Monday, February 27, 2006

In the Beginning

Valentine's Day was uneventful as such; a regular, busy Tuesday, trying to catch up after my absence on Thursday and Friday to attend a conference in New York (more on that later), and cope with the horrendous sleep deficit caused by said conference and accompanying snowstorm that trapped me on a runway for five hours. But somewhere in between scrambling to get to class on time and handing out the worksheets in my seminar, I remembered that it was Valentine's Day 2005 that I received the acceptance e-mail to Berkeley (the letter followed), and my life changed. I started this blog, for instance. But seriously, the limbo that I had been laboring in for months was gone, suddenly, and my path was cleared for the next two years. This is a wonderful feeling. I can still remember plopping into my chair to check e-mail at the beginning of another workday, seeing the Berkeley address in the "Sender" column, thinking it was just a "please hold; we will consider your application in the order it was received. Thank you for your patience" notice, or a request for some other scrap of paperwork, and then opening it and grinning from ear to ear, calling everyone I knew, etc. And then spending three months trying to hide it from my boss, for fear he would can me posthaste in order to hire someone who actually knew what s/he was doing.
And then the ceremony of quitting (tossing ID badge in harbor, getting plastered at the Midtown Yacht Club), sailing, loafing at home with Mom while she recovered (swimmingly) from her foot surgery, trips to Woods Hole and New York, a lovely twinkly yummy funny crazy going-away party, one last swelter in the heat wave, and getting here and starting all over again.
I'll do my best to chronicle the past six months concisely, but some of you might wonder just why I'm here, studying Japanese and running up ghastly debt while doing so. So here's an excerpt from my personal statement on a financial aid application (apparently you can't just say, "give me money, you fools!" to the officials here, nor can you kick and scream and beg and plead and hold your breath and turn purple. Well, you could, I suppose. But it won't work. You have to be all articulate and stuff.

At first, Japan hovered on the edges, strokes in the backdrop of my upbringing. My maternal grandfather kept a small jade statue of Kannon in his study, and another one of tigereye next to his reading chair. I loved to walk around them, bending around (I was not allowed to touch, naturally) to watch light glow through the milky, melon-colored jade and set the caramel-colored ribbons in the tigereye rippling through the brown stone. In a woodlbock print of a Kabuki scene, frightening men with white faces and stretched, agonized expressions contorted grotesquely in their quiet dining room. This I stayed away from, but they danced in blue and red, catching my eye every time I went to the kitchen, until I was almost in high school.
My father, stained-glass artist, used bamboo brushes to paint on glass, and let me try them a few times. He had grown up in Fresno, taken judo as a boy from an old sensei. He kept books of kimono, paper patterns, basketweaving and marquetry in his studio to inspire the delicate tessellations of glass he set in lead for his window designs, and more recently, took careful photos of Japanese roofs and porches when I led him through Tokyo. A year later, he proudly showed me a glass portrait of St. Francis Xavier, part of a series of hagiographic church panels. Francis X went to Japan and started a painting school, and the window shows him standing on the veranda of a Japanese house, complete with tiles and sliding doors, gazing up at flame-colored momiji maple leaves.
That was all, when I was little. Colorful origami guides I could never quite master at Christmas. Whispers that the Japanese ate fish raw—why?!—and could kill you with their hands, when I was in middle school. Tidy, quiet Japanese ladies, wives of doctoral students at Hopkins, teaching one semester of Japanese to a sel`ect group of seniors (myself not among them), in high school. Growing up on the East Coast, the closest most of us ever came to Japan was a brother's video game and embarrassing Hello Kitty childhood toys.
Until I took a Japanese history class, taught by a vivacious art history doctoral student from Penn who led us through twelve centuries of Japanese history using mostly slides and an inexhaustible supply of praise for brushstrokes, bubbling glazes, and lacquer. Wandering on a beach the next summer, sorting through potential majors, Japanese came up again and again, for many reasons. I was already familiar with the exotic baubles of Japanese aesthetic culture, and now, more deeply, its history and character. I learned languages quickly and thoroughly, as sixteen years of French would prove, and taking an area-studies major more or less required a study abroad. I was in all the way.
Six years later, having plowed through a dozen textbooks and hundreds of kanji, partied with salarymen in Ueno Park in cherry-blossom season, woken to the scent of incense and the bonging and chanting of a Zen temple's morning prayers, translated a Tokugawa-period manual on wifely behavior, and endured two years of secretary grunt work to get back to graduate school, I still haven't had enough. There are always more kanji, more paintings, more proverbs and gitaigo and ki-idioms.
My current research focuses on the voice of Japanese-ness in Western literature. First of all, the voice of Japanese-ness in the context of naturalization vs. barbarization; more precisely, the choices made by the translators to produce an exotic, “Japanese” voice markedly different from that of a comparable writer in English. While Waley, in his translation of Genji Monogatari, deliberately strove to create a Japanese Camelot for his readers, I argue that it is possible for translators of Japanese classics to unconsciously slip into an overly and overtly exotic, foreignized tone which places the text above the reach of a modern reader. Secondly, the voice of Japanese-ness adopted by non-Japanese writers for their own fiction. Arthur Golden, of Memoirs of a Geisha fame, is the most famous contemporary example, but many others—Pico Iyer, Laura Joh Rowland, Liza Dalby—attempt to produce a Japanese voice in English. Do they succeed, i.e., does this “read” in Japanese, or is it simply an over-exoticized aping of a more delicate and subtle literary collective voice?
Currently, I am starting from the beginnings, taking courses in classical Japanese to plumb the depths of the origins of Japanese literary voice. Study of modern Japanese literature will follow, coupled with close readings of the above-mentioned authors to compare the style and voice. With my degree in linguistics, I have been continuing my study of the intricacies of Japanese language, including an in-depth examination of Haruki Murakami's stylistics, the linguistic analysis of style.
My career aspirations lie in art or writing: museum work or publishing, travel writing or a post at a newspaper or magazine, in Japan, Europe or the United States. I want to understand Japanese like I understand French: to the point where the chatter of children and the murmurings of grandmothers are intelligible, where I get jokes in bars, where the subtitles aren't the first thing I look at in the movies, where regional dialects are intriguing instead of frustrating. I miss Japan, with its narrow streets, rows of bicycles, its energy that flows along different channels than in the US but no less intensely.

The rest is mostly puppy-eyed pleading and flattery, but that ought to give y'all a sense of what I'm doing, why and how, and where I hope it goes.

Rainy Monday...not much else to say. I'm going to a sewing circle tonight to fix up the costumes I bought for my upcoming competition at Harvard. But that's another story entirely.

3 comments:

jeff said...

That was a long post... But strangely, I was enraptured until the end...

Pamela said...

ha. another story indeed ;-).

nicely narrated.

Brian said...

I should've known, but somehow didn't, that I couldn't suddenly remember to come here at 1:30 a.m. and expect to catch up from January on down...

Glad to see, too, that your financial-aid essay is much more interesting than my recent foreign-study-trip essay.

Will have to take the rest later, and get my rest now...