To Give and Be Given a Lifetime of Japanese

Every poet wants to be something else—even if she wants to be a poet. I, a detective, a spy. A decoder of mysteries. And it is with that curiosity that I first set upon Japanese (that and a love of samurai films and bright-haired anime heroines). And thinking it was simply a riddle, a riddle of language, I thought—who better to unriddle such a puzzle than someone who dissembles and reassembles fragments of language, again and again.  But, this foolish, overconfident, would-be sleuth has learned that Japanese is not a language or even a way of thinking, but it is an entire way of feeling.

In Japanese to be given a gift and to give a gift are different words for giving (let alone another word for receiving). And if one is not the giver or the getter, the first question one has to ask herself before she can even make a sentence is with whom do I sympathize? To speak, you have to choose a favorite; the language forces you. Is my heart with the giver? Or with he who receives the gift?

This is complicated.

There are other complications. How do I choose a side if Japanese won’t let me know what other people are thinking? It is grammatically impossible to speak of someone else’s thoughts in Japanese. The language has decided that your mind is yours, known only to you. As an only child, on one hand this makes sense. Of course, my thoughts are only truly heard by me. They are mine. But also, as an only child, coming from a world that is entirely of observation and making, I find it impossible that I cannot (or at least am not syntactically allowed to) imagine what you might be thinking. But damn that Japanese, it won’t let me. I can quote you. I can intuit that it seems like you are thinking or feeling such a thing, but I cannot speak with any authority. And yet, with whom do I sympathize?

All languages are obsessed with being. The first things we learn are linking verbs, the copulas. The basis of language, regardless, is the need to connect two things. That copula and copulate share the same Latin root is of course not a coincidence. The need to say—You are my love. I am your love.—is something we demand from a language if it is going to do us any good. It’s entire purpose is connection. And from there, we are only steps away from metaphor, which has its roots in transfer and bear. Your words are oceans I have to cross to know you. Once we are connected, we can transfer the weight. We both give and receive.

After we have learned to say this is that, we learn to say to eat. It is always an early lesson, but it is never first.  It is tasty, then, let’s eat. That is the order of our learning. The pyramid of needs in foreign language is first: identification, second: food.

I don’t yet dream in Japanese (though I dream of dreaming). But every thought becomes a parsing—the imperative to know what I want to say before I say it. It is more than just the fear of speaking something unfamiliar that holds my mouth still, a tongue my tongue does not yet know how to maneuver. But I am shiest in Japanese because I still don’t know how to conceive of a sentence in a language that often has sentences without subjects. The fierce grammarian in me is stupefied. What are you thinking? I sympathize with you. And then, I lose you. I might lose you to a topic. As for that—the sentences insists—you are a part of it, but I don’t need to speak of you anymore, you are already present somehow. How can this be? And there at the end, after all those things that aren’t you—topic, place, frequency, the why, the where, the object of this and that doing—and there only then, the verb. Surprise!

As for me, I collapse.

Japanese—the gift that gives and is giving. I give to it what I suspect will be a lifetime in the hopes that maybe then it will let me know what it’s thinking.


Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a professional book publicist and the poetry editor for the small press Black Ocean. She is the author of Forty-One Jane Doe’s (a book of poems with a DVD of her poem-films), Intervening Absence, and the chapbook “A Useless Window.”


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  1. Pingback: Issue Seven, January 2014 | Matter

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