Daigaku Z: Storm Warning

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

It’s been a bit of a rough week for the OTDT crew, and while I would love to dish about everything that’s going on, unfortunately I’m not at liberty to discuss a significant part of it. Rather than just leave you hanging with that news, what I can say to put you all at ease is that we are doing everything within our power to ensure that this is as bad as it gets. It’s all upside from here. We hope.

The situation is not what I want to talk about, but rather a common symptom of having to deal with the world’s stresses while going through college: the problem of panic. The first time I went through college, those four years were some of the strangest of my life in terms of life upheaval. And yes, I count coming out as not nearly as chaotic as my first trip. A lot happened throughout the span from ’98 to ’02, not least of which was 9/11.

College is a time of foreshortened adolescence: we still have some of the supports that we did during our standard schooling, but we are edging our way into the world and facing all that it can bring to bear against us. In times of peace it’s a scary prospect. We have not seen times of peace for a very long time. More than that, we are facing an untenable situation when we get out– the Economic Policy Institute estimates that for those of us who graduated this past spring, over 7% of us face total unemployment while an additional 15% face underemployment (working while not being able to find a job in our fields, or not being able to find a full-time job). That’s a 1-in-5 chance that your college degree is of little to no help in finding work. No wonder people stress out.

So it’s probably no surprise that stress is a major factor in dealing with college life. The pressures of both our present and our future– balancing study with work in internships or self-directed projects– drain our capacity to handle them faster than we can restore them. As a matter of fact, restoration is often completely disregarded when planning things out; sleep is the most obvious sacrifice, but even hobbies and down-time get dropped from the schedule when things get busy. My freshman semester at school was a nightmare, as I had the brilliant idea to not bring any of my game consoles. This led to soul-destroying Sunday afternoons, when all of my work was done and I had pent-up stress.

Pitt is moving into its mid-term week now, and so there are a lot of students freaking out over the possibility of blowing out their entire semester’s grades on one bad performance. I’d be lying if I said I was free of stress about my own exams starting tomorrow. But the thing to remember is that at the end of the day, the time that you spend relaxing and resting is just as important as the time you spend studying and cramming. Americans in particular are conditioned to feel guilty about spending time “non-productively”. This is something that needs to be fixed, but not today. Today, it’s Netflix and chilled drinks.

Daigaku Z: Better Living Through Saccharine

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

The mid-semester break was good for me for a number of reasons, most of them having to do with sitting on my butt and playing video games. That’s not to say that that’s all I’ve done since the last column, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a significant portion. In any event, video games came up on more than one occasion during the break, and all of them were quite beneficial.

If you follow our podcast (which is currently on its season break), you’ll remember that I was a particularly vociferous advocate of the game Puyo Puyo Tetris. Sadly it has no chance of release in North America now, due to it being two years old and on what is now last-generation hardware. But that did not stop me from acquiring it for the PS3, and it is a purchase I have not regretted in the slightest. Besides the fact that it combines two of my favorite falling-object puzzle games, it continues the Madou Monogatari series– which, in all honesty, I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of; its only appearance in NA was as the last localized Puyo Puyo game, Puyo Pop Fever (back in 2004!). Needless to say, it is entirely in Japanese.

Part of my degree track involves putting together what is called a “Capstone Project”, a final summation of what I have learned as a student. That project is at least a year off from now, but as soon as I heard that I would have to do it, my mind went immediately to Puyo Puyo Tetris. I decided then and there that I was going to localize Puyo Puyo Tetris for my Capstone Project. It was an ambitious project, but if nothing else has become evident to me it is that I am ambitious to a fault. I’m telling you folks this now to let you know that it’s on my slate, but also because my final project for Aspects of Japanese– as in this semester– is going to be a localization of a five-minute segment of the game’s story mode. I’ll post a link to it in December once it’s complete.

But before you think I’m not ready to take on such a project, I have to tell you about another incident that happened this past week. My predilection for all things cute is well-known, and as a result the game Love Live! School Idol Festival wound up on my radar from more than one source. Its premise is simple: it’s a free-to-play music game set in the world of Love Live, where you tap to the beat of the sugary pop stylings of  μ’s (Muse), the idol group of the series. However, while the pertinent game text is in English, the voice acting is entirely in Japanese.

Japanese which, to my great astonishment, I actually understood the first few times I heard it. Granted, trying to puzzle through song lyrics while maintaining a competent performance is hard even for native speakers, but then again this game’s music is entirely from μ’s back catalog, so those tracks are available online. That’s beside the point. What I understood was the little incidental remarks, like “Please wait a little, okay?” while game data was downloading, and “Not bad!” during the level-up screen. Stuff that wasn’t captioned.

I’m starting to feel quite a bit more confident in my ability to do this language thing. So… game on.

Daigaku Z: This Is (not) A Drill

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

The Thursday shooting on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon is the latest tragedy of a type that is far too commonly in the news. Of the twenty school shootings thus far in 2015, Umpqua was the most lethal, with ten fatalities. It is also the most deadly school shooting incident since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.

That paragraph is sickening to write, and even more sickening to have to write in such a banal, matter-of-fact tone. I can only imagine the utter disbelief that someone from outside the United States reading it might be enduring right now. “Z,” they might say, “surely this kind of horrific violence cannot possibly be as commonplace as your opening has implied it to be. You have to be exaggerating for effect. This cannot be how the young people of America learn– under fire.”

I so very much wish it wasn’t that bad. But at the same time I cannot help but feel lucky that it is not as bad as it is in other parts of the world. It was only three years ago– on October 9th, 2012– that Malala Yousafzai was shot on her school bus simply for attempting to go to school in Taliban-controlled Pakistan. Millions of children the world over who would want to learn are instead pressed into service in sweatshops– or armies. It’s tempting to paint American schools as something more akin to Battle Royale. But it would be a lie. The truth is scary enough.

I don’t need to look too far from home to get a taste of the fear that’s becoming routine in education. Again, in that apocalyptic-in-retrospect year of 2012, the University of Pittsburgh endured 160 bomb threats over two months (mid-February through April). There were no injuries or violence as a result of the threats, but 136 evacuations were enough turmoil that it was a significant disruption to classes. It cast a long shadow over the University, even today.

Thursday morning, during Japanese language recitation, the fire alarm went off in our quadrant of the Cathedral of Learning. We were confused, but somewhat relieved that our phones had not gone off with a shelter-in-place order. While we stood outside, Ninomiya-sensei idly mused about the bomb threats of the past, and we were all notably more uneasy until we went back into the classroom minutes later. There was no explanation. It was, we all guessed, probably just a drill.

Thursday morning. And Thursday afternoon. But the night never ends.

Daigaku Z: Under The Weather

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

Illness is something that every college student has to deal with at some point. It can be extremely scary to be sick and away from home for the first time. In my case, however, it’s repeatedly been noted that this isn’t my first rodeo, so you’d think I’d be able to handle it better. As you have no doubt guessed, however, that hasn’t been the case this past week.

The reason that fall is the worst season for getting sick, oddly enough, is primarily related to school. After the summer vacations and travels, a lot of people from a lot of different places are all congregating in a small area. Immunities gained are not universal. That little cold that someone picked up on the flight back from home can do a real number on people. It’s con plague on an academically large scale.

There’s also the fact that, as the summer season ends and autumn begins, temperatures vary wildly on a day-to-day basis. The mornings are chilly and damp, but bringing a jacket or dressing warmly are bad ideas because the sun heats the day up back to uncomfortable levels by noon. It’s hard to gauge effectively because the weather can be very volatile, even without rain or wind factored into the mix. And so, people get sicker faster.

So it’s probably for the best that we’re about to learn all of the vocabulary and grammar needed to explain exactly where it hurts.

Daigaku Z: Life In The Slow Lane

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

We’re moving into Week 4 of the semester, and looking at how grades have shaken out between the same material’s time frame from the Accelerated Program, I have to say that things are progressing much better. Having a scientific background, though, I am not entirely sure as to why that is. Having a writing background, too, means I’m probably going to meander for a few paragraphs before I get to the real point.

The most obvious answer could be that I’ve experienced this material before. After all, we’re still working on telephone etiquette, and re-cementing the use of the extended predicate; more than that, though, the use of cause-and-effect language like kara and no de is finally clicking within my understanding. But I’ve been sadly not as dedicated to my studies throughout July and August as I expected I would be, and the material was mostly gone from me by the time the fall semester started again.

The material itself hasn’t changed, either. What has changed is the pace– from a certain point of view. During the Accelerated Program course, we had four hours of interactive work to every one hour of lecture; the standard pace is five hours of exercise to two hours of lecture. A minor difference in the ratio, granted, but the span of time encompassing the two cycles– a day and a week, respectively– makes a world of difference. There’s also the fact that the time in between sessions is dramatically different, as well; from an hour of preparation time to almost 24 hours (not counting weekends).

As we’re all well aware, I’m not exactly your typical collegian. I was the first time around, but now I fall squarely into the “non-traditional” sector. But even though my first year back was a rather smashing success, I quickly learned that my limits for capability were not where they had been fifteen years ago. I had to drop a course my first semester back because I didn’t think I could perform up to my usual standards in it. My struggle over the summer was due in no small part to that same sentiment, and to say that I had reservations about blaming it entirely on the pace would have been accurate.

But if nothing else, these first three weeks back have proven to me that taking my time is exactly what I needed in order to get back on track. Having time to absorb the material and understand it has been vital and necessary for retaining it, which may seem obvious or counter-intuitive, but it does work. Most everyone in school now is starting to notice the gold paint flaking off the new school year. That’s perfectly fine. But don’t give up. Just take your time.

Daigaku Z: Ainu You Are But What Am I?

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

One of the major themes that should have been obvious in this column by now is the fact that regardless of our individual circumstances, none of us are ever truly alone. We exist on this planet as a part of something greater, interconnected in ways we never understand or even notice. Faced with this fact, I have ever asserted that hate is an irrational choice: that in denying someone else their fundamental rights to existence and happiness we rob those same things from ourselves, as well. Xenophobia can be deadly if not countered by discovery.

Nowhere else in my studies has this ever been hammered home as hard as it was this past week, where in the starting lessons of Aspects of the Japanese Language we discussed and examined the Ainu language and its relation to ancient Japanese. This lesson, which started off rather clinical, quickly became heart-wrenching when it was revealed that the Ainu language is moribund– not yet dead, but in a terminal state nonetheless. When the last few native Ainu speakers die, which will be soon, the language will be effectively extinct in its original state. See, despite efforts to learn the language, anyone speaking it as an acquired language (that is, not their first language) will inject accents and mutations from their native language.

As time goes on, these mutations will add up, until the language would be completely unintelligible to the people who spoke it as their birth-tongue. It’s like that scene in Stargate where Dr. Jackson’s attempts to speak ancient Egyptian to the people on the other side of the gate come across as comically awful. And actually, we see that in a more real-world circumstance. After all, what the Vatican speaks as Latin has become Italian outside of the Holy See.

With the Ainu, however, the situation is a bit more troublesome. Japan has a notorious history of attempting to forcibly assimilate Ainu into Japanese culture, not entirely dissimilar from the United States’ treatment of its native populations. There is a strange self-exoticization effect going on with the Japanese and the Ainu; the culture is appreciated and highly valued, but the people born into it are increasingly forced to abandon that culture. There are exceptions, of course– a group known as the Ainu Rebels sought to preserve some Ainu traditional dance and song while also modernizing it– but it is a losing battle.

I want to stress that this problem could have been avoided, but now cannot be un-done. We cannot restore the Ainu culture to its former glory, just as the Seneca Nation cannot be brought back to its dominance of the Northeast. The sins of humanity are indelibly carved into our history. But what we can do is to prevent it in the future. Already we are seeing historical sites and artifacts destroyed by fanatics and madmen intent on not creating nations, but rather on brutish domination.

We must preserve our past, because without it we have no future.

Daigaku Z: Aletheia

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

Welcome back to the second year. I feel I owe you all an apology for dropping off the face of the earth so suddenly after the third week of the summer, but unfortunately a rather dramatic health issue forced my hand into doing something I would not have preferred to do. Thus, I had to withdraw from the accelerated program. I would really rather not dwell on why that is, and I trust I will not be pressed for further information on it. Besides, everyone who needs to know, already knows.

So here we are again, at the beginning of a fresh year in college. Things are certainly different for me this time: for one thing, I’m already out, and I no longer have to fear the secret of my gender being a Damoclean blade over my head. Also, I know where the better food is on campus, and I have been able to give directions when asked. Those last two are in my opinion better indicators of my comfort at being back at my second alma mater– at least, for all intents and purposes.

The first time I was in college, at Gannon University in Erie, I was not what one could consider an extrovert. I still am not, of course, but compared to my current demeanor it is night and day. In 1999, I did not have any great swelling of emotion upon returning to classes; seeing my friends was good, yes, but it was hardly what I had been looking forward to all summer. The start of the semester was a rather ordinary affair, and I didn’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other.

This past week, though, I have looked forward to seeing again every one of my friends, all those who I met for the first time last year and spent a summer away from. I met up with one of them on Monday, explicitly to catch up ahead of when we would be meeting in the next day’s class anyway; on Tuesday I found even more of the people I had been looking to reconnect with. It wasn’t something I had really thought too much about during the break, but as August ended and the first bells approached it was such a strong feeling.

It’s easy to think that college is the first time that we are “on our own”. Several of our safety nets are stripped from us as we leave home and move into our dorms. But what we learn at university isn’t limited to just the facts and methods of our trades. College’s lessons, like most schooling, are as much social as they are academic. We learn how to do our jobs in the wider world, but we also learn to build our own safety nets. We create the web that catches us by making connections to others– and to ourselves.

The Japanese word for coming to a place, kuru (来る), is different from the word for returning home, kaeru (帰る). 15 years ago, it felt more like I was coming to Erie. This week, though, I was home again. ただいま.

Daigaku Z: A Change Is Gonna Come

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

先週は、ちょっとわるかった。でも、今週は大丈夫だと思います。もっと勉強したい。それから、Let’s Daigaku Z!

We had our first “mid-term” this past week, and the results were not pretty. For any of us. Of the six of us who started this journey, all are still with us, but I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been serious talk from more than one of us about cutting bait and trying again at the normal pace. This mid-term came after two and a half weeks, where in the normal flow of things it would be closer to six weeks in. Given that we’re all pretty much the same in terms of wanting to do better regardless of how well we actually did, the stress levels on Thursday morning were through the roof.

The biggest problem for us isn’t the material, but ironically the breakneck pace at which it’s being presented. We’re scarcely able to get one lesson through our heads before we’re pushed on to the next one. In the case of the very lengthy Core Conversations that we have to memorize and recite flawlessly, we sometimes stumble more than is really good for us. The real crux of the issue isn’t that we’re not learning… it’s that we’re not learning the way the book– and by extension, the faculty– expects us to.

Jorden and Noda’s instructional series, Japanese the Spoken Language (and the accompanying The Written Language), are based around an almost automatic learning mechanism: reciting conversations so that even if we don’t understand the grammar underlying the syllables we’re speaking, sheer muscle memory will ensure we say something at least coherent. In the 1990s, when the books were written, that might have worked out. But our teachers are giving us enough exceptions and changes to lead us to believe that the language has evolved in the intervening 25 years– subtly, of course, but enough that there will be some funny looks from anyone we speak to once we get off the plane in Narita.

The issue, then, isn’t that we’re not picking up on the phrases we’re given, it’s that all of us– each of the six class members, without exception– are more interested in the mechanics of why what we say is wrong, and not merely that it is wrong. We are highly analytical minds, to a fault in this case, and as a result being told “that’s later on” or “it just is that way” frustrates us to no end. After three weeks, we’ve come to understand that how we learn isn’t likely to happen in the normal course of this program. If we want the meat, we’re gonna have to hunt it ourselves. And that means putting even more time into this study than we already devote.

I mentioned last year that studying was something I found particularly difficult to do when self-directed. It’s looking increasingly like I will have to get over that pretty damn quick.

Daigaku Z: More Writing About Buildings and Food

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

今日は、悟飯をたべましたか?お飲物は?では、Let’s 大学 Z!

When I was learning French in high school, (and Louis XIV was the King of France, not coincidentally), food was not one of the early lessons. It was only after a few of the more basics were in place that we began learning about le fromage, l’eau, and le pain (which is exactly what it sounded like). Japanese has been more or less on the same track, and it was this past week that we began looking at some of the more edible aspects of the world.

Half of this week was also going over directions, because what good is knowing what to order if you can’t figure out how to get to the restaurant? We went a little more in-depth into how to sequence and order directions, so that we didn’t run into the horrible kind of situations as the mythical GPS that tells people to turn left off of the bridge. But the most interesting thing about this confluence of lessons has been the fact that we’ve started asking the teachers about their favorite recipes. Amazingly enough, they’ve actually given us them.

It’s a virtue of the accelerated pace that we’re able to take a few moments here and there asking about such things. The intensity of the remainder of our work gives us a liberty to have a little bit more fun with the topic than we would otherwise. Depending on the teacher, too, we can relax and work in a more free-form fashion, without risking spending precious focus time on something we won’t need in the immediate.

It’s not foolproof, of course. And the pace is starting to catch up to me; you probably noticed this was late on Sunday. That said, things are heating up. Let’s see what cooks.

Daigaku Z: Levels

Daigaku Z: Levels

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She passed the first year with flying colors, but the East Asian Language and Literature department decided to give her a new challenge– the Accelerated Program. The entirety of second year in just ten weeks. Will she manage to stay the course? Read on to find out.

今日は!久しぶりですねえ。では、授業がはじめましたんので大学Zがもう一度きてますよ。じゃ、英語で言って:”Let’s Daigaku Z!”

I don’t expect many of you to be able to read that, and I also have my doubts as to the grammar within it. Nevertheless, as Sega would say: welcome to the next level.

The accelerated program for Japanese Year 2 was hyped up to me as being unattainably difficult: instead of learning 5 kanji a week, we were now learning 5 a day; lessons would be blasted through in the span of a week rather than more or less at a leisurely pace; the emphasis on the student’s effort was greatly increased; and so on and so on. This first week, though, has not been quite as bad as advertised (aside from coming down with a horrible cold on Thursday and Friday). Truth be told, the accelerated pace has done wonders for my ability to stay focused and concentrate on what needs to be improved upon, and as it turns out my grades for the week have maintained more or less the same levels that they did at the end of first year. That said, I harbor no doubt in my mind that everyone was going easy on us this week, and that things are going to very rapidly become difficult very quickly.

The differences between the standard program and the accelerated program couldn’t be more stark. Class sizes are dramatically reduced; whereas in first year we had 40-50 students in lecture and roughly 10 students in each recital, there are only six of us in the summer semester (counting myself). This means each of us have a lot more focus time in recitation, and consequently a lot more time under the gun. The seven hours on-campus are staggered into three hours of recitation, one hour of lecture, two hours of on-our-own practice, and a one-hour lunch somewhere in there; we never have two hours “on stage” in a row. The overall effect becomes a 30-hour a week meat grinder that is proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated, but not more difficult than I prepared for.

Even with the rather grueling pace, morale is still high. We quickly became acclimated to each others’ presence– relaxing and interacting much more than the first few weeks of recitation in the standard program– and we’re able to more quickly understand each others’ quirks and foibles, such that communication amongst ourselves has become a rather amusing mishmash of English and Japanese. I am definitely bringing up the middle of the class ranks, mostly due to being sick, but even with that I feel strongly that I can put in the extra effort needed to bring myself up to code quickly enough (assuming I stay healthy, which is in fact looking more likely this morning than it was last night). Probably the most important thing, though, is that we’re finally moving out of what the rest of the class considers boring and uninteresting material (phone conversation discussions) and into something that everyone can enjoy: food. To say we’ve been looking forward to this is a bit of an understatement.

From this perspective, having just dipped our toes into the maelstrom, we all feel reasonably confident about our abilities and capabilities. We’re not overestimating ourselves, but neither are we selling ourselves short. All in all it’s probably the best possible outcome for the first week. But, like baseball, football, and the League of Legends professional splits, trying to judge season performance based solely on the first week’s showing is a recipe for unmitigated disaster (just ask Team Coast). Time will tell if I’m headed for the Big Dance, or if I’m about to be busted back to the minors.

Don’t tell anyone this, but I’m betting big on myself to go all the way.

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