Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Follow the Leader

Numazu, Japan.  Summer, 2003.  

Mariko has taken me to Johoku High School with her, and now I'm surrounded by calligraphy students, listening to the Sensei explain the day's exercises, trying to pick out any familiar words.  I speak enough Japanese to carry on a conversation with another person who's just beginning to learn Japanese (these conversations never seem to get beyond the weather, though,), but the sound flies so fast off a native speaker's tongue, I can't tell when one word ends and another begins.  I know I hear "mina-san", which means "everyone," because Hauptman Sensei says that many time a day, trying to get our attention.  Mina-san, mii-te kudasai.  Mina-san, kii-te kudasai.  Everyone please look.  Everyone please listen.

My shoes are somewhere else.  You're not allowed to wear shoes inside the building, so we've left them in a cubby down at the school entrance, and I'll be able to get them back when Midori, Mariko's mother, picks me up for lunch.  Now I've got school issued slippers on my feet, and I wish I had worn socks.  Mariko brought her own pair from home - they're a bit more festive than my baby-girl pink ones.  

"Do you know any kanji?" Mariko asks.  I do.  I take the brush laid out in front of me, and paint the handful of simply kanji I know.  Eye.  Sun.  Fire.  Water.  Child.  I write my name in katakana in the bottom right hand corner, then again in hiragana, just to show off what I know.

It's time to paint.  Sensei draws the first character on the blackboard.  It's much more complicated than anything I've had to do in my level two Japanese class..  I watch my host sister deftly put the ink to paper, drawing the delicately complicated kanji figures.  I pick up my own brush, holding it awkwardly between my thumb and forefinger, the way the other students do.  I copy Mariko's movements exactly.  My kanji may not be as confident as hers, but it's cleanly done.  Precise.  You can tell what it's supposed to be.

Sensei stands behind me, waiting to approve my work.  He shakes his head at my paper.  "Too neat," he says.  "Calligraphy is about brushstrokes.  We should see them."  He loads up the brush with ink and paints like a pro.  His kanji looks different than mine.  Just enough to make it look human.  "Like that," he says, and hands me the brush.

I load my brush with too much ink, and move too slow across the paper.  The ink leaves big wet blotches on the paper (thank goodness we've all laid newspaper down first), and all the shapes bleed together until the form is almost lost.  Sensei nods his approval.  "Much better," he says, and writes "GOOD" across the top of the page in red cursive.  His penmanship is better than mine.  I might be a little jealous.   

Sensei projects the list of to-be-practiced kanji up on the wall; Mariko shows me the stroke order, so that I know how to paint them.  (Every kanji has a natural stroke order, and to not follow it would be to draw the kanji incorrectly.)  My technique improves just a little bit, but I'm not anywhere as skilled as the other students.  The boy on my right flies his brush across his paper.  He must have been doing this for years.

Mariko waits until I finish the last stroke, then she and a handful of other students gather around to paint the translations in the corners of my papers.  This one means "smile."  This one means "blue sky."  Tanoshii means "funny."  Kokoro means "heart."  Sensei circles back around with his red pencil.  He writes a few quick notes on Mariko's own pages, then a second round of Good on my papers, above what I consider my sloppiest kanji.  A paper like that would get thrown out in my language class.  He must see how confused I am, because he leans close and says, "Calligraphy is human.  It is always beautiful, especially when it is not so pretty."   

At the end of the class, Sensei gathers up my good and not good papers, and layers them between sheets of newspaper.  He hands me the bundle with a kind smile.  "Good work," he says, and throws me a thumbs up.  I might be a little proud.

Mariko takes my hand, and leads me back to my shoes.  Midori is here to take me to lunch.

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