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My First Attempt at Peddling Kanji in the Real World

Up till now, when I’ve tried to excite people about kanji, they’ve mostly been people in the cyber world. And it’s a specialized, self-selecting part of the cyber world; most people who read my blog have come to JPod’s site because they’re already interested in Japanese. But on Sunday, at the Lunar New Year Festival at the Oakland Museum of California, I tried for the first time ever to interest the masses in kanji. Wasn’t quite what I expected!

I envisioned a crowd of native Chinese and Japanese speakers at this pan-Asian festival. I thought they would be adults, and I hoped they might engage me in a high-level discussion about kanji. This could carry huge risks, of course. I could easily be exposed as … well, as nonnative! But I was up for the challenge. I brought a dictionary, a pad (for scribbling down the new characters I was sure to encounter), and a smile, ready for anything.

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All set up and ready to go. My piles of paper were still neat; child-sized hurricanes hadn’t yet blown through! On the right, you can see my Buddha board. You draw on it with water. The writing fades in a few minutes, which is what’s happening to (atara(shii): new) and whatever I had written up top.

Only one person (a woman) asked me what kanji are. Just one person (a man) asked me how I became interested in kanji.

I ended up using the pad exactly twice:

1. A teenage Caucasian boy (14 or so) with overgrown hair asked if he could glance at my dictionary (Halpern). I handed it off, wondering how quickly he would realize that it’s not like any dictionary, or whether he already knew what it would entail. Sure enough, he couldn’t locate what he needed: the character for “heaven.” I drew (TEN: heaven, sky) and asked if that’s what he wanted. He said yes, explaining that he didn’t know any Japanese but had encountered the character when reading manga. I was happy to hear that—happy that his generation is far more exposed to Japanese things than mine was. But I believe that was as high-level as any of my kanji discussions got!

2. My friend came to the festival and sat next to me with her son, who is two and a half. He used the pad for scribbling.

The dictionary came into play two more times. Once, a woman thought that I had written Halpern’s dictionary and was there to sell that. (My book isn’t out quite yet, which made it a bit awkward to be there promoting it! Fortunately, several people did grasp that the book is on the way, and a healthy crop of them expressed excitement and took flyers.)

I used the dictionary another time to tell someone the meaning of a tattoo. I spent the bulk of my time at the festival giving kids temporary tattoos from a book of press-on tattoos by Dover Publications.


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These were a huge hit. The tattoos supposedly last for three days, and I love thinking that all the little kids who received tattoos must have glanced at the characters on their hands repeatedly for three days. They may not remember that (FUKU) means “luck” or that (BI, utsuku(shii)) means “beautiful.” (This latter character was very popular with boys, by the way.) But something will seep into their brains—some bit of interest or curiosity—and I hope that whenever they see kanji or hanzi from now on, they’ll feel drawn to the characters without even knowing why. Am I hoping for too much?!

The kids got to choose one of eight characters. None of the kids cared at all what the kanji meant. Shapes appeal much more to children than semantics do, I suppose. But the parents took notice of the definitions. In one case, I forgot to announce the meaning of , and the girl’s mother asked me. Even though I’ve known this character for years (and even though it said “tranquility” right there in the book!!!), I had a strange moment of panic. With the pounding of taiko drums in my ears and a constant swarm of people nearby (2,000 paid for the festival, and as it was quite easy to enter without paying, I’m sure many more did), I couldn’t think clearly. I wanted to say it meant “peacefulness.” But I’d also been handing out tattoos, telling people that means “peace.” I’ve never heard of anyone’s confusing these two characters, and yet it struck me that nonnative speakers could easily interchange them. Why doesn’t that happen? It seemed imperative to distinguish the two kanji for the woman (even though I knew she didn’t really care). But the matter seemed too abstract and complicated for me to articulate. Finally, I explained that means “peace” in the sense of world peace or a peace treaty. I also said that had to do with inner peace, but what kind of definition was that? I sounded like some phony Zen rōshi. What was the word we usually used for ? I couldn’t remember! I made the poor woman wait as I looked it up in my dictionary. “Tranquility,” I announced at last.

“Oh, good,” she said. “My daughter could use some of that.

“It also means inexpensive,” I offered. I like to be complete, even when it confuses the hell out of people.

She wasn’t confused. “Well, I feel tranquil when things are inexpensive,” she reasoned.

She turned to her child and said the character meant “peacefulness.” Huh? Oh, right, little kids don’t understand “tranquility.”

They also don’t know “horizontal” or “vertical,” or do they? After thinking about it all that afternoon, I still have no idea when kids acquire those words. Over and over, I gave directions for drawing (SHIN, atara(shii): new), (NEN, toshi: year), and (aka(i): red, which is a lucky color in Chinese culture). I had provided laminated stroke-order diagrams, but as I soon realized, these mean nothing to people who haven’t learned to draw characters. Almost everyone ignored the stroke-order diagrams, and I ended up guiding kids through the process: “Start with a diagonal. Good, good. Now go across.” (I finally started saying “across” instead of “horizontal,” though maybe kids do know “horizontal,” and there wasn’t really a problem.) “Now another one just like that under the first. Perfect!”

Usually, it wasn’t perfect—not even close (though some kids amazed me with their precision). But I was thrilled to see them drawing the characters. And I sure didn’t want to be like the Chinese mom who stood over her son (age 5, at most), screaming at him, “No! Too much. Not like that. Too far. No no no!” I felt like chipping in right there and then for the kid’s future therapy costs.

I’m almost never around kids, and I was shocked at how assertive (and occasionally rude) some of them were: “Give me that tattoo. Now give me another, because the first one didn’t work. I want that one there.” And then I was surprised by how compliant most kids were. As I explained the strokes, the children were happy to follow my instructions. (I always imagine kids as refusing to do anything adults want them to do. Maybe that was just me as a kid!)

Most kids displayed impressive levels of concentration. They focused intently on the Buddha board. Everyone did. Nearly all the questions I answered had to do with the Buddha board: where I got it, what it’s called, how it works. People could not walk by that thing without picking up the brush and trying a few strokes or at least drawing a smiley face. I saw kids coloring madly at several booths. What is it about humans and drawing?

I laminated a few Verbal Logic Quizzes and had them on display. Those went over very well; I loved seeing people of all ages trying to puzzle out the answers and then smiling broadly when they learned that awe, fear + dragon = dinosaur. “Neat!” said one person, and I thought, “There it is! Kanji compounds are neat, and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to grasp that! Hallelujah!”

I also distributed information from my forthcoming book about the differences between Japanese and Chinese zodiac symbols, and as it was the Chinese New Year, people took an interest in that, too. A deaf woman stood in front of that pile of papers and asked me something, but I couldn’t begin to understand what she was saying. (There were lots of deaf people at the festival, for some reason. A group of deaf children gathered around my Buddha board longer than anyone else, then came back for more after going elsewhere for awhile. They also wanted tattoos, and as I applied the tattoos to their hands, saying that they needed to press down for 30 seconds, I kept wondering if my words were getting through at all. I had no idea how else to communicate. I also didn’t know if any kids, deaf or hearing, understood what “30 seconds” meant. How old are we when we grasp this sort of thing?!)

Anyway, the deaf woman repeated her question, and again I caught nothing, but I pretended I understood. That seemed polite. “It’ll be out in a week,” I told her, referring to my book. She somehow understood me perfectly—she understood that I hadn’t heard a word she had said. Shaking her head in frustration, she wrote her question: did I have information about birth years, in relation to astrology? She said she was born in 1967 and was a sheep. I panicked. I didn’t have any such thing. I felt terrible and apologized profusely.

When she left, I realized that I could have figured it all out with information from my book. After all, I know I’m a monkey, and if she’s a sheep, it’s easy enough to extrapolate from that. The next time someone asked me about birth years, I did quick calculations and announced with great confidence, “You’re a horse!” I could have been wrong, but I figured I’d be long gone by the time she realized that!

She popped next door to the fortune-telling booth and said, “I got a bad fortune an hour ago. I’d like to try again. I was born in the Year of the Horse, if that makes any difference.” (I checked later, and I was right! She was a horse!)

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I eyed the fortune-telling booth throughout the event. There was the cutest elderly man in a Chinese outfit, complete with a hat, and I wanted to hear his take on my future. Right before the festival ended, I stole away from my booth and heard my fortune—from a woman, not the man, but it didn’t matter. I heard a glowing portrait of my future. I’m supposed to have an incredible life, filled with fortune and success (and one jealous friend … hmm). Not a bad way to start the Year of the Ox!

Although I didn’t get to talk to any Asian immigrants, there were plenty around. When some of them spotted my Buddha board and the stroke-order diagrams, they knew just what they were seeing. Some gave long explanations to their kids in a language I didn’t speak. And a few adults drew on the board with quick, confident strokes and intriguing, private smiles. I imagined that they were quite pleased to return to a part of their lives that they had left behind long ago.

Once, when I wasn’t looking, someone drew a hanzi compound with shockingly beautiful strokes. I didn’t know the word, and the person certainly didn’t draw it with me in mind, but I was as moved to find it as if someone had left me a flower.

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