively in the past (placing me somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of ability), but we also found to our horror that everything we had learned up until now was horrible horrible lies, and we would need to work hard just to get the basics pinned down again. What a nasty shock that was, deliberately engineered though it may have been.

Still, at least my aforementioned fears were groundless…

The course is fast-paced, and seems to accelerate relentlessly. In the manner of secondary schools everywhere, lectures start daily at 9am, and homework is set each day to be handed in the next morning. This is actually a very good system when teaching a language, as frequent usage and the pushing back of boundaries are surely the most effective staples when learning any language. Just ask any two-year-old. You have to be strong enough to take the knocks though: there are few things as disheartening as discovering, every single day, that the arcane knowledge and understanding you had fought so hard to master yesterday turns out to be nothing but simple bedrock upon which today’s horrifying tower of Babel is to be built. And the next day, and the next… It puts me in mind of the scientist’s creed: the only way to learn anything new is to decide that everything you’ve learned so far is wrong.

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

In addition to this, there are seminars, supervisions and regular lectures on the history of S E Asia which, though interesting in themselves, do cause problems when the relevant lecturers decide to throw an additional assignment or essay in our paths. Rather like the coins traditionally baked into a proper Christmas Pudding, they are no doubt valuable and useful in themselves, but will choke you to death if you’re too busy chomping away to think ahead and pick them out. Lest we think we might be actually getting on top of things, of course.

Freshers’ ‘Flu’ has been doing the rounds but, short of a couple of irritating colds, I’ve managed to avoid the worst of it. Mind you, poverty and experience mean that I’m not out drinking every other night with the other freshers, so I’m less likely to find myself “in bed with ‘flu'” the next morning (just kidding guys!)

Regarding student life, then: there is plenty to tell you, many goings-on and exciting activities, but this perhaps isn’t the time. Stress and my ineptitude with long-distance relationships have taken their toll, and there have been a few hairy moments with my girlfriend. Hopefully though, we seem to be keeping our heads above water so far. If I can make it through the first month without dropping everything catastrophically, there’s no reason I can’t tackle the second.

I’ll keep chewing through the work for now, but Christmas Pudding is about more than silver coins and brandy custard. When I start to feel I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, it’ll be important to remember that.

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3 October, 2009

Present Tense

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 8:51 am

My god, isn’t it quiet?

There are worse views...

There are worse views...

In spite of being a St Edmund’s College student, I’m billetted at Westminster College. As I arrived yesterday I was informed that most of the students here – mainly preachers on sabbatical – go home for the weekend. This made my first night here quiet and lonely, but at least I got all the hot water I could wish for this morning.

My big brother, the dysfunctor, and his wonderfully Japanese fiancee Chisako, were kind enough to turn up with a pre-made meal last night; an auspiciously authentic Japanese meal of seasoned rice and sour seaweed salad. Chisa reassured me with the same advice as my girlfriend: though my verbal fluency in Japanese is currently somewhere around zero, she is confident that problem will resolve itself within a month of actually being in Japan. Still, it would be nice to be able to talk to her with some facility in her own language, having studied it sporadically for the last two years or so…

Okay, time to bite the bullet. This little town has intimidated me for too long. I’m going to head out there and make it a bit smaller.

28 September, 2009

Kokorogumi – anticipation

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 7:53 pm

The word 心組み kokorogumi means anticipation or preparation. The individual kanji mean “heart/mind” and “assemble/grapple”. As a word, I think it’s a beautiful example of why I find the language so beguiling. As a compound of concepts I think the word is a very apt post-title as I enter my final week before starting at Uni.

And no, I’m not entirely prepared. I have pretty much everything I need, save a few items of stationery that I can find anywhere, but at my (rather excellent) leaving-do on Friday I realised that I wasn’t at all mentally prepared, even though Uni and Japanese are pretty much all I’ve thought of for weeks. I had an idea of what to expect in some sense, and that was the foundation of my emotional preparation. The plan changed recently when I was told that I would not be accommodated in St Edmund’s College as I had previously thought, but at Westminster College, a United Reformed place just down the road.

Though it’s a minor change, it does present a slew of minor inconveniences that I hadn’t anticipated. Having supervisions, the college library, the Combination Room/Bar, the gym and everything else move from right outside my door to 5 minutes up the hill has thrown my mental picture a bit, so I’ve lost that target and am left feeling more anxious than anticipatory.

Given my “previous life” of Christianity in some form or other makes me a little wary of the social challenges that will face me every day in the communal kitchen, probably in the guise of a kindly proferred cup of herbal tea, although I’ve been assured by the poor beleaguered lass dealing with the room-contracts foul-up (don’t ask) that I’m unlikely to have anything more unpalatable than a Lapsang Souchong infusion shoved down my throat. Still, I’m entertaining a friend’s suggestion of painting a goat’s-blood cross on my bedroom door, just in case…

More practical concerns are dominating my time now; namely the Japanese course’s preparatory reading list, and some attempts at regaining my fitness at the gym. More on the latter in a moment.

Right now, I’m fighting my way through the history of Japan, from all-but-undocumented prehistory to the modern day. I say fighting not because Japan’s history isn’t interesting – it really is! – but because the style of the relevant books is so desiccated and academic. I realise more and more that I will not only have to get used to reading this stuff constantly, but I’m probably expected to write this way too. No comments from the back there – I’m not that bad.

I can appreciate the need for such work to be so formal and avoid expressions of opinion or biase wherever possible, but I wonder if there’s a way to liven it up somehow. The illustrations in Mit”Premodern Japan – A Historical Survey” could certainly use some work – a full-page black & white photo of a Joomon urn in the opening chapter managed to set the tone for the whole book, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well-written, and the facts themselves are really fascinating – I get to the end of a chapter and reflectively think “Wow, there was some really interesting stuff in that.” Then I look down the barrel of the next chapter and want to vomit. I guess that’ll be a part of life for the next four years.

Anyway, there’s still plenty of reading left to do, and fitting that around fond farewells and last-minute organisational stuff (anyone want to buy a car?) is difficult, but I’m glad to say that my interest hasn’t waned. I’m still doing the right thing.

Back to the fitness, and I keep wavering between thinking I’m going to captain the Cambridge boat team and thinking I’ll be laughed out of the college team’s training programme. My times are pretty good, but I’m competing with folks ten years my junior, and it’s only going to get harder. I’m convinced that if I stick to the training and do as I’m asked, I’ve a good chance of getting into the college boat club – there can’t be that many people passionate about rowing, surely – but it’s going to take serious commitment. I’ll just have to see what being a good rower means to them, and do my best.

And, to that end, I was invited to attend the Concept 2 Grimsby Indoor Rowing Championship on Sunday. I was invited by a nice chap who keeps trying to get me to come when he sees my challenge times at the gym, but I’ve not managed to turn up before. It’s the first time I’ve actually competed in anything, so I was incredibly anxious and totally unprepared. People come from all over the region to compete (next one’s Newark – sorry guys, but I’ll be busy studying!) and there were some phenomenal displays of athletic determination there. Frankly I was embarrassed to even compete, but fortunately I had trouble finding the venue so I didn’t arrive until 5 minutes prior to my race and so I didn’t have time to think about it too much…

Go me!

Anyway, I didn’t exactly embarrass myself in the Open Mens 1 Mile event, and I gave them a show. Seeing my position on the big graphic display was enough to kick me into overdrive far too early (clearly a novice) so I dominated for the first half, and then started seeing stars and thinking I was about to reenact the John Hurt scene from Alien. I had to slack off and got my arse handed to me, finishing in fourth, or third for my category (thank god one of them was technically a Light Weight). It was still my best ever time for the mile, so I think to some extent I earned this bronze beauty.

If I were superstitious, I’d call it a good omen. I’ll just go ahead and say it’s good motivation though. Go me!

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21 June, 2009

Say what you see…?

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:22 pm
Tags: , , ,
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve often heard the Japanese writing system described as being principally logographic, in that the written characters – at least the kanji, which are principally derived from written Chinese – represent words rather than sounds. The converse would be a phonographic script, in which characters represent sounds (phonemes) rather than words. In fact written Japanese combines these two approaches by using both iconic graphemes and a couple of syllabaries, allowing logographic words to be connected and embellished with a grammatical subtlety that Chinese dialects sadly lack.

Sorry if that was a bit wordy. Wikipedia is a great help for linguistic terms.

I wasn’t convinced that logogram is an appropriate term, even for the kanji used in Japanese. Since any kanji can be read in a number of very different ways phonemically, depending on context, but the idea it represents is more consistent, the term ideogram might be more accurate.

Yet this notion is strongly opposed in the article to which I’ve linked, which states that ideograms “represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logographic systems described here are truly ideographic.” As it turns out, I’ve got this whole concept arse-about-tit. Although I though logos was ancient Greek for “word”, it doesn’t actually mean that in the grammatical sense. Rather, it was used to define the concept or idea underlying a word or argument – the word’s soul, if you will – while lexis is the term used to describe the grammatical entity. This explains why logos is used in all sorts of religious and philosophical contexts where lexis wouldn’t be appropriate, and also explains why we call company brands “logos” even when they don’t feature words at all.

There you go. Another etymological mystery solved.

Whatever the linguistic definition, I find the eastern practice of combining discrete morphemes in iconic form to express complex notions and ideas to be both beautiful and inventive.

Furigana(振り仮名) text with furigana(ふりがな), as an...
Image via Wikipedia

It does make the written language very challenging to learn, though. If you can’t read a kanji, you can’t read it; you can’t even read it out to guess at the context, since it’s just an inscrutable symbol. The use of furigana – ruby hiragana (syllables) written over a kanji to guide pronunciation, often for teaching purposes or texts rich with specialist kanji – is of great help to a learner, but is nothing more than a workaround to an intractable challenge of learning Japanese.

And yet…

On more than one occasion – and increasingly frequently – I have the bizarre and unsettling experience of reading a kanji without actully understanding it. I mean that sometimes I will literally be able to read aloud the pronunciation of a symbol that I’ve only come across once or twice (or sometimes a hundred times – curse my memory), and have no firm idea what it means. It’s a little bit like bumping into someone you don’t recognise, but knowing their name – it’s the complete opposite of the usual mental block that occurs, and feels like knowing the answer but struggling to find the question.

Douglas Adams would probably be able to explain the frustration and disorientation better than I could.

Clearly something bizarre is happening in my brain. There is some direct association going on in there between the visual representation and the phonetic word, totally bypassing the usual intermediary of meaning. Most of the time I’ll recognise what a kanji means (or not…) and shortly afterwards I’ll remember its pronunciation, with that gap being reduced to an instantaneous pause so that the two come to mind simultaneously, but jumping from A to C without the all important B getting a look-in is really frustrating and a little bit spooky.

What’s going on in there? Is this unsettling confusion between lexeme, logos and phoneme a sign that my brain is slowly adapting to the task of understanding Japanese inherently, or a sign that I probably never will? It brings back to mind a post I made back in October about translation and machine intelligence:

do [translators] listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Well, I know from certain people who are competently trilingual that, yes, it is possible and indeed inevitable when you become fluent.

I couldn’t tell you what language such people dream in though. To dream in Japanese would be an achievement indeed. I just hope it doesn’t end up being anything like Natsume Sôseki’s Ten Nights Of Dreams.

Dammit, this has got me thinking about the role of tonality and aesethetics in language, especially Chinese/Mandarin, and the importance of the right-brain in such languages. That’s an interesting topic for another time, I think, but feel free to have a look in Fundamental Neuroscience, p654 (pdf warning) if you’re curious.

16 June, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 1:32 pm
Tags: ,
Who's The Dick Writing Comments On My Blog
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

Utsuru (v): 1. to move (house); to relocate. 2. to be mirrored; to harmonise.

I have a Blogger-based blog. My brother has a WordPress-blog.
In helping a friend to set up a blog (to share her experiences of dealing with scoliosis and the difficult corrective surgery), I’ve been having a look at the two providers, and trying make a qualitative comparison so I can recommend the best for her.

So, this is just a test-post to see how WordPress works, how easy it is, how intuitive, how buggy… It seems to be working really well so far and, treacherous though it makes me feel, I realise I’ve been quite frustrated by some of the buggy traits of the post-editor in Blogger which don’t seem to be evident in WordPress.

If I’m impressed, I’ll be giving serious thought to the possibility of relocating. In the mean time, I’ll just be running this in parallel. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Inappropriate-yet-amusing picture provided by the magic Zemanta, as always.

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10 June, 2009

Saying NO in Japanese

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 9:32 am
Tags: , ,

It’s been a while. How have you been?

KYOTO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 9: Ichimame, an 19-yea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I kept meaning to write – started a couple of times – but never got around to sending anything. I’ll probably post those old musings at a later date, when I’ve finished developing them.

In the mean time, I have a question: How does your medium affect how you speak? How does your writing style differ from your conversational style? How about when talking to different people? Or how about when you know you’re being recorded?

We all moderate our style of communication according to audience and medium; sometimes deliberately, but in my experience it’s almost entirely subconscious, and a built-in survival skill (I understand it’s something autistic people struggle with, though.)
I know that, when speaking about a serious topic with real gravitas, I have a tendency to use full-bodied sentences and a rich vocabulary – more like the manner in which I write – whereas in everyday small-talk I tend towards pithiness or triteness (depending how the day’s going).

Similarly, my girlfriend tells me that when I read aloud, the tone and timbre of my voice takes on a story-book quality; a narrative style and a tendency to be more measured with pace. I can’t do the voices though.
I’ve been considering trying to get a late-night slot on the Cambridge Student radio station, and I’m very curious to find out how my speech would come across on-air. Oh, to have the chocolatey tones of Boggy Marsh, or the dry wit of Mo Dutta (now sadly no longer a part of my weekend mornings). The best I can hope for is not to sound like Joe Pasquale reading the script to Mulholland Drive.

But I digress. My point is, the nature of the language itself doesn’t really change. We may tend towards formality, or use smaller words, or litter our speech with colloquialisms, but the rules of grammar and syntax remain the same, however poorly we apply them.

Not so in Japanese. Any student of the language will be quick to discover (and point out, if they’re showing off), that the language is moderated significantly according to the relative status of the speaker and audience, and the formality of the conversation. I came across a site that demonstrates some key Japanese verb conjugations in a very tight and lean manner, and one of the first things to notice is the proliferation of unusual verb-productions; such things as:-

  • Passive/respectful
  • Honorific
  • Humble

– not to mention the stark contrast between Plain and Polite forms, which is a crucial (and challenging) part of the language.

This modification of grammar according to audience and context is something we just don’t have in English. We tend to slacken off and drop a lot of the more cumbersome rules when in casual conversation (or all the damned time, if you were educated with a banana and an inner-tube), but the rules don’t change.

This is well-known to anybody who’s studied Japanese for any length of time though, so I don’t want to bore you with that. Instead I want to bore you with something else I learned from Hiromi-sensei: conversational grammar can change according to whether it’s written or just spoken, in the following way…

When you wish to communicate a reason, an expectation or a circumstance surrounding an event or statement, you would use the – (-te or “plain”) form, and the ending の です (no desu). This is a fairly typical conversational structure. So:
~の です (~te no desu) means “because of ~ ” or “the fact is that ~ ” or whatever the context implies.

So to say “because I studied…”, we would write べんきょう した の です (“benkyoo shita no desu, – (-ta) being the past form of –). Makes sense so far.

Well, when saying this, you would actually say べんきょう した です. Spot that? The (no) becomes a (n). For the purposes of easy conversation in a casual setting, that makes sense. It’s like a contraction – like saying “won’t” instead of “will not”. There are other examples in plain speech, where dropping a syllable doesn’t cause the sentence to lose meaning to a native speaker.

But that’s not what surprised me. When I was reading a sentence with this structure, my teacher pulled me up on pronouncing it as ~ です. “You read what is written – it’s ~です.”

Wait, can that be right? I’m quite comfortable with the notion of contracting structures in accepted ways for convenience – we do it all the time. Having separate rules for written and spoken grammar, though? Surely not…

Well it’s true, as far as I’m told. If you speak conversationally, you use ~n in this construction, but if you write it then you use ~no. More importantly, if you read a written conversation, you would read the ~no just as it is written. Let me shout this bit: a listener would be able to infer that you were reading a written transcript, rather than having a real conversation. The written form is not merely visual representation of that which is said, but has slightly different rules.

This is a totally alien concept to me. What little I have understood about linguistics so far tells me that the written word is a means of recording what would otherwise be spoken – speaking came first, then the oral tradition of passing on stories, laws and wisdom, and then writing was invented to immortalise that wisdom.

And yet in Japanese, there is a sense (to me, at least) that the writing system has a life of its own, concurrent with – but somewhat independent of – the spoken word. One of the things that makes the language so challenging is that Kanji are inscrutable if you don’t already know them, because they are not phonetic.
Anything based on Latin, Cyrillic or Arabic can be read, if not necessarily understood, and that encourages an emergent understanding of words that have not necessarily been directly learned. Written Japanese, however – along with a number of other logographic languages of South East Asia – is a one-way street. With no implicit correlation between writing and pronunciation, there’s no way to learn to read something if you don’t already know how it’s pronounced, and bear in mind that most kanji have several distinctly different phonetic readings.

Frustrating as that may be, it’s just one more dimension to this enormous puzzle. Whenever I feel that I’m getting a grip on some unusual aspect of the language, I realise that there are ten new and subtler idiosyncrasies hidden behind it. Every time I learn something, I get the impression that I’m only being told just enough to get a general idea – a lie that brings me closer to the truth.

断定の助動詞「だ」「じゃ」「や」の分布図。 Zones map of Japanese co...Image via Wikipedia

Thanks go to my brother for introducing me to Zemanta, a blogger’s dream that helps find contextual images and a host of other doohickeys. It’s already taught me that the core Japanese copula “です/だ” (desu/da) is not as immutable as I thought, and actually varies greatly according to the regional dialect – see right.

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20 February, 2009

So yeah, Cambridge.

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 3:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

Everybody knows now, which makes it hard to motivate myself to write this entry. Still, it’s important and worth me recording publicly.

My original application was to Wolfson College (one of the two “mature student only” colleges to take undergraduates) under the advisement of the Chair of Japanese Studies. He felt that I might be happier there than at a more teen-dominated college, given my advanced years(!)

And finally the letter came, one Friday in January. “Sorry, but we don’t want to offer you a place this year.”


But what’s this…? “We have submitted your application to the Winter Pool…” Should another college decide they like your ugly face, they may fish you out of the pool and offer you a place instead.

Well, a quick look at the statistics gave me little cause for hope: I was among the lucky one-in-five to be pooled, but of those only one-in-five get offered a place elsewhere. It’s a mechanism usually employed as a safety-net not for students, but for faculties, providing them with an opportunity to make up any shortfalls in numbers if their selection process has left them with too many empty seats. Good if you’re looking at a high-volume course like Medicine or Natural Science, less hopeful for a “we’ll take who we damned-well want” minor language course like Japanese – any given year for which might have as few as three students.
My heart sank; I swallowed hard and got on with deciding where my life would go next. Time to get used to nothing much happening, I guess.

Two weeks later…

Another letter from Cambridge? But surely it’s too late now. “On the basis of your academic record, we would like to offer you a place at St. Edmund’s College” on the condition that you can prove you can damned-well afford it.

Good lord.

But I’d started making plans!

Oh my.

I’m going to Cambridge. The other college for mature undergraduates decided to take pity! I can’t express what a profound surprise that was. Given that the Japanese course was much more geared towards research than undergrads, I really didn’t think I had much hope.

How to explain this bizarre coincidence? Perhaps the course-representative of the interview panel liked me while the college-rep didn’t, so he decided to recommend me elsewhere. Perhaps I just got lucky. All I know is that my life, for the foreseeable future, will be significantly different than it might otherwise have been.

It’s been a hairy, skin-of-the-teeth affair right from the start (and arranging for funding is going to be just as troublesome), but it looks like I’m in. I’d better get cracking with those studies, and the pre-course reading list

Oh look, they have a good boat club, too 🙂

I really should stop posting these things when I’m at work…

2 February, 2009

Ups and downs

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 11:33 am

If life is a roller-coaster, mine has been one of those really scary ones that rattles with worrying harmonics every time you crest a peak, subjects you to enormous g-forces at every bend, goes so fast that you can’t anticipate the next twist, and generally leaves you clinging onto the harness for dear life despite the fact that it’s pressing uncomfortably into your bladder.

I guess it was worth waiting in the queue for the last few years though!

I should probably start where I left off: my best friend’s wedding. Ben is a very likeable chap, with a disarmingly harmless air and a likeable cheekiness that makes him very easy to be around. His wife (as of December), Holly, is a bright, outgoing lass with a tendency to cope with stress by getting aggressive, which makes their relationship both energetic and amusing, from a distance…
The day went absolutely perfectly. Nothing really went wrong, everybody got on well, good times had by all, and both bride and groom really looked the part. It was a struggle to get Ben through The Night Before without getting too drunk (there were some agents of chaos out that night, working towards such a messy end), but he spruced up rather well the next morning, and managed not to fluff any of his lines.
I have to say, I was pleased at the low-key nature of the event. Not cheap or tacky, but relaxed and down-to-earth enough for everyone to just enjoy themselves, without the headache of everything being just so. A testament to Holly’s practical and unassuming nature, I think.

The speech went down a storm, having been impressively preceded by Holly’s dad. I was repeatedly approached and congratulated on my delivery, which of course gave me a great big glow but also left me feeling a little uncomfortable – it wasn’t “my day”, after all!

Still, the couple were very pleased, and that’s what counts. They recently presented me with a fantastically thoughtful thank-you gift of a fancy Parker pen, and a fetching sake serving-set (a tokkuri and four choko). Who knew being Best Man would be such a blast?

They had a fantastic honeymoon (well, honey-week) on a riverboat cruising the Nile, and they’re still together a month later. I guess that’s a good start…

This all served as a good distraction, helping me not to fret over my Cambridge application so much. So… What happened about Cambridge??

If the gifts from Ben & Hol haven’t given it away, stay tuned for the next instalment!

11 December, 2008

Aaaaaaand relax…

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , ,

I’ve avoided blogging about Cambridge ever since I submitted my application. It’s been such a big part of my life, but I’ve always maintained that this blog was to be about more than What I Did On My Holidays.

More than that, as my optimism varied from day to day, I wanted to avoid committing anything to the cyber-ether that would later cause me to look back and cringe. I have complete and historical editorial control over my posts, of course, but as a matter of principle I try not to tinker with or remove old posts except to correct typos or formatting. Quite apart from anything else, it’ll be interesting to see how the blog – both my writing style and the way I think – develops over the months and, possibly, years.

However, the deed is done – the interview took place yesterday, and it’s time to record the events that led up to it, for posterity and for the sake of those who read this thing and might be curious. So, here’s a potted history of my attempt to insinuate my way into possibly the world’s most prestigious academic institution.

  • Having made the decision to apply, I had a couple of weeks to get the UCAS form completed and submitted.
  • I consulted all and sundry regarding my Personal Statement, and the end result was pretty good. Thanks go to the dysfunctor and various good friends and colleagues for critical commentary.
  • The written reference presented a tricky choice of referees. The inestimably wise Dr Coates, my tutor at Birmingham Uni; my good-humoured Japanese Tutor, Hiromi; or my incomparably supportive line-manager, Gill. For one reason and another, Gill ended up providing my glowing reference.
  • Deciding which college to nominate was tricky. I was tempted to do so on the basis of application requirements (essays, tests, interviews etc), especially upon seeing that Trinity Hall seem to rely principally on the Thinking Skills Assessment (a form of testing at which I excel), but upon the Chair of Studies‘ advice I eventually went with Wolfson College – a college open only to mature (over-21) students.
  • Shortly after submitting the application, I was requested to complete the online Supplementary Application Questionnaire, specifically for Cambridge applicants. Another several hundred words of selling myself ensued, and I was nearly late submitting this as I had difficulty obtaining a suitable photo. (As I was amused to discover later, the print-out received by the interview panel was of such low resomolution that it may as well have been a photo of my cat)
  • Many agonising days of waiting later, I received a letter from Dr Sally Church inviting me to an interview with her and Dr Barak Kushner on Weds 10th December, 4pm. I was also requested to provide two examples of marked essays by the preceding Friday. Since I hadn’t written an academic essay (not that would be suitable for Humanities, at least) since my GCSEs ten years ago, this was a problem…
  • A brief email exchange with Dr Church resulted in a request to provide a 1500-word essay entitled “Discuss the nature of society-state relations in the modern world in any region of your choice.” I had a week to research and write it (including the stag-weekend in Amsterdam) and I’m pretty pleased with the result. Again, many thanks to friends & family for their support and advice. The dysfunctor‘s girlfriend, Chisa, was particularly kind in putting me in touch with a fellow academic in the field, although I was sadly too rushed to take advantage of this.

The day finally came, and I got the train down to Cambridge, suited up and looking dashing. It’s always nice to know that you can brush up well when the need arises. Lucky tie and everything.
I managed to keep my nerves under control for most of the day – I usually do well at interview – but upon stepping off the train I suddenly felt an unholy lurch in the pit of my stomach. I’ve never been so anxious about anything before, which is a strange thing to admit; there were more serious, more important and more uncertain occasions in my life, I’m sure, but right then it was hard to remember any. It probably wouldn’t have done me any good if I had, either.

I have a friend who suffers from occasional panic-attacks, and he’s tried to describe them to me before. I’ve never had such a thing, but right then I think I understood a little of how it feels.

Anyway, I managed to control my bladder and stop shivering, and sat with a calming cuppa tea for half an hour or so. As I walked up to the faculty for the interview, a well-worded, well-timed text from a friend arrived to soothe me. I had five minutes to sit in the common-room with a couple of other young prospectives (for Chinese), and I realised that I was in a far better place than they were. I had chance to reflect on my previous Cambridge interview, back in 1998, and how I had been successful on that occasion, and was far better prepared and equipped this time to face the panel.

As it turned out, the panel was so much more relaxed and informal than I was expecting, too. I finally got to meet Dr Church – a pleasant, quiet lady, whom I feel may even have been a little more intimidated by the interview situation than I was – and the other interviewer, Dr Kushner. He was a very likeable man, with an air of intelligent confidence when he spoke. His enthusiasm was clear, in spite of the late interview, and he seemed quite eager to discuss everything from the ideas raised in my essay to the possibility of studying Taiko during the 3rd year in Japan.

Generally speaking, I think I presented myself fairly well – enthusiastic, intelligent and affable, if a little green. Most importantly, I think I demonstrated a genuine interest in the subject, and established that I’m already learning what I can. Beyond being a bit more coherent with my ideas, it’s hard to know what more they would’ve been looking for.

I’m by no means certain that the interview was a success. However, I got the impression that they weren’t just “giving me a chance”; rather, that they were already hopeful and wanted to see if I lived up to their expectations. If I read it right, I think my chances are decent.
Anyway, a couple of things were said which gave me good reason to be hopeful:

  1. When discussing the possible difficulties of being a mature student among a small class of 18-year-olds, many of whom would have joined “principally to pursue an interest in Anime”, Dr Kushner intimated that it was more about gregariousness and personality than age, and that I seemed like the sort of person who’d get on fine. It felt like a vote of confidence.
  2. More significantly, my prior studies of the language were raised. It was suggested that I may find the first year “boring” if my knowledge and fluency in Japanese were of a sufficient level, since students are expected to enter with no prior knowledge. The notion of direct-entry to second year was raised, and that made me feel that they were seriously looking at how and where to fit me into the syllabus.

Good signs, then, and I don’t think I really made a tit of myself at any point. It’s hard to gauge how well they took me, but I felt that I got on with them pretty well, and got to express myself. They tested me a little – follow-up questions to throwaway comments – but I think I kept the ball rolling in the right direction.

Anyway, time for me to stop worrying about it now. The deed is done, and I’ve devoted quite enough energy to this application now. It’s out of my hands. Time to focus on the next event in this month’s hectic schedule – my best friend’s wedding.

I think I’ll need a holiday after this Holiday Season. Roll on January…

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