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H, My Name Will Always Be はる

22 August 2009

OK, so it’s time for a little crash course in Japanese Phonics.  Japanese, unlike Chinese, is not a tonal language.  They share a semblance of a writing system, but the spoken languages have virtually no relation whatsoever.  Japanese has precisely 46 phonetic sounds, built around what we know as the vowels.  So, there’s a (as in ‘car’), i (pronounced ‘ee’), u (pronounced ‘oo’), e (rhymes with ‘bay’) and o (like ‘oh’).  To get most of the rest of the alphabet, you just add consonants in front of these vowels: ka-ki-ku-ke-ko, na-ni-nu-ne-no, etc… unlike the English alphabet, the Japanese one is usually presented a grid, with each vowel as a column that is modified by  preceding consonant sound.  There is an identical set of phonetic sounds with different letters, called katakana, which is used to render foreigner words–Coca-Cola, for instance, becomes コカコラ or kokakora.  If you think about this for a second, it works very well for most things.  You try to transliterate foreign words, like names, and while it might sound a little funny, they’re easily distinguishable.  Not to mention a lot of fun to play with–try doing tongue twisters in katakana sometime if you want a laugh.

These first four weeks have been a good reminder of something that I’ve always known, ever since my first summer at 森の池, the Japanese Language Village at Concordia Language Villages; namely, that my name is spectacularly unsuited for living/studying/having anything to do with Japan.  If you think about the alphabet structure, there are two particular problems with this three-letter name of mine.  First, in Japanese, with the exception of the ‘n’ sound, everything–and I do mean everything–ends with a vowel sound.  For example, take the name ‘Kate’–simple enough, right?.  In Japanese, your options to transliterate it are: Kay-to, Kay-tee, Kay-tu.  Same problem with ‘Hal’.  Except there’s a second problem: the letter ‘l’ does not exist in Japanese.  Nada.  There is not a single Japanese word or common sound that calls for one to employ this particular tongue position.  This, of course, is where the annoying stereotype of East Asians as having an inability to pronounce the ‘l’ sound comes from–if you spend the first two decades of your life absolutely never having to use a sound, the odds are, you will have a bloody difficult time trying to pick it up.

I’ve always had a peculiar, personal connection to this problem, though.  At 森の池, the absolute first thing every villager does is pick a Japanese name.  And as most people keep coming back year after year, the name belongs to that villager for as long as they want it–in fact, it’s a question on the application form, and that name is removed from the list of available names.  When I first showed up, I didn’t really understand the concept of picking another name.  So I just repeated Hal, and wound up with Haru–which is, of course, exactly how you would translate Hal.  It’s something of an uncommon name in Japan, although it is almost always a female name when it is used.  It also means Spring.  And for a significant portion of eight summers of my life, it was also mine.

While I’ve certainly lost touch with friends from Mori No Ike way more than I would like to admit, my summers there were, bar none, the most influential experiences of my childhood.  Anyone who decides at the age of eight to study Japanese is bound to be a bit of an interesting character, so the group of villagers was decidedly eccentric, and easily the most interesting, engaged, passionate and creative group of peers I could ever have hoped to find at that age.  It’s really not an understatement at all to say that I felt closer to that group than I did most of my immediate peers, and we certainly grew up with each other in more ways than one.  The world, as I think we all began to realize at that time, could be a pretty intolerant and dull place, and for the hard core Mori No Ike folk, a summer there was our best chance to be around those who were unafraid to think a bit differently, who were accepting of just about anything.  It was a time for all the kids who never really fit in at school to just be their weird, quirky selves–I have a great picture of my friend Dave wrapped head to toe in duct tape that I still have in a box on my desk back home–and that in and of itself meant the world to so many, myself included.  For a lot of them, their time there had some implications that went far beyond just some basic acceptance.  I have friends for whom it took such a welcoming environment for them to admit for the first time that they identified as queer.  For others, it was their first opportunity to not be looked down upon for wanting to learn, to always know more things.  I have friends (and I include myself in this number) who have had incredible friendships and love stories come out of it–some of which are very much ongoing.  Without any exaggeration, the people I met there have had most likely the biggest impact on who I am today, and more importantly the fact that I like who I have become.  This current journey began, for me, not at O’Hare but in Dent, MN, population 192.  For that, it will always have a significance with me that I don’t anticipate being matched anytime soon.

When I took Japanese at Carleton, of course, the fun gimmick of picking names was nowhere to be found.  In that classroom, I was Edomonson-san, for the first time in my career of studying Japanese.  Honestly, I can’t say that I thought anything of it at the time.  But every time Shinya, my neighbor with whom I am building Nebuta floats (more on that in a later post) asks me “Haru, biru nomu?” (Do you want a beer?), I can’t help but marvel at exactly where I’ve wound up–halfway around the world six years since my last summer in Dent, a heap of life experiences in between, and on a completely different track than I could have ever foreseen only a few years ago–only to go by Haru all over again.  That, though, is one reminder of home and where I’ve come from that I think I can learn to live with.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Emo permalink
    22 August 2009 3:40 am

    Did you help build the Nebuta??? I went to the Nebuta festival!! Were you there?

    • Hal Edmonson permalink
      22 August 2009 7:29 pm

      Wait, you were in AOMORI???!???!

      I didn’t help build those–my town has a smaller festival in a week that uses Nebuta-esque floats, which I’m helping to build. Not Nebuta, per se.

  2. Liz permalink
    22 August 2009 10:03 am

    I think we just found a new nickname for little Haru. (His daycare friends all call him “How.”)

  3. Mom/Kathy permalink
    25 August 2009 10:55 pm

    Liz, When Hal was learning to talk he referred to himself as “How” also. Maybe the L sound is just not a natural first sound.

  4. Mary permalink
    19 September 2009 12:38 am

    I came here looking for your perspectives on the JET program, but found this nice reflection instead. I think it explains the way I feel about the summers I spent with the mori no ike kids far better than I’ve ever been able to.

    thanks for this, and safe travels! 🙂

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