Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.7 , December 1999
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From the Director
Foreign Visiting Fellowship Program
Our Current Staff
Research Funded by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture
Guest Lectures from Abroad
Visitors from Abroad
Awards for SRC Staff
Publications (1998-1999)
The Library
Essays by Foreign Fellows
Cynthia H. Whittaker
Isabel Tirado
Kuili Liu
John P. LeDonne

Chinese Characters and Hokkaido Bugs

Isabel Tirado
(William Paterson University, USA, COE-Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1999-2000)

The author with her grandson Dorion.

A few years ago I came across the Slavic Center's ad in the American Historical Association's Perspectives announcing the competition for visiting fellowships. I had been directing our History department, and the thought of quiet research time seemed very enticing. During my two terms as department chair, I had spent every summer vacation doing archival research and collecting materials for a book that competed with ever-expanding job responsibilities. The prospect of an excellent library and an office located half a world away from my office's telephone and mailbox kept me happy during seven-day work weeks, endless meetings, and obligations of all types.
Looking back at the months after I received my letter of acceptance from the Slavic Center, I recall a moment when I realized that in a few weeks I would be taking a leap into the unknown. Half-way through my stay, I am struck by the smooth and quick adjustment to life in Sapporo. The single surprise has been my reaction to not being able to read street signs. Although I had begun to take Japanese language lessons in New York, I had made no effort to learn kanji because it seemed to me like a futile project–too many characters and too little time. I was dismayed to see so much written in kanji when I got here! A few days after arriving I dreamed that I was strolling down some street that seemed very familiar. I had my apartment key in my hand, but I couldn't find my Sapporo address because I couldn't read! And so I used the key to open a few apartment doors, only to find a variety of families and situations, but not my own apartment. I woke up from the effort of trying to put a whole sentence together in Japanese in my attempt to seek help. The dream was not frightening–I did not feel worried, but rather quite content. I realized that the dream stemmed from a shopping expedition that my colleague, Katia Nikova and I had taken earlier that day. Every time we had a question, Katia would turn to me and say, “can you make a sentence and ask the salesperson whether this fabric is washable?” This went on all afternoon, and obviously it had an impact on my psyche.
A few days later, I confided to my neighbor and colleague, Kiuli Liu that now I felt greater empathy for my research subjects, the semi-literate Russian peasants of the 1920s. I was learning first-hand what it felt like when they came to town and had to deal with the written language. Liu-san encouraged me to start learning kanji, and sat down and taught me my first dozen characters right then and there, confident that I could learn enough during my stay in Japan to be comfortable with the most common signs. Although I think that he was overly optimistic, his mini-lesson demystified the process of reading. Since then I have been learning more characters, to the point that now I try to read signs rather than ignore them.
Fishing in the middle of Gion.
A few weeks after my arrival, my daughter and grandson joined me. A small child brings a refreshing perspective to most experiences. Everyday life in Sapporo was a treat to my family: they relished being able to bike everywhere, or meeting me at our favorite sushi bar for lunch. Three-year-old Dorion delighted in the children living at International Residence and forged a friendship with two African boys who, having lived in London prior to coming to Sapporo, spoke fluent English. My daughter's and grandson's interaction with our colleagues at the Center was easy and relaxed; they felt “at home,” thanks to the kindness of so many of our colleagues, who gave them rides, caught spiders and insects for Dorion, and showered them with attention. For a treat, the three of us spent a few days in Kyoto, enjoying the temples and imperial palace. For Dorion the most memorable part of the trip was going fishing in the middle of Gion. He could not resist jumping in the river to join a group of little boys bearing fishing nets and their mothers' colanders. The boys broke their intense concentration to show Dorion their minuscule catch. Back in Sapporo, on our last day we went to the Art Park with the Mochizukis. With 5-year-old Ken as his teacher, Dorion learned his first words of Japanese as they played with another child in the park. We spent a good part of an afternoon watching the boys collecting drowning and drowned insects in a fountain. At one point we noticed that a group of people had gathered to look at the boys. A loud and excited Dorion was delivering a lecture on insects to this admiring audience! Totally oblivious to the fact that no one understood what he was saying, he was also "presenting" his "research" and, like his grandmother, was thoroughly enjoying his visit. That moment made me aware that my sojourn has been a gift that has given me research time and a host of rich and pleasant experiences.

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