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At one point on a bus trip in Japan, I heard two foreigners wondering aloud about how best to prepare some Japanese root vegetables they had seen in the supermarket, and it took everything in me not to interject the answer, which I knew. That’s when I realized, to my amazement, that I had somehow become an expert on Japan. I had never met one of those I liked, and had never set out to become one.

I am not sure how it happened. I guess first I learned the language, which I blame on my addiction to the Japanese women’s magazines in the back of my high school classroom. I was a sucker for their elegant craft ideas, crazy fashion photos, and dirty cartoons. But the major appeal of the language was that foreign words written in Japanese, called kana, were really funny to imitate. In high school skits we were forever ordering a bigu-maku at Makudonarudo. Learning to change English words into Japanese words by replacing Ls with Rs and adding syllables to the ends of words was a chyarenji (challenge), but kind of fun.

Because I was above mediocre in Japanese in high school, and because it didn’t start before 10:00 a.m., I went ahead and took the language in college. Sometimes we were allowed to watch this drama that was about a family of unlucky but attractive orphans who could never catch a break.

The drama was very good, and I kept signing up for Japanese each semester to find out if their luck would ever change. After graduating, I ended up receiving a full ride to study art at a Japanese university, and I took it because it seemed like a goodo aidea.

In Japan I found that I understood a lot, but with minimal effort I could also tune out entirely almost all Japanese conversation. Yet the funny sounding foreign words always grabbed my attention whether I wanted them to or not.

I played on the tennis team at my university and at practice, when girls warned me in normal Japanese that, say, my fly was open or my shoe laces were untied, I brushed it off as useless chatter. We were on the courts to play, not to talk. When we took breaks, me still with my fly open and sometimes with skinned knees from tripping over my laces, the girls would talk more. Usually I was tired, and I would just drink my water and try not to get involved.

Sometimes, however, I couldn’t help but get involved. When the conversations were peppered with lots of foreign words I would suddenly wake up from my place against the fence tending my knee wounds. If the girls’ conversation sounded to me something like, “blah blah blah chiizu, blab blab blab sekushi,” I would immediately want to know where the cheese was, who was sexy, and why we were combining these two concepts into one sentence.

My brother’s dog’s favorite sentence in the whole world was, “Do you want to go for a WALK to the PARK?” So naturally when my brother was bored and he wanted to see his dog run to the door, he would ask his dog questions like, “I’ve been wondering lately who’s acting ability do you prefer: Christopher WALKen’s or PARKer Posey’s?” And the dog would cock his head and look for his leash. It was sad to see a full-grown man fool his dog into expecting regular exercise for fun, and it was equally sad to see a dog fall for it that often.

So not to compare myself to a dim dog, but foreign words in Japanese caught my interest like WALK to the PARK. I might have been tired from practice, but when I would hear my teammates say desaato, baketsu, semento, and beeru without having listened to the rest of the conversation, I would sometimes get excited. I wanted to know when we were having dessert, and what was up with the buckets of cement? At the point I realized there might be beer involved at the end of practice I was metaphorically looking for my leash.

But the biggest problem with my special relationship to foreign words in Japanese was that I could not deliver certain words with a straight face. At tennis practice, after I called out the score “saati-rabu” (30-love), I would do my ball toss, but I just could not serve. I would catch the ball and laugh a little. Rabu was always funny sounding. I would look at my partner, then over the net at my opponents, and week after week they would never be laughing. They probably wondered why the foreigner always laughed when she beat them. It never seemed like the opportune time to explain that the words they had been using casually since birth cracked me up. I’m sure they thought I had the worst tennis etiquette of anyone they had ever played with.

At some point you might expect me to grow up and just accept the sound of the Japanese language. You would however, be seriously overestimating my level of sofisitikeshion. • 21 April 2008