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!


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…

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…

9 October, 2008

The persuasive power of nothing

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:45 pm

Always leave them wanting more…

If you can tell me who said it, you get a gold star. I mean, who originally said it. A 10 minute trawl of Google, Wikiquote and a whole raft of Quotations databases has turned up nothing but half-remembered film-quotes and the occasional educated guess.

Someone said it was Walt Disney, but if his early films are anything to go by then it’s certainly not a maxim he employed much. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s nothing more rounded-off and wholesome than a Disney film, and that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the phrase.

No, I think the implication is that you should never try to completely satisfy someone if you want them hooked; just give them enough of what they want to enjoy it, and hint at the promise of more to come. That’s the essence of desire, as any established flirt, stage-magician or heroin-addict will tell you. It’s the secret of every burlesque show, the art of the thriller-movie, and the only possible excuse for that shambolic ’80s fashion of nouvelle cuisine.

It sounds vaguely P.T. Barnum-esque in style, but not in spirit – there’s no mercenary edge to it, and Barnum would quite happily have satisfied your every craving for a steep price given the opportunity. It’s not even Machiavellian, although manipulation is of course the purpose.

Give them a little of what they want – but not enough to lose their attention. I feed my cat with enough to make him healthy and athletic, without satisfying his every craving – for there lies the road to the sack-of-porridge look of spoiled house-cats everywhere – and his interest in me is seldom stronger than when he’s had enough to enjoy it, but not enough to lose the taste.

Budding authors would do well to take note of the instruction, I think. There are many skilled novelists and playwrites who can give you a really satisfying yarn, rich in detail and full of exposition; but the best – the true craftsmen – will only hint at the truth, will give it form but not definition, will point you at the heart of a matter and say “look, it’s right in front of you…” but will never actually spell it out.
Some of the greatest works of art are not photo-realistic reproductions of real or imagined scenes, but are impressions or outlines, with just enough detail for the mind to fill in the rest.

As Pratchett explains in his recent bestseller Going Postal, the true art of the forger is not in perfection, but in suggestion. Present enough detail to suggest the real thing, he notes, and the human imagination will gladly do the rest, rejecting a perfect forgery but happily accepting one that is far less accurate, because the mind will not notice a discrepancy when it has conjured the detail itself…

So, then, desire is a function of our curiosity, not of our needs. It springs from the human need to wonder: what is behind the next door?, or what happened next?, or – tragically – what would it be like with someone else? I will never forget reading an article in New Scientist some years ago, which sought to explain the neurochemical mechanism of addiction. As an important aside, it was noted that heroin’s dangerously potent addictiveness springs not from its effects on the pleasure centres, but from the fact that it chemically simulates desire. When the drug reaches the brain, it floods the synaptic gaps with chemicals that scream “I want this!!” rather than “I like this!!”

These thoughts came to me when writing my UCAS Personal Statement. This is a university-applicant’s open audition, a 47-line window through which one must sufficiently impress or intrigue the admissions tutors for them to invite you to interview. It’s easy to talk about yourself if you have the confidence, but when presented with a 4000-character (not word) limit, I had to ask myself: What am I trying to achieve here?

The answer was quite obvious. I wanted an interview. There are ways of achieving that goal, but the fundamental purpose of my prose has to be this: Make Them Want More.
That’s right. Always leave them wanting more, kiddo. If you can get that hook in someone’s head, you’ll always have an opening for the future.

As far as I can imagine, there are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Knock their socks off. The masterful authors, musicians, artists and craftsmen of the world can do their thing, give you the very best, and leave you changed. That sort of profound work will always stay in your mind, and that’s a certain way to win someone’s interest. But there are limits to what you can say about yourself, especially in 47 lines, and if I could do that I would be an author.
  2. The Cliffhanger. Device of every literary and cinematic hack out there, and not very elegant. It’s easy to get it wrong and just frustrate your audience, leaving them thinking “So where’s the rest of the story? Did you miss a reel…?” Besides, it’s hardly appropriate in the circumstances. Definitely not.
  3. The subtle art of suggestion. Make allusions to bigger topics. Indicate your intentions and interests, but don’t describe them exhaustively. The ripe fruit of outlined potential is tempting indeed and, just as importantly in the circumstances, it’s economical! Let the audience pick up on what interests them, and they’ll want to know more. If they don’t, you haven’t wasted a paragraph explaining why taiko excites you so much, or exactly what depth of understanding you’ve developed of generational conflict in Japanese cinema. If they want to know more, they can ask – and ask they will. That’s what the interview is for, after all…

So I’ve pretty much finished my personal statement. All of the above is just rash theory and extemporisation after the fact – I write how I write, in a way that makes sense to me at the time given the context and the audience, and then try to understand why I felt compelled to do it so. It always seems to work, which suggests to me that I have sufficient natural facility for language and persuasion to get it right (or at least, right enough), and I make no apologies for that. If I have a gift for expression then nobody could accuse me of resting on my laurels now.

Wish me luck, one and all. I’ll let you know what happens, however it pans out.

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