Sunday, 26 December 2010

Kutabare! Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Language Barrier

Hello! Me again. Happy Boxing Day!
Today, in a somewhat continuity-friendly fashion, I thought I'd tell you about the time I was cruelly tricked into telling my Japanese host-mother to go fuck herself.

We pick up the story from about a week since the disasterous octopus murder, of which I was an unwilling participant. We'd started getting to know each other, and various members of the extended family had come over on various different evenings to Come Meet the Foreign Girl. It was a little like being an animal in a zoo crossed with a princess- and to be quite honest, I loved it. I adored the attention and praise I received for the tiniest accomplishment. Look! The Foreign Girl can use chopsticks! She performs 45 degree bows! She covers her mouth when she laughs! She sits in seiza (that odd kneeling position with your feet tucked under your bottom that the Japanese are fond of for no discernible reason) for the entire duration of dinner despite it quite clearly being excruciatingly painful, and she smiles through her distress!

For my part, I learned small snippets of language, picked up on the odd family feud between Grandma and her sour spinster sister, and actually ended up getting to feel really quite close to the wonderful family that had taken me in. Most of all though, it was my not-Mum.

Tiny, delicate, stereotypical without any of the fakery, she was everything you could wish for in a host mother. She taught me how to make sushi, occassionally called me over to carefully place flowers in my hair, dressed me up in her beautful antique kimono and fed me the most exquisitely prepared meals I have ever seen. I didn't tell her I had a kind of seafood allergy (it's only an intolerance, really, after all), because I was sure it would have broken her generous heart not to have been able to bestow these precious culinary gifts upon me. The consequence was a few nasty breakouts and a lot of delicious, delicious food that was all the tastier for the knowledge that it would make me pay for its succulent bounty later.

For the first couple of days, not-Mum used to shoo me and the rest of the family away after dinner was finished, shut herself away in the kitchen and only emerge after every last dish was washed, dried and replaced in its space. Being a lazy little so-and-so, this would have been an ideal arrangement for me if it wasn't for a tiny but all important detail: for the first time in my life, and I'm aware of how awful that makes me sound, I genuinely wanted to do the washing up. I wanted to show my appreciation- and when the extent of your language ability is Hello, My Name Is, Good Morning, Good Night, Thank You and patches of the lyrics to the Japanese version of the Grand Old Duke of York, you're kind of limited when it comes to expressing gratitude. "And when they were up they were up" doesn't quite cut it. So, setting my firm foreign jaw and narrowing my wide foreign eyes in determination, I decided I would do the washing up. Even if I had to sneak past her to do it.
She didn't seem to mind the intrusion at all- in fact she seemed delighted by my interest in the Japanese Art of Tea Towel Folding and so on- to the point where as we stood in the sparkling cleanliness of her kitchen, everything done and completed, that when she said Thank You, it felt like an earth-shattering event. Like I had genuinely done something that she felt deserved gratitude- not an empty thing at all. It was a moment of understanding; of Togetherness. Of, if you will, Henosis.

To help you understand the next bit, dear reader, I'll have to skip back a few days, to a brief exchange I'd had over email. I had a Japanese friend- a penpal, really, though I don't think anything written with a pen ever exchanged hands. He did once send me a pressed flower, but I'm fairly sure, especially given the events that were to follow, that it was something his mummy had made him do.
Anyway, I'd asked him to fill in a few blanks in my Japanese language vocabulary, carefully memorising the words he listed for me and waiting eagerly like some kind of big cat predator for a conversational opening to pounce on.

Here was my Big Chance. I didn't have much cause to use the Japanese for You're Welcome, or It's My Pleasure, No Biggie, Ach, Don't Worry About It, It's No Bother... but here it was. I was about to produce another trick that would earn that Look-at-the-foreign-girl approval I was utterly and irrecoverably addicted to. I was going to crown this moment of joy with a memorable accomplishment.

I said the word my little penpal had told me meant somewhere in between Really, It's Nothing and No No, Thank You-- and like a cartoon, literally like something you'd see on Looney Tunes, the colour drained from my host mother's face, top to bottom.

You see, my adorable little penpal had taught me the word kutabare, which roughly translated, is a slightly archaic command to drop dead. To kill yourself. To go to Hell.
Simply put, it's the imperative form of the verb 'to fuck oneself'.

I gaped, horrified. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.

And then, bless her, bless that wonderful, wonderful woman, she laughed. She pulled me into her arms just as the tears were beginning to prick at the corners of my eyes and gave me a very un-stereotypical warm, loving, accepting and forgiving hug.

See, I learned a lot that day. The beauty of an understanding, accepting relationship and all that, sure. But I think the most important thing I learned was that I should really just get over myself and try out words I wasn't quite sure of, grammar structures I had no real grip on, whatever. Just do it. Try it. Because what else could possibly go wrong? What could I possibly say that could be worse?

Once you've told your host mother to go fuck herself, the fear of using the wrong form of a verb kind of loses its power.

Besides, I had my revenge. When the little bastard wrote me an email telling me he was soon to visit London, I told him to keep his eyes open for a wonderful free magazine, full of all kinds of tips and tricks-- called The Big Issue.

1 comment:

  1. Nice revenge! Did you ever tell him what a favour he'd done you? Did you show your host mother (sounds like a science fiction term somehow) the list he'd sent you? What else was on it? So many questions; such a short blog