The first time I took the GRE was a total disaster. The two months I spent making sure that I knew my GRE vocab were wasted: the verbal section was not that difficult. The math section on the other hand... Well, I timed out. Driving home from the exam, I cursed myself. How did this happen?! Math was the thing I was good at! A perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT and another 800 on the SAT subject test were testament to this! On the other hand, I still remembered--oh so painfully--how, a year after moving to the US from Russia, I only got a 22% on the verbal section of the SSAT. With standardized tests, trying to catch up on my English was always my priority. What was the deal with the GRE score then?
As I walk down the same street once, twice, thrice, I wonder what it will be like to have walked down this street a hundred times. Two hundred times. I wonder what I will be like. I wonder how things will look different to me. I wonder, as I go about my day, which parts will become routine and which will fade into "I did that once" memories. Today, as I walked I thought I saw someone from home. This man's stride and the way he bent his head down, ruffling his hair as he went made me start. But of course it was someone else.
The IUC Program began on Monday. They got us (44 of the 45 that are in the program) into a large classroom and after some brief remarks, each person--student or staff--got up to introduce themselves in Japanese. There is simply nothing less conducive to a group getting to know each other. Even if I hadn't been nervously rehearsing what I was about to say (or sweating about what I had just said), I could hardly keep sixty consecutive introductions straight.
Starting that morning, the participants of the program are not allowed to speak English on the 5th floor of the Pacifico Yokohama building. This is, of course, to encourage us to practice speaking Japanese. All over the offices and shared spaces, there are signs that say, "No English" or "英語禁止”.
We also learned some more details about our placement exams. These will determine what class level we are assigned to. There are seven parts to this test. The first one was a speaking test, a 15-minute interview with one of the teachers. On Tuesday morning, we sat for a four hour exam. There were sections for kanji, listening, reading, and, finally, grammar. There was also a take-home writing test. We will find out about our placement on Friday, when we will each have a 20-25 minute evaluation session with one of the teachers.
Saturday edit: The evaluation session came and went. Now, I have a five-pointed graph with a pentagon showing me how I compare to the average IUC student: the smaller and more irregular, the worse and more unbalanced your skill set. My little wobbly pentagon of current and future anxiety. The handy numerical breakdown of 12 years of learning and forgetting.
Duration of my flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo: 10 hr 50 min
Number of people sitting next to me on the flight: 0
Movie highlight of the flight: re-watching 1993 Harrison Ford classic, The Fugitive which was originally recommended to me (and the rest of his Plato class) by Palle Yourgrau while he was teaching Crito. Particularly enjoyed the scene that prompted that recommendation, where Harrison Ford yells "I didn't kill my wife" at Tommy Lee Jones and Tommy Lee Jones says "I don't care."
Most embarrassing moment: forgetting my carry on bag on the plane.
Most pleasant (and still puzzling) surprise: finding said carry on waiting for me on a cart with all my other luggage picked up and put together by airline attendant.
A smooth hour and a half bus ride later, I arrived to Yokohama.
Picture 1: Japan has various regional designs for manhole
covers. They are generally quite intricate and pretty.
Jet lag. I spent most of the day unpacking and cleaning my room.
Picture 2: User guide sticker on my toilet
Text below picture on the left: "For use by men to pee"
Text below picture on the right: "For use to poop and for women to pee"
Despite the attempts of the plumbing to enforce gender roles, the place is excellent. The neighborhood is lovely. It's quiet and green and residential. There is a park nearby with a lake. The train station is about a 7 minute walk away, named after the Buddhist temple that is right by it. I tried to look up information about this temple online, but the two top hits for it are the Wikipedia page for the station and a TripAdvisor review for the Denny's location across the street from my apartment. The Denny's, by the way, sports one English language review, titled: "Better than you think it would be." The review goes on to mention that this Denny's is a good place for family as it serves both steak and sushi...
Still jet lag. Today I officially registered at my apartment's address, which means the address is listed on my official Japanese ID. I brought my lease with me but the Ward Office did not request any sort of confirmation that I do, in fact, reside at this address. Unless they called my landlady while I waited for my card, I literally could have made the address up. Apparently, it's harder to get an LA library card than get an official address with the Japanese government.
My flatmate and I also went to check out the place we will be studying at, to get a sense of the route and the location. Turns out this is the building I will be having class in for the upcoming year:
And this is the view from that building:
Alas, my all too in-character reaction to seeing all this was to become more nervous about the upcoming classes and feel more insecure about my Japanese.
A mix of cyberpunk dystopian Tokyo cityscapes, motorcycle chases, explosive psychic powers, and a grab bag of questions about who and what we are, Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, was a landmark film. The 1988 instant classic was one of the first movies to make anime popular outside of Japan. Moreover, it had an incredible influence not only on later anime but also on popular Western films like The Matrix and Looper. In the last scene of the film, the main character, Tetsuo, finally gains control of his psychic powers and, disappearing into a new world which he creates, he says: "I am Tetsuo."
I watched Akira for the first time my freshman year of college. It was an assignment for a Post-war Japanese film and literature course that I was taking toward my East Asian Studies major. Japan and all things related were my sole, all-consuming interest. And then, when I got back from my year abroad in Kyoto, I took a Philosophy of Action course. This changed everything. Inspired by my new love of philosophy, I spent two years earning an MA in philosophy at Northern Illinois University before continuing on to PhD work at the University of Southern California. At the present moment, I have been at USC for three years.
About a year into studying philosophy at USC, I decided to get in touch with a friend of my undergraduate advisor who works on Buddhism in USC's religion department. I took an independent study on Buddhist philosophy with her my second fall and, encouraged by her feedback, applied for a fellowship to study Japanese over the summer at UCLA. The moment I began that course, I realized how right it felt to be studying Japanese. I realized that I want to devote a lot more time to this. So, I began studying Japanese Buddhism a lot more seriously and applied to IUC's Yokohama program--a 10-month long language program for professionals who require Japanese language for their career (https://web.stanford.edu/dept/IUC/cgi-bin/). Tomorrow, I am leaving to start the IUC program in Japan and this blog's purpose is to chronicle this trip.
However, let's get back to Akira and the name of this blog. The word for "philosophy" in Japanese is 哲学 (tetsugaku) and the word for "philosopher" is 哲学者 (tetsugakusha). So, the title of the blog is a kind of punny reference to Akira. I am not Tetsuo, but I am a philosopher. I like this pun in particular because it is a very Japanese kind of pun. There is a term, kakekotoba, for a device frequently used in Classical Japanse poetry, which means that a particular character or word has one meaning when combined with the words before it and another meaning combined with the words after. This kind of device is one of the ways that Japanese poetry can be so expressive while being incredibly succinct. Now, the title pun isn't quite like that, but I chose it for the fact that it is reminiscent of this kind of technique. I also like that the pun only works when it is written in English and not when it's written in Japanese. The name of the character Tetsuo is 鉄雄 where the first character "tetsu" means "iron" and the second "o" means "hero." So the "tetsu" of Tetsuo is not at all the same "tetsu" of "tetsugaku." This odd mismatch reflects the kind of stumbling that I'm about to embark on. Going to Japan for a year is going to be a wonderful adventure but I will likely be doing it with characteristic awkwardness which I hope to convey on this blog. In a way, like Tetsuo, I am disappearing from the world I'm used to and going on to create a new life elsewhere. I am Tetsugakusha.