I Have The World, But It’s At The Tip Of My Tongue

Express yourself. I feel like those words echo permanently in the back of my head, whether it’s in the voice of my parents, teachers or some Disney channel star from 10+ years ago. I think about it a lot when I have a new idea for a blog, or when I’m trying to explain something to a friend with no background in a topic, or just concepts from school that a classmate doesn’t get. When you think about it it’s pretty hard to get out of your head enough to lay down the basics and build up from there. Opinions? You have to back them up with the personal and objective. Ideas? The who, what, where, why, etcetera. Academic/business concepts? Reworking things to fit your audience. It’s tiring, and flustering, and as fun as it is dreadful. But complicating that with another language? Whew, buckle in buddy because it’s a hell of a ride.

It’s a mix of relevant culture, limited vocabulary and pops of grammar that feel like my roadblocks. I’m learning Japanese, and speaking strictly to this experience – the beauty and limitations of this language. The rich references to poets and nobles and daimyo? Lost on me; I was born and raised in a country younger than some trees, never mind a history stretching back many hundreds of years. You want to talk in-depth about anything? Politics, the latest movies, new art trends? I’ll give it my all, but don’t be surprised when my adjectives run out pretty fast. As for grammar that I understand, I’ll chalk it up to a generous 1/2, but when the slang and dialects and emphatic styles come out to play I’m in my own sandbox. I’m sorry, but I’m still learning and there’s an absolute wealth of things about which, honestly, a toddler knows more. Those are the basics of my inability to express.

Adjectives are a messy business that give me problems beyond my student status. They’re my real qualms with the Japanese language, the things that get me every time, and I truly mean that. If something’s tasty, it’s oishii. Cool person, or cute clothes or plushies? Kakkoi or kawaii. Awesome things are sugoi or subarashii. And that’s pretty much it. While I know that there are plenty of words I don’t know yet, or that get used in literary and academic pieces that explore and play with the beauty and complexity of the language in the fullest, it’s not something you hear at all in every day speech. And it’s both irritating and sad.

Food shows are the best display of this. Everything is oishii, paired with the expected face of surprise at how good the dish is. And that’s all. Nothing on the texture, the flavors, how the food blends and balances with other components of the meal, just that it’s ‘delicious’. But if everything is oishii, then really nothing is oishii and we come away from the program learning nothing about that food in particular besides the 5-second zoom in on whatever the person eating holds up with their chopsticks. And that’s so bland and uninformative.

What’s sad, really, is that I find myself doing the same thing everyday with my host family. At the end of a meal I’ll happily exclaim oishii, but with no other words I fall short there, praise sitting in my mouth and clawing to get out, only it’s in English. My attempts have been to emphasize how strong a flavor is, or that the texture is interesting. Not exactly groundbreaking commentary, and so I withhold now. It’s with regret every time.

Daily life is even more interesting, because whether it’s me with my childish foundations or the Japanese students I’m talking to it seems the same 5 adjectives get tossed around in a game of hot potato. Nothing beyond yabai (bad) and tanoshii (fun), on top of what I’ve already mentioned. And when you can’t explain things beyond this handful of words it feels like there’s no depth to the conversation. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed my time with my Japanese friends, because I have and it’s been a great hangout and learning experience every time. But we often flip between Japanese and English, with the latter being how I explain my feelings on a lot of things because I simply can’t in Japanese.

For example, the word ‘magnificent’. My friend is tutoring 2 high schoolers right now, and this came up in one of their readings. When explaining it, the girls proposed the word subarashii, which means awesome or wonderful. And while that isn’t untrue, it’s not quite right. Because magnificent is a level above; it’s a mastery of something, an incredible display of skill that takes your breath away and is saved for things like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal. And if you use an everyday word like subarashii to equate with something like that, you’re missing out on the meaning and we’re just lost in translation. Which is my big problem.

Words have a lot of definitions. Meanings can vary, nuances layered upon each other in slightly different uses of the word, and it happens in both Japanese and English all the time. Japanese isn’t some subpar, lacking language. But in the field of feelings, descriptive words and nailing down emotions and impressions, I find myself tongue-tied and a broken record personified as my mouth wraps itself around the same few words fifty times a day. My experience in comparing the two languages has me seeing Japanese as seriously lackluster in this descriptive process; there are so many words in English, in the vein of magnificent, that would all turn into one word (like subarashii) if you were to go translating. And how sad is it to lose all of those nuances, those slightly and yet beautifully varied words that evoke such different images, because they simply don’t exist in another language?

It breaks my heart and distances me, in my every day, because I feel like I can’t dig and express as deeply as I’d like to. I manage, and a lot of my personality and involved body language helps, but I honestly yearn for those pauses where, instead of scrambling for words that aren’t there, I’m sifting through the piles upon piles of words trying to figure out which one fits just right. Because I want to go deeper, I want to share who I am and what I think. Because there are so many things I’m passionate about and want to truly talk about rather than just polite chatter. And it’s all at the tip of my tongue. And that’s not good enough but it’s all that I have.