After spending half my Saturday glued to Fallout: New Vegas, the crack cocaine of interactive video entertainment, I realized that although I had gorged myself thoroughly on radiated rat meat and such within the game, I had neglected to eat any real life food. Embarrassed, I asked my brother if I could borrow his car keys so that I might venture out for some Vietnamese. Food.

“Sure,” he said. He jammed a hand into his pants pocket and produced an enormous, unwieldy entanglement of metal.

Thanking him with a smirk, I received the metallic jumble and made my exit. By the time I pulled the Chevy out from the driveway, I’d already realized that these keys carried a metaphysical weight far heavier than the physical one assigned by Earth’s gravity. Though multitudinous and jumbled to the point of hilarity, these keys were a symbol of my brother’s growth, each one representative of a single responsibility he’d taken upon himself–a milestone in his life. Among them: the key to his Chevy, the key to his wife’s car, two keys to the house he now owned, and a key to the office where he worked. Supplementally, a cast iron bottle opener key ring–seemingly a reminder that amongst all these responsibilities, there must still remain times for merriment. These were the keys of an established, well-rounded adult.

I took out my own key ring to compare. A single, borrowed house key with a note still attached from when I’d lost it earlier in the week, and the same iron bottle opener. The visual impact was mortifying. My twenty-six years had culminated in this, a physical embodiment of my lack of responsibility or commitment, of an existence where drinking and living bore equal weight. Today’s menu would be phở ga with just a hint of my own bile.

On the other hand, life experiences, girlfriends, and world travels don’t have keys. Yet.

Reverse Culture Shock 101: CUSTOMER SERVICE

Well if this isn’t the mother of all shocking cultural phenomena, I’ll eat my goddamn hat. And I’m bald, so I don’t relish the idea.

After living in Japan for awhile, I started to miss the ostentatious humanity of American service. I began to reminisce:

“You’d go into a sandwich shop back home, say ‘How are you today?’ to the clerk, and they’d reply with a personally tailored answer. ‘I’m AWESOME today.'” A good waitress would tell you an hilarious anecdote, and your local banker would commiserate when you complained about fees. Of course, this meant that when a server was having a bad day, so were you. “How you doing today?” you would say to a cab driver. “To be honest, I’m having a shitty day.” And then, like magic, his problem would become your problem.

Japan, by comparison, operates under the questionable philosophy that “the customer is God.” Questionable because, in reality, most places in Japan are wholly under-qualified and unwilling to meet those lofty standards (in detail). Also because customers, most of the time, are not God.

Still, as long as you stick to the rulebook and don’t startle anyone with outlandish requests like “Please don’t splash mayonnaise all over everything the way you always do,” you’ll be in store for some nearly royal treatment. They greet you boisterously when you enter. They apologize for everything, including when they serve you. “I am being rude,” they say as they place the correct thing you ordered in front of you with two hands, the act sandwiched between bows of consciously calculated depth. In the rare event that they make a mistake, like, say, mixing up your order or dropping a napkin, you will either receive a profuse apology of likewise consciously calculated pitch and timbre, or you will feel a thick cloud of tension form directly over your table as the server whimpers, “I have been rude,” as though actually bracing for the wrath of God. “Don’t worry about it,” you say. “It’s just pancakes.” And you almost start to feel like God.

Nevertheless, I eventually reached a point of stalemate, where it seemed that both styles of service had their charms. On the one hand, it’s fun to have unscripted interactions with real-life human beings with feelings, not to mention great practice for life on Planet Earth, where you will frequently be forced into such interactions (though less and less, now). American service holds with it the faint twinkle of a promise that America itself also holds, which is that you may at least pursue your own route to happiness. You might even get a date or a new best friend out of it. But you make your own damn bed. On the other hand, while I don’t believe the customer is God, I do believe the customer is a customer, and that whether this status is permanent or transient depends in part on the server. I also believe that regardless of real-world practices, basic economic theory–in any country–holds, as a fundamental datum, that the customer IS NOT YOUR FUCKING COUNSELOR.

Now having said that, I’m fine with the chatty cab driver who gripes about his day. I’m fine with the commiserating banker. I’m happy to talk to these people or at least give them a chance, but there has to be some role-defining line between the customer and server, if only to remind everybody that there is in fact a reason they showed up at this specific location. Surely I’m not the only one who, time and again, has felt the awkward sting of transition from Friendly Banter Mode to “Give Me My Shit” Mode at the local Starbucks or Baskin-Robbins.

Server: “Hi, how are you?”

Customer: “Doing great, thanks. And you?”

Server: “I’m awesome.”

RIGHT HERE. This is the exact spot where, every time, there is an instant of unclarity. Do you just spew out your order after that personal exchange? But doing that would effectively nullify the personal nature of the exchange. It says to the server, “Yeah, I’m just interested in my order, not in you.” But the sad reality is, you didn’t go to Starbucks to find out if “Austin” has been having an okay day. Everybody knows this, but to acknowledge it is to brand oneself “callous”, or “snobbish”, or “a douche”. So we maintain the illusion of personal interaction. When it comes time to take care of business, then, we falter.

“Um,” we begin, necessarily. You see, it just now occurred to us that we could maybe place an order, as long as we’re getting to know each other on an intimate level in what appears, upon close inspection, to be a coffee shop. “Um, could I get a Tall Latté, man?

We ask, with the implicit agreement that despite the fact that this is a place constructed for the sole purpose of making and selling lattés, we might not be able to get one, if it’s not okay with the server. Whether we realize it or not, these exchanges are just as calculated as the frantic kowtowing of any Japanese Gusto waitress. The difference is that we are customers.

Here’s why I think that might be important, and why we as Americans might have something to brag about after all.

In today’s The Moth Podcast, seasoned war reporter Phil Caputo concluded with this observation: “Maybe it’s a requirement that all of us have to share in each other’s sufferings, or risk losing our humanity.”

Maybe there’s no maybe about it. If there’s something positive to say about the American way, it’s that it constantly reminds you that every single person you know, every single person you deal with, is a person. And the rate at which we may forget that if not reminded, and the deeds of which we may be capable as a result, are a far more shocking reality of all cultures.

Trends That Have Emerged in My Absence from This Country (Part One of Question Mark)

1. The music from “Benny Hill” has become the hip pop culture reference du jour.

2. The term hipster has gone from something only hipsters-in-denial knew about to something all people use all the time.

3. The iPhone has become a household appliance for many, but somehow also become the object of extreme hatred for many others.

4. The term geek has come to mean anyone with more than a passing interest in anything. Know how to fix a car? You’re a car geek. Know how to do anything else useful or interesting? You’re a (insert applicable category) geek.

5. Saying “Really?” when you think something is stupid.

Subjective versus Objective Hardness

In my decade-spanning experience of telling people I’ve studied Japanese, I’ve discovered that people who haven’t studied Japanese tend to believe with some consistency that Japanese is “hard”. Here’s an example of a common exchange:

Greg: “I study Japanese.”

Dr. Huxtable: “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Or here’s another one:

Greg: “Why yes, Greta, I do study Japanese.”

Greta von Blunderbuss: “Mein gott! How do you do it?! Isn’t it hard?! I mean, it’s Japanese!

Yes, Greta, yes it is. But it’s only hard because we don’t already know it. I’ve long stressed that Japanese is in fact, in the grand scheme of things, relatively easy. Relative to other languages, that is.

Take English. English is a great language to know already, because it’s a throbbing pain in the ass to try and learn. Ever noticed how it’s full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but also full of exceptions to those rules? “I before E, except after C, and when sounding like ‘ay’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Also, inexplicably, in words like leisure and weird. Well that’s weird.

Japanese, meanwhile, has few exceptions to its rules, which seems to reflect the culture as a whole. Rules are made to be followed. People are made to follow rules. That’s how you come up with something like karate, which is a set of rules and regulations outlining the proper way to beat someone. And like a karate chop, the rules and fundamentals of the Japanese language are, mostly, clear-cut and concise; they rarely contain conjunctions.

Japanese also dispenses with many of the erroneous elements of language, again reflecting Japan’s tendency as a culture to cut away impractical or nonfunctional elements, or at least to section them off to specific quarters where they can somehow make someone money. In terms of the language, this includes the elimination of plurals, articles, and subject-verb agreement. In fact, you often don’t even have to specify subjects or objects, meaning you can sometimes communicate a whole idea with just a verb. Example!

Have a look at this realistic English back-and-forth:

Henry Q. Halibut: “What happened to the cookies?”

Joe P. Filibuster: “I ate them.”

Now, here’s that same conversation, in Japanese, then literally translated back into English.

Hiroshi McBedwetter: “Cookie, what happened?”

Jirô Kantgetabreak: “Ate.”

It is clear from context that Jirô means that he ate them. But look how much time he saved. Although incidentally, the Japanese word for “ate” is three syllables. But that’s beside the point.

Okay, well if you’re still not convinced Japanese is simple, let’s compare sound banks. English has twenty-six letters in its alphabet, and yet there are forty-four sounds. The number of ways these sounds can be spelled exceeds 500. This is because English is rife with redundant letters and digraphs, even at a basic level: C, Q, X, Ph, and Wh each serve no unique purpose. If the English alphabet’s economy collapsed and they started downsizing letters, these would be the first to go. Japanese, by comparison, has five vowel sounds and ten other sounds. Surprised? If so, maybe it’s because you’re aware that they have two syllabaries (like alphabets, but where one character represents a whole syllable), each of which has forty-six characters. That means that even at a basic level, you’ll have to learn ninety-two characters. Why so many characters when they only have fifteen sounds? Glad you asked, audience in my head.


As it happens, the two syllabaries are two representations of the same sounds; Hiragana is your standard script, while Katakana is used primarily for borrowed words, secondarily for expressing various types of emphasis–something like how we use italics in English, except that it’s actually a whole set of characters you have to memorize, not just a tilting of the paper. Yes, this too is reflective of the Japanese culture, where outside influences are kept separate, even though they are the foundation for many of its fundamental elements. They may induct our words into their language, but they’ll never confuse them for real Japanese. They’ve got a system for that.

So you’re effectively learning two ways to write each of forty-six characters. But how’d they turn fifteen sounds into even forty-six characters?


First you’ve got one character for each vowel sound: A, I, U, E, O (あ、い、う、え、お). Then you’ve got your ten consonant sounds, each of which must be coupled with a vowel. The only consonant that can stand alone in Japanese is the n sound (ん). The others must have a vowel with them. Thus, you have a character for ka, a different character for ki, a different character for ku, and so on. There is no way to just write k. Only k plus a vowel. Eventually this adds up to forty-six. Sound hard? Well, maybe for a month or two, but consider this: After you’ve learned two write these, you can write every single sound in the Japanese language, no matter what the context. So maybe one day, you overhear a Japanese guy drop a phrase like, kinshin sôkan. “Hmm,” you say. “I wonder what in the world that means.” Luckily, you know how it sounds because you overheard it, so you can immediately type it into your trusty electronic dictionary and get the answers you crave. “Well how ’bout that,” you say not even a whole minute later. “It meant ‘incest.'”

By contrast, you can learn the English alphabet in a day, but still have no idea how to spell anything since there are five hundred combinations of those letters to choose from. If a Japanese guy overheard someone talking about pneumonic devices, he could spend hours trying to figure out how to type it into a dictionary without it ever occurring to him that it starts with a P. Why does it start with a P? To be sure, there is a reason. But not a very good one. Even native speakers have trouble with spelling, sometimes for their entire lives. Meanwhile, the phonetic, syllabic nature of Japanese’s writing system prevents such plights–at least, initially.

Some of you more well-versed folk might storm in at this point like the Rightness Police and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, right there, cue-ball. I know about kanji. There’s at least 2000 of those little bastards you gotta learn. That’s way harder than learning to spell!” Well, you’re sort of right, but on the other hand, kanji may be the single greatest tool in learning Japanese. But that’s another post for another day.

Today we’re talking about subjective versus objective hardness. Objectively speaking, Japanese isn’t that hard. It’s a language built on minimalism and by-the-book consistency, which is great since by-the-book is probably how you’ll be studying it. Japanese is, however, subjectively hard to many native English speakers, simply because it is so different. Everything is different. The way they put together ideas, and hence the ideas they strive to put together, are different at their core. Example!

In English, we say, “I want a delicious muffin.”

We also say, “Today I want to eat a delicious muffin.”

Note that the word want in English expresses a desire, whether it be towards an object, or towards a course of action. Your desire to have a thing and your desire to do a thing are equated through the like use of the word want.

Now here’s how you’d say those same two things in Japanese:

”私はおいしいマフィンが欲しいです。” (Watashi wa oishii MUFFIN ga hoshii desu)

”私はおいしいマフィンが食べたいです。” (Watashi wa oishii MUFFIN ga tabetai desu)

Note that there is no like word for want. Wanting a thing and wanting to do something are completely unrelated concepts here. To the native English speaker, this can be quite perplexing. They’ll learn how to say “I want a thing” and think that means they can now express any idea covered by the English word want. In reality, the realm of applicable uses for a given term is defined completely differently in Japanese, and thus the Japanese student must always be cautious of context. Always.

A native Korean speaker, on the other hand, already knows a language that shares many characteristics and roots with Japanese, and thus will likely find that Japanese comes quite naturally, whereas a language like English might seem completely alien. Why do we have to say “the” and “a” and “he” and “she” to the point of tedium? Why do they equate the “sticking” of a movie theater floor with the “sticking” of a gear shifter?

For us, the key to learning Japanese and conquering this subjective hardness lies in keeping fluid mental boundaries that allow you to reshape and regroup familiar concepts. “Light blue” is only a type of blue because we say it is. Food and drink are only separate because we have separate words for them. Couldn’t badgers and ferrets be called the same thing? Couldn’t we have a word specifically for that tingly feeling you get in your head in the midst of a great quiet, when something brushes against your back (does anybody know the one I mean?)? The advantage to learning a language with such different fundamentals is that it breaks you away from the mental cage our limited vocabulary builds around us. You can literally feel it expanding your mind. When people ask me why I study Japanese, I answer, “Because I’m too much of a wuss to keep up a drug habit.” Or at least, I should.

More hot-blooded seminar action to come.

More Nakata and Nakata Knock-Offs

The past two days I’ve watched two movies, as per the plan. The first was Hideo Nakata’s “Kaidan”, based on the works of Japan’s darling detective writer with a penchant for the macabre, Edogawa Rampo (whose name is a derivative of “Edgar Allan Poe”). Like most J-horror movies, the main conflict of the movie revolves around a terrible, terrible Japanese woman turned obsessive after being spurned by a man. On this level, the movie is terrifying. Unfortunately, it falls victim to a handful of terrible CG effects along the way, but nothing so bad as to ruin what is otherwise an entertaining story with lush, well-shot imagery. Not the scariest movie out there, but a good story and worth a watch.

The second was “Rasen”, sequel to Nakata’s “Ring(u)”, but not a Nakata movie, as it happens. Nakata’s sequel, “Ring(u) 2” came out afterward and was apparently intended to cancel out or exist autonomously from “Rasen”. “Ring(u) 2” was decidedly the more frightening of the two (“Rasen” has virtually no shock moments to speak of), but “Rasen” is the one based on Kôji Suzuki’s original follow-up novel to Ring. The story is interesting and ultimately proves much greater in scope than “Ring(u) 2”, but as a horror movie–and the sequel to “Ring(u)”, no less–it falls flat. “Rasen” is arguably not a horror movie at all. The only ghost appearances are sexy ones. Quite the contrast when you consider Sadako’s utter sliminess in the first movie. Hard to recommend this movie to anyone who’s not more than a moderate fan of the series. Only worth it if you’re interested in Ring canon.

Still trying to decide what to watch tonight, but perhaps some real scares are in order.