I lost a book – I got lost in one: reflections on reading in a second language

There is a book I’m in love with that I’ve never finished reading.  It disappeared when I was on my way to school about halfway done with it. I had been reading it on the bus, and when I reached campus, I checked my backpack for it, and it was gone.

Then, a few years later, I found a hardcopy of the same book at a local used book store. I still have that one, yet, surprisingly, I have yet to finish it.

However, when I do start to read the book, I always read the same pages before stopping — so much so I know them pretty well.

The book starts with a girl in bed — a night owl — she calls herself. She is awoken in the afternoon by her little brother. She lives in an unconventional Japanese family. She comes down stairs to receive a package. She drinks coffee in the kitchen with her mother. The package is from her dead sister’s ex-boyfriend. She watches My Neighbor Totoro. She sees Satsuki and Mei, the sisters and main protagonists of that movie, which in turn reminds her of her own sister. She goes into the bathroom. She sits on the toilet. And she cries.

I love this book — Amrita — by Banana Yoshimto. I never tire of the words. Yet for some reason, I can’t seem to finish it.

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I love it so much, that when I was in Taiwan, I bought the same book in Chinese. Another paperback. Just as thick.  Just as dense. Daring myself, someday, to finish it.

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And oh have I set a very high bar for myself. Especially considering I spent what felt like two hours yesterday reading the first page in Chinese. My handwork below:

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Recently I have been trying to improve my reading skills in Chinese. I just took the latest round of BYU Chinese assessment testing in Reading and Listening for the SFSU Chinese Flagship Program. I know I’ve improved in listening because I mostly got listening clips that were from news broadcasts. But for reading, I honestly did not feel much different from the last time I took the test which was when I came back from Taiwan. I didn’t feel like I improved at all.

Part of the reason I think, is because I stopped reading articles like the ones I had in Taiwan. One’s that challenge me. I stopped looking up words. I kept my reading — like I do when my life gets so busy I can barely keep up — confined to the classroom.

Be that as it may, this semester I competed two Chinese courses: CHIN 312 and CHIN 502. “Speech and Writing” and “Literary/Classical Chinese” respectively, which means I have exactly two classes left to take before I apply for capstone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited. Like seriously.

But I want to go Tianjin. I get to go to school for the whole year and do a part-time internship. I love school. It’s how I meet friends. It’s how I become more mature by interacting with a variety of people from across the globe, of all ages, and backgrounds. I love the structure. I love the routine. I feel that type of environment is especially important for a non-native speaker of Chinese.  It’s not only essential to my personality, but essential to my learning style. The only problem is, Tianjin is a fall entry only program. If I don’t raise my Chinese to a certain level by that time, I’ll have to wait a whole other year — or change my meng xiang [夢想] or “dream” and apply to Nanjing which has both a fall and spring entry date.

My heart is set on Tianjin. I’m a pretty flexible little lady. But. When I want something. I go for it.

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But that’s exactly why I need to improve my reading. My speaking. My listening.

I wrote an article here about how hard it is to stay motivated learning Chinese — or any foreign language. I’ve been told by coordinators in the Chinese Flagship program, that statistically, as learners of a foreign language go, Chinese non-natives spend more time than other learners of other languages stuck in the intermediate level. Reading something can be a nightmare of handwriting strokes into my phone, searching for each character, and then going back to the text, only to stop a few characters later, and have to do the same tedious process all over again.

Point in case: I recently spent about four hours watching sixteen minutes of a forty minute or so long Japanese animation with Chinese subtitles. The movie “Garden of Words” or as is the Chinese title… yan ye zhi ting [言葉之].

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And although, I did learn some pretty wonderful new words (two of my favorites below with my own English translation)- that was still four hours for about sixteen minutes of a forty minute long movie. 

gow1[On sunny days early in the morning, I keep with convention and transfer to the train that comes back here]

I especially like the phrase [按部就班] which means something like “follow the prescribed order of things.”

Or here:

gow2[But I always felt like I just didn’t belong here]

[屬於] or shu yu means belong.

And haven’t we all felt like we just…didn’t belong?

For me, language is an intricate part of belonging…

If I can’t speak Chinese well — being in Tianjin for a year, at least in one way, will be a sort of “not belonging.” It is always hard to learn a foreign language, and I admire all my non-native English speaker friends who have come to SFSU to study in English. It is not easy. It is not always easy to belong when you don’t have confidence in your voice.

And sometimes, I still don’t have confidence in my Chinese voice: But then I remember when I was in Taiwan searching for Amrita on a whim. I didn’t have internet access. I had no way to find out what this book was called in Chinese. I had no idea where to look for it or what the author’s name was in Chinese.

But I was determined.

Somehow, I don’t remember how: In a bookstore, I found a section of Banana Yoshimoto books.

I flipped covers, weighed books in my hand, looking for the right heft that might be Amrita. I remember finding on that felt just right, and I flipped to the back to try and see what I could make of the synopsis.

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Something about a family, a cousin, a mother, a younger brother living together in a home. And I just knew. I knew this was the book.

I had, ironically, brought Amrita the English version, with me to Taiwan. Me and one of my roommates cross referenced the Chinese lines with the English. And yes. We’d found it.

My point is — finding what you want in this world takes work. Learning to read again takes work. It can be painfully tedious, frustrating, but this an exercise of the mind.

With repetition, like any activity, it gets easier with time.

Do not think about the road ahead.

That is how you forget to live.

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2 thoughts on “I lost a book – I got lost in one: reflections on reading in a second language

  1. Have read Amrita years ago, of course in Chinese. Honestly I am not that into 吉本香蕉(Banana)’ books which seem like 无病呻吟 (to moan about imaginary illness). I don’t even like Kitchen, 白河夜船… My favorite Japanese authors are Keigo Higoshino (The Devotion of Suspect X; Malice)and 乙一 (Goth 断掌事件)

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