Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning a Language

I came to Japan to learn Japanese. It's as simple as that. Sure, the cultural aspect is important too. Ultimately, though, I came here to learn the language. When I arrived, I could barely greet someone. Now, I can hold my own when introducing myself (in a very limited manner), I can write my name in katakana and kanji, and I can have drunk conversations with random businessmen in izakayas.

This post, though, isn't about learning Japanese.

Instead, I want to talk about English. Every day, I become more fluent in my own language. By teaching English, I'm learning about it. For example, in Japanese, "I must," and "I have to," both roughly translate to the same thing. In English (at least for Americans), we don't really say that we "must" do something unless it's extremely necessary. Before teaching that grammar point, I had never really thought about it. If you say, "I must eat soon," it sounds a bit melodramatic. It's like saying if you don't eat, you'll die.

Still, my English is no where near perfect. Far from it. While in Japan, there are still times when I've had to ask certain people to repeat what they've said... even though it's entirely in English. More often than not, I still don't understand after the second time (due to accent, slang, or inebriation). After the third time of not understanding, I smile silently and nod my head.

(Based on actual conversations... sort of)
"Let's go for a cheeky pint."
"Is the food any good there?"
"Aye, the karage is nice and there's a really fit bartender that works there."

Although I'm in Japan, I've been learning a lot about English from other countries.

The first time I heard the word, "fit," I thought the person was "in shape" or "cut," as I would have used it in California. Then I got really confused when someone used to to describe a girl (which I guess could make sense). After hearing it used several more times, I realized that, "fit," meant "hot." So that girl who I thought was muscular at the time, was really just "hot" all along...

Next is "nice." For me, people are nice. A formal dinner could be nice... though it'd be more the setting that's nice, not the food itself. In this example, I'm not even sure I used the word "nice" correctly. However, I've been hearing it be used interchangeably when I would have used "good." So what's "good food" to me is "nice food." I found it confusing at first that food can be friendly, but it sort of makes sense now.

"Slag," I suppose just means some variation on "slut" but I may be wrong...

As for what makes a pint, "cheeky," I'm still not 100% sure...

However, I could go for a cheeky pint right about now...

Yet, despite our differences in English, we are all fluent Janglish. We'll go out for a tabehoudai, talk about what we're doing for our nenkyuu, count our money in "man," and kanpai at the start of an enkai.

As a great book once said, "Communication is important. You have to speak English. But you don't have to speak perfect English."

This sums it up best. Being in Japan has really opened me to a new horizon of learning English. Now, I must apply it to learning Japanese.

If not... well, at the very least, I know not to call it a "fanny pack" anymore...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Vietnam Checklist

So I decided to compile a list of tasks I want to accomplish in my 2 week trip to Vietnam. My flight is to Hanoi on Christmas Eve and I have to make it to Saigon by January 5th for my return flight. The plan is to take different trains and stop at various cities (such as Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and maybe Mui Ne). Here's what I want to do along the way.

To do:
-Eat pho from a street vendor
-Try cà phê Chồn (
-Crawl in Cu Chi tunnels
-Ride a motorcycle (not necessarily drive, but take a trip as a passenger at least)
-Take a cooking class (and shop for my own ingredients)
-Eat a cobra, venom and heart included
-Buy a tailored dress shirt (or something similar)
-Explore Ha Long Bay on a junk
-See the DMZ
-Eat at an expensive French restaurant (I miss confit de canard so much...)
-Order a beer in Vietnamese

Ha Long Bay

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My 21st Birthday

In America,you drink on your 21st birthday. '21-Shot Extravaganza,' 'Drink 'til you forget,' or 'Drink 'til you puke and drink some more,' are all common themes of 21st birthday parties I've attended. 

My 21st birthday was spent differently.

Due to an impulsive decision (separate story), I spent the summer of my 21st birthday in Paraguay. Now, if I asked the Average American, "Where is Paraguay?" I believe most people would respond with, "What's Paraguay? Isn't that, like, near Mexico or something?" As for me, I at least knew which continent it was on (South America, btw...), but other than that, I was pretty clueless as well. Furthermore, my placement was in rural Paraguay. If there's one thing that's universal around the world, rural and urban areas are always very different. So coming from living in LA for 3 years, I was in for a surprise.

I arrived in Paraguay on July 1st. I spent the first couple days at a rudimentary training session, and then I found myself in the middle of rural Paraguay. It was different to say the least--I was expecting it to be a bit of a shock. My hope was that with my extremely limited Spanish (as in, "Me llamo Justin. Soy de America...), I could get by. I was sadly mistaken. 

In Paraguay, outside of the capital city of Asuncion, most people speak Jopará, or a mix of Guaraní and Spanish. But what exactly is Guaraní? It's f***ing ridiculous; that's what it is. It sounds like French with more nasal sounds, but is structured like Japanese with gender agreements. I arrived in my community expecting to understand very little. Instead, I understood nothing.

That first week was rough--the other volunteer (Axel) in my community and I floundered about for those first few days. We did our best to talk to as many people in our community as possible. In reality, we didn't do much. And before I knew it, it was the second week and the week of my birthday.

Growing up, my birthday normally wasn't celebrated much. In grade school, I was lucky if my class celebrated my 'half-birthday.' Most of the time, though, during summer break, it would just sort of... pass by. So that summer especially, I was not expecting to celebrate my birthday.

I figured I would buy some cookies or whatever to share with my host family. I mean, I just met them and on top of that, I could barley hold a conversation in their second language (Spanish), much less their first language. I didn't want to impose or make them feel obligated to do something.

My community thought otherwise.

Yes, this picture is exactly what it looks like. A pig eating a pig.

So they killed a pig. 

I guess I should explain. Living in a rural area meant most farms had some livestock. So, in an extreme gesture of generosity, I had a pig dinner for my birthday. (In Paraguay, a pig the size of a large dog probably costs around $80-100. For a family with an income that comes from selling chipas [Paraguayan bread] for about .$20 each, it's a mini-fortune.)

After killing the pig, they started a fire to roast it over. By the end, it would take all day to cook, while its tantalizing smell continuously permeated throughout the entire house. Instead of eating lunch, we sat around waiting for it to finish. 

I remember Axel's host mom asking us if we were hungry. It was still early, maybe around 3pm or so, but we figured she was suggesting we sneak a bite of it early. Naturally, we said yes.

Instead, Axel's host sister brought out a large pot and pulled something out--it was the pig's head, boiled but mostly intact. Fork and knife in hand, I shrugged my shoulders and dug in. I was hungry. I've eaten weird stuff before, and so I figured certain parts were good to eat (I've had cow tongue and fish cheek, so those parts of the pig's head seemed normal-ish). It was an little unnerving going at the head still fully intact, but I didn't want to seem ungrateful.

We picked away at the pig's head right down to the skull. Some parts of it weren't particularly appetizing, but at least it was over. Right? 

Wrong. Axel's host sister picked up a spoon and with two hard whacks, she cracked a hole in the top of the skull. She then stuck the same spoon inside, swirled around the brains, and scooped out a mouthful. And then handed it to me.

What would you do? Ignoring the fact that it resembled pinkish cottage cheese with veins, or its distinct smell of, well, boiled brain, would you accept? 

Without hesitation. It is your birthday.

"Mmmm.... muy rico..."

After I licked the spoon clean, I handed it back. As for my chaser--another spoonful.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

From Recreational to Addiction

"Well... we might as well, even if it's only for 2 hours."

Stephen, Ali, and I were mulling over our itinerary for Tous Saints Week. Since we were all studying abroad at L'Université de Bordeaux, we had the same holidays as French students. This holiday meant a full week off to do whatever we wanted at the end of October. For the French, it's a week to sit in a café, nurse an espresso, chain-smoke some cigarettes, and people watch. In other words, exactly what they would do anyway, except now they could relax all day instead of just most of the day. However, for us, les américans, it was a prime chance to see the rest of Europe. With our Eurail Pass in hand, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Benelux (BElgium, NEtherlands, and LUxembourg) were all within reach. We had already paid for unlimited travel in these 4 regions for a set number of days. Now all it would take to go to any of these countries was a train schedule and the time it took to get there.

"I mean, it is 3 hours out of the way. Plus we'd have to backtrack after..." 
"Yeah... but we could get up early and sleep on the train..."

Partway through out trip, we found ourselves in Brussels, Belgium. We were discussing a possible change in our travel plans over a few Trappist beers. Maybe it's the fault of that 12% beer we drank. (Side story: While we were drinking outside, a hobo saw us drinking it. He taught us it's called 'douze' and seemed to applaud our alcoholism.) The more likely cause--at this point, we were all already addicted to traveling. We just weren't fully aware of it yet. 

The question was simple enough: whether or not we should go to Luxembourg. We were planning on going to Amsterdam the following day. However, with our pass, we could go to Luxembourg as well. From Brussels, Luxembourg would be three hours away by train. Our final destination for the day (and our hostel), Amsterdam, was also three hours away from Brussels... but in the opposite direction. Changing our plans would mean a total of 9 hours spent on a train: three to get to Luxembourg, three to go back to Brussels, and then three more to get to Amsterdam.

"Well, if we were to go... according to the timetable... if we arrive in Luxembourg at 11, leave by 1, and then take the train to Amsterdam, we could still make it there in time for dinner..."

In hindsight, this was the tipping point, the moment when a recreational pastime became a full-fledged addiction. We were only in France for about three months. After the innocent, occasional day trip to various French cities (wine tasting in St. Emillion, the fortified city of Carcassonne, or sipping Cognac in Cognac), we spent a full weekend in Barcelona. This was harmless enough, but then it grew out of control--a week-long, whirlwind tour through France, Brussels, Brugges, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Munich. And now, perhaps Luxembourg--just because it's there and we could.

Were we really going to travel to an entire country just because it's there? Really? Did Luxembourg have any cool, must-see monuments or attractions? Well... not really. Any specialty food that we had to try? Nope. Is their culture any different than France? Not particularly. Do they speak a different language? Well, technically yes (Luxembourgish), but everyone (99% of people*) speaks French.

*This is a made-up statistic, but probably true...

Yet, as soon as it became the possibility to visit a new country, the opportunity to check off another place on the map, and the chance to say later on, "Luxembourg? Yeah I've been there," the decision was already made subconsciously by all of us. All we were doing at this point was trying to justify it to ourselves.

"So... the train leaves at 8? I'll set my alarm."
"I'll set mine too. We're going to be tired."