Thought I would try something a little different. This is the first of a two part excerpt from my yet to be published book – 10KLRS. I have tweaked it for blog reading consumption. Won’t be doing this very often, so enjoy it while you can.
How many times per hour do you use the word “I”? Likely, more than one hundred. In Japan, the average Japanese person uses the Japanese equivalent, “watashi“, about five times per hour. I know I counted once.
Words are powerful, and whenever I pay close attention to the words a person chooses I glean a little insight into that person’s character—Except for my own. I got so stuck in the habit of using the same words over and over that I am sure any outside observer who happened to be paying attention could get an insider’s view of my character—a narcissist.
Before moving to Japan, I rarely thought about the word “I” because I used it so much. It has taken years of living in Japan to shake this habit and let go of my favorite word, though this one powerful word has given me many insights into the differences between Japan and the United States.
In the Japanese language, there are a few words that represent “I,” such as boku, which means specifically a male “I.”; the female equivalent is watashi. Little did I know that this was the female version. And ore, which is a casual exclusively male form of “I” meant to lower your status to humble. With these three examples, I want to say it doesn’t matter in the end. Why? Because there is no need to constantly acknowledge oneself.
My “I” evolution illustrated that learning another language in an academic setting, while helpful for building a foundation, does not prepare you for real life. I won’t go into the structural-grammar differences between English and Japanese, it will make your head spin, but when learning a language you reach a point in your development that your brain must go through an internal scramble to adjust. The first sign of this scramble are headaches followed by a feeling of pressure that your brain is about to explode; followed by the final phase, surrender. In this final phase your brain no longer fights the invading new language, and thus starts to flow with it. This process can take years from start to finish.
While studying Japanese at the University of Minnesota, I experienced the first phase, headaches. It wasn’t until I was living in Japan for a few years before the brain-exploding phase hit me. I thought I was going crazy. At least 50% had to do with “I,” and the remaining 50% straight up culture shock.
Fueling my insanity from afar were my university Japanese teachers. To my ultimate piss-off, they had insisted I use watashi at the beginning of each sentence: Watashi wa sushi o tabemasu, “I will eat sushi”; Watashi wa restoran ni ikimasu , “I will go to the restaurant”; or, the most commonly used phrase Watashi no namae wa Aren desu, “My name is Allen.”
Mimicking the English language, I added this watashi word to everything! I think my craziness could have been alleviated much sooner had my professors thought to reveal that nobody in Japan uses I-I-I-I-I constantly.
If you want to know how it all turns out, come on back for part two!