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Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Art of Eavesdropping

If you took a look at Julianna Baggott’s Boot Camp, which I blogged about earlier this week, you will have seen that one of her ideas for gathering raw writing material is eavesdropping. I’ve heard this advice before: listen to the language around you and write it down when it’s provocative. Seems like a good idea, yes?

Well, yes, particularly if you are living in a country in which the majority of people speak your native language. Otherwise, not so much. Or perhaps it’s just me who has this problem. I am conversant but not fluent in Japanese; I can understand most of what is going on around me. Specifically, I can eavesdrop. But for some reason, for me there is much less emotional content in words in Japanese than in the same words when spoken in English. I don’t know if that’s because I learned Japanese as an adult instead of during my childhood, or if the emotional content will come once I am completely fluent, or whether this is just a personality problem unique to me.

Here’s an example. My husband and I are raising two sons, so the word penis comes up in conversation. A lot more than I, one of seven daughters with only one brother, would have guessed. (For those of you without firsthand experience, consider potty training, hygiene, scratching one’s self in public, those sorts of topics that little boys have to be introduced to.)

Now, you will notice that I wrote the word penis in tiny letters, the way I say it. Which is in a tiny embarrassed voice, in a voice that desperately hopes no one can hear me except for the intended listener. It’s the way I was raised. But I have fixed that discomfort by learning to use the word penis in Japanese. It’s chinchin, by the way—that’s the colloquial form, not the medical word. I can say chinchin all day long and not blink an eye. It just has no embarrassing emotional content for me. Perhaps because no one ever shushed me for saying it, no one ever whispered it to me, teaching me by example that it was a word not to be spoken aloud.

So one day my husband and I were walking along downtown and I was telling him about a discussion concerning hygiene I had had with one of our sons, so that my husband would be on the same page as far as reinforcing good habits in our boys. I was chattering away about it, when my husband asked me to lower my voice. I was surprised. Why? I asked. I’m talking English, no one can understand me.

My husband sighed. You are talking English except for one word, chinchin. So here is what everybody around us hears, “Blah blah blah blah blah chinchin blah blah blah chinchin blah blah blah blah blah blah chinchin blah blah.”

(Or, to translate into English, “Blah blah blah blah blah penis blah blah blah penis blah blah blah blah blah blah penis blah blah.”) (Notice the type size is normal here because I was using my normal voice for the word in question, speaking that one word in Japanese of course.)

My husband is a doctor who doesn’t blush over any the names of any body parts or functions, but a quick look around confirmed what he was saying. People were staring at us, wondering what the heck we were talking about. Well, they knew what we were talking about, but they were clearly wondering why.

So, words that horrify me in English don’t affect me in Japanese at all. In fact, when I was reading Little Red Riding Hood to my sons (in English), we all three of us fell off the couch laughing when I got to the part about the Wolf saying, “Not by the hairs on my …..” That would have never happened with me and the word penis.

Okay, so eavesdropping in Japanese doesn’t have the same effect on me as eavesdropping in English, and I have precious little chance to eavesdrop in English. I guess overhearing for writing content is one piece of advice that won’t do me so much good these days. I considered jotting down things I heard in podcasts that I found fascinating, but that isn’t the same as recording people who don’t expect to have people listening to them. You don't get the same effect with people who are madly editing themselves to make the impression they intend. So for now, eavesdropping as an art form is out of the question for me. It’s not even fun to eavesdrop as a hobby, since nothing shocks me in Japanese, nothing has that learned punch of naughty English words.

I’d be curious to hear from other people who speak multiple languages. Do you get the emotional content in both/all of them? Is it just me? Do tell.....

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! As an American wife of a Japanese husband, living in Osaka and speaking barely any Japanese, I can totally relate.

In fact, I'm embarassed to admit that I sometimes do something even ruder, without realizing until I've already done it: when my husband and father-in-law, who comes over for dinner a lot, are talking at the dinner table in Japanese, I frequently realize that I have just completely interrupted them but cutting their conversation off mid-stream and making some totally unrelated comment in English. It's reflexive, not meant to be rude at all, but somehow when I hear all the Japanese that makes no sense to me, I experience it as people just making meaningless noises--which I know to them it's not, and intellectually of course I know it's not. It's like the Peanuts cartoon where the adults just go "wan, wan, wan..." So my knee-jerk reaction, before I can even formulate a reasonable, polite thought, is something like "oh, there's some meaningless background noise going on, not a conversation between 2 people, so it's totally fine for me to begin a *real* conversation (i.e., one in English, or one that's just real to me). Then, a split second later, I realize, whoops, I've done it again.

Then I bow in apology a few times, forget about it, and against my best intentions, ending up doing the same thing the next night....

--Tracy in Osaka

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Tracy,

Yes, I know what you mean. Somehow I view Japanese as less real, even though I can understand a good portion of it. That's the uncharitable way of looking at it. When I'm feeling more positive, I think of it as experiencing the Japanese language without having social connotations (which I learned all too well in English), just the denotation of the word, although why that is possible (or if it truly is) I still do not know.....
Another friend wrote me offline to say she is equally uncomfortable with chinchin as penis (she was raised in as conservative an environment as I was), so this is not a universal experience, apparently.

Jill said...

I love this! Yes and no. I do wonder sometimes about English words even in Japan, as my 3 year old daughter swans through Izumiya singing, "I have a vagina, not a PEEEnis". And I also wonder sometimes about substituting "oppai" for breasts when we're in Japan (it doesn't feel generally as loaded to me, but I know that it is - I've seen the looks). Then again, I don't worry one bit about saying "oppai" when we're in the US. Maybe I just don't know when to be conflicted??

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Thanks for your comment, Jill. I love the image of your daughter singing her identity in Izumiya. Oppai is another interesting word, isn't it? The way kids use it so openly I sort of feel it isn't loaded either, but then again, I don't feel much in Japanese in loaded. Maybe we should just be grateful to have a respite from the weight of certain words?

Erin said...

This is so funny. So, what about when we make a toast in Italian and say "Cin Cin"? It's pronounced the same. That really made me laugh.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Erin, that's great. Now you'll never forget the Japanese word. And I won't forget the Italian for toast!

Mary Bast said...

I don't speak Japanese, except for "good morning" and counting to 10, which I remember from my school days near Tokyo when my Army father was stationed there in the mid-forties. I was too young to get in on even remotely naughty words. Now I can say (imagine little word) in Japanese. Surely that will come in handy some day? About as handy as counting to 10? Anyway, thanks Jessica for a good laugh.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Mary, Glad to have enriched your vocabulary. Could come in handy!