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!


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