Native Tongues: Cherishing the Flavor of Fresh Dug Roots
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
Growing up as a Yonsei (fourth generation) Nikkei (Japanese-American) in a predominantly hakujin (white) neighborhood, I was never taught my own ancestral language.
Sadly, part of the process of integration into the American system often requires that you shed your native tongue in order to blend in with everyone else, and I was no exception.
Yet as I grew up I realized how profoundly this silence has hurt me, mostly in the way it distances me from other people from Japan, and most especially, from my ji-chan (grandfather) here in America.
Going to see my ji-chan has always been an exercise in non-verbal communication. The extent of our verbal interaction usually consisted of his asking me "Genki desu ka," and me looking puzzled until he spoke some of the few english words he knew, translating his question to "Are you good?," to which I responded in nods and smiles. Most of the time, however, we really didn't say much, I mean, he spoke Japanese, and I spoke English, and there wasn't much I could do.
Over time, however, I grew to see just how much I was missing out, especially after one time when I interviewed my grandparents on their experiences in surviving Hiroshima. My ba-chan (grandmother), being bilingual, translated what my ji-chan had to say, and between them described the horrors of that time and the incredible nature of their luck in surviving the war without major effects.
The incident really drove home the fact that my ji-chan represented a wealth of historical information that I couldn't even access. All the stories and experiences that he had undergone in his life and all the things he could tell me about my family and culture were separated from my grasp, and held unreachable due to my lack of knowledge of the language.
Over time, with the knowledge I gained from my Asian-American Studies classes, I saw not only my separation from my ancestral Japanese culture, due to a lack of knowledge of the language, but also saw how many in the Nikkei community had also lost their ties with their homeland through the loss of language.
After all, without the language, how are you supposed to keep in contact with distant familial relations let alone read the Japanese newspaper, or listen to Japanese television?
In many ways, I fear that the loss of language, probably due to a combination of assimilation and the war experience, has created a community without solid ties to either Japan or to the U.S. Nikkei cannot maintain ties with Japan without knowing the language, and cannot fully establish themselves in the US due to the enduring legacy of racism. This has essentially cut the Nikkei community off from any solid cultural or national connection. Like a tree without roots, the Nikkei have lost a sense of groundedness and heritage through the loss of language and culture, and this leaves them in a precarious position, since they have lost a strong sense of identity.
Realizing the separation I felt from both my ji-chan and my nation, I set out to learn my language. In fact, this has proven the greatest challenge of my college career. Never having considered myself a language person, the Japanese language with its incredible complexities, coupled with my own anxieties over the language, have made the language learning difficult beyond words.
But still I persevere, and despite bad grades and intense agonizing, I have committed myself to learning the language this year, all in the hopes that someday I'll be able to have a decent conversation with my ji-chan to talk to him about what I want to do in life and to find out more about who he is and who he has been.
Language is our link between past and future. It opens up worlds to our vision and speaks in ways that translations can never express, since translations can never catch the intricacies of original meaning. It is with this in mind that I encourage everyone to learn what they can of their native tongues, whether that is Thai, Nahuatl, or whatever.
I sincerely hope the universities of America will see the enormous benefits they can reap through the promotion of different languages, and I would like to give special recognition to those Pilipinos at UCLA that have worked so hard for the achievement of Tagalog at the university, despite constant threats from the administration.
I hope we will be able to see further classes in Intermediate Tagalog for the future as well as a proliferation of other Asian Pacific languages at a school where 35% of the population is ethnically Asian Pacific Islander.
I hope the learning will continue as people struggle to regain the past that has so often been denied them. Let us never forget the links that connect us to our ancestors. Let us never forget what it means to be Asian.
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