Striving to Speak With My Friend

I was just 10 years old when I discovered (in this very newspaper) the vicarious adventures that come from writing to international pen pals. Naively assuming that all of them were fluent in English, I wrote richly detailed reports of American life in my colloquial preteen argot. Ursula in Germany and Margaret in South Africa remained my "pals" for three or four years. Fumiko, however, continues to communicate from Japan, close to five decades later. In English, of course.

We were well into the adult years of our friendship when she asked me, "Did you really think I could just write to you without any help? I'd only been studying English for a year when my after-school tutor suggested finding a pen pal. Every time a letter came from you, she helped me struggle with it."

Oh. In all those years, despite my own struggles with Japanese and other languages, I'd never really thought about what it had once taken Fumiko to answer my effortlessly created letters. Suddenly, I saw my friend in a new light. Her career as an English teacher had been won through years of diligent effort. Ganbaru, they called it in Japanese, a quality often valued more by her culture than by mine.

Despite my "lingo-centrism," our long-distance friendship continued through high school and college, where we both studied to be teachers. A year after my graduation, I landed in Tokyo, more or less ready to take on a classroom of second-graders in an international school - and able, finally, to get to know Fumiko in person.

WHILE we both had just begun our teaching careers, Fumiko had embarked on an additional adventure as her parents helped her make a suitable marriage. Traditional matchmakers introduced her to several promising young men from appropriate families. At last, a bright, shy, warm-hearted astrophysicist was settled on and plans for their wedding began in earnest. As part of the festivities, I was to give a speech wearing a borrowed kimono.

At that point, my knowledge of Japanese was roughly that of Fumiko's childhood English. Happily, I was living with a Japanese family who provided thorough coaching for my speech and arranged for a professional dresser to wrap me properly in the kimono. Thus confined to the unfamiliar robe by yards of tightly bound ribbons, themselves covered by a breathtakingly stiff obi, I hobbled my way to the microphone to give a congratulatory speech I scarcely understood.

By now it had become apparent to me that diligent effort was called for if I intended to speak Japanese more comfortably. Recalling with distaste the formality of earlier school-based foreign language courses, I opted for methods that took a more casual approach: watching Japanese TV, chatting with storekeepers and neighbors, traveling to places where no one spoke English, even working on a farm the following summer. I was, most definitely, lacking in ganbaru. I never learned to carry on an in-depth conversation.

But my language deficit was no hindrance to my friendship with Fumiko. She was happy to practice her English for the three years I lived in Tokyo. Succeeding decades brought marriage for me as well, and children for both of us. On rare occasions we were able to visit, but for the most part our relationship remained pen-pal status.

SEVERAL years ago, I received a phone call from someone with a trace of a Japanese accent. "I am Akiko," she said. "I'm the daughter of your friend Fumiko, and I'm in Utah attending graduate school. My mother said I should call you."

What began as a social obligation soon grew to a telephone friendship. In Akiko I saw the reflection of my own earlier self: in a very different country, enjoying many new experiences, becoming almost more comfortable with my surroundings than with the culture I'd left behind.

It began to bother me, however, that she had been disciplined enough to learn my language while I had failed to become literate and fluent in hers. Finally, about a year ago, I began my first formal Japanese classes.

Depending on who asked, I would explain that "It's my new hobby" or "I want to do cross-cultural research with children." I really meant both, having almost forgotten the true impetus for my efforts.

Recently I've been looking back at this past year, wondering how I made it through. The other students in my language class were less than half my age; I had little time to study and could barely keep up; and yet, I consistently put other parts of my life on hold and persisted. Thinking ahead, I wonder if I have the nerve to register for Japanese 201 then 202, 203, 301, and ... the numbers in the catalog march on, seemingly forever.

At last, I find myself looking forward to the effort ahead, suddenly realizing that, sometime during all these decades, I have acquired, without ever quite noticing when or how, ganbaru.


The Japanese borrowed their writing system from China, starting about the 5th century AD. Buddhist monks helped establish Chinese ideograms ('kanji') as the official way to write Japanese. Four centuries later, the Japanese had added two alphabets of phonetic characters called 'hiragana' and 'katakana' to represent sounds.

The Japanese word 'ganbaru' (great effort, perseverance) written above contains kanji and hiragana characters. The top two characters are Chinese; the last is hiragana and represents the 'ru' sound.

The calligrapher has signed his work in the lower left corner and applied his red-inked 'chop,' or personal seal. Japanese calligraphy has long been esteemed as a demanding and expressive art form.

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