February 18, 2011 | Japanese
Field Trip: Katagiri and Japan Society
I visit more Japanese food and a major Japanese cultural institution.
This morning I took my portable Japanese Pimsleur lessons and headed east, first to a store called Katagiri and then to Japan Society.
Japanese Beer Truck, Upper West Side Today
For February it was a freakishly warm day, so all I wore for a coat was a denim jacket. This clothing decision was an unjustifiably optimistic one; I shivered the entire trip.
My first stop, Katagiri, is, according to its website, the oldest Japanese grocery store in the U.S. The space itself, on 59th Street between Second and Third avenues, is not all that big, but an employee told me people call in orders from around the country, so its activities extend beyond the constraints of its retail location.
He corrected my primitive Japanese. I loved that.
Today was the first time I have ever seen a carton of eggs with Japanese writing on it.
Numerous Food Options
Mushy Mayonnaise Bottles
Sea Urchin on the Right (I Love That Stuff)
Foods I Couldn’t Immediately Identify
Eggs in Japanese
My main destination was Japan Society (a “the”-free name), 333 East 47th Street, which is an amazing cultural institution I have visited in the past but not in a long time.
Today I ended up in its Toyota Language Center, where I met Reiko Sassa, an energetic, attractive, and charming Japanese woman who first came to the organization in 1977 and has been director of the language center for 25 years now.
Japan Society, East 47th Street
We talked for quite a while, about their many language programs, my project, and some differences between Japan and America. This was a confidence-building conversation for me, because she spoke some Japanese with me and I understood way more than I expected. Of course, she is the director of a language program, so she knows plenty about how to speak to beginners and what they are capable of understanding when.
She let me sit in for a few minutes on a lunchtime class, which I loved, even though it was way too advanced for me, as indicated by the fact that their vocabulary lesson included terms such as “lightheartedly,” “uncork,” and “single parent.” I realized while sitting there that I have hardly ever seen a white person speak Japanese. Except maybe in movies. That realization was kind of a shocker.
Not a word of English was spoken in the class, except the few that I resorted to when I was leaving and surreptitiously asked the teacher if she needed her handouts back.
She answered me in Japanese, so I really hope she said I could keep the handouts, because I absconded with them.
I am going to visit another class next week, one more appropriate to my, um, language circumstances.
By the time I got home it was 66 degrees. Which meant I couldn’t possibly work inside.
Riverside Park, on a Spring Day in February
I gleefully took my Pimsleur lessons with me to Riverside Park but soon realized, 66 degrees is not really 66 degrees when it is crazily windy and you are sitting by a big cold river. But I stubbornly persisted, huddling along the Hudson and doing my Pimsleur as joggers and cyclists went by looking much warmer than I was.
It was the principle of the thing.
In the evening I met my conversation partner Akiko for the third time.
There are definite advantages to the conversation-exchange thing. You learn things about the language and culture that you just can’t learn on your own. However, if you don’t speak much of the target language, the conversations tend to tilt in the direction of the language that both people speak better.
I noticed this same phenomenon when I tried conversation exchange with an Italian man over a year ago. He was frustrated with his English, and my Italian was improving rapidly, so we kept speaking Italian. Which was great for me and less great for him.
This Is a New York Japanese Newspaper, Which I Can’t Claim to Have Read
If you are the person with the weaker skills (which I most definitely am in this case, many times over), you have to be very disciplined: you have to make yourself talk in the target language no matter how boring you are. Unfortunately, my general inclination is to make an effort to be interesting—which is a much more likely outcome when I am speaking English (how likely is not for me to say) than when I am trying to speak Japanese.
If you value conversational subtlety and wit, it is rough to be limited to discussions of weather conditions, what number train to take, whether you’re hungry, and how many brothers, sisters, and children you have.
To willingly sound dimwitted: that is the task of the early-stage language learner.