Monday, November 12, 2007

An old friend

Yesterday, I met with an old college buddy from my UCLA days, TY. He's here in the DC area to participate in a workshop for English language education in foreign countries. He heads a company that advises and directs aspiring Japanese students to appropriate colleges and graduate schools abroad, mostly in the US--I think. It was very nice to see him again, although looking at him reminded me how old we are getting. But it also aroused fond memories of my salad days at UCLA.

In the Fall Quarter of 1981, I had started my second term at UCLA and was full of excitement. Indeed, since I had matriculated the previous spring, I anticipated being in classes with people I might already know. It felt like I belonged. Unfortunately, there were not too many people I knew, and those I did know were chatting with those they seemed more familiar with. Oh well....

At least, I felt a bit more comfortable in a UCLA classroom. Or perhaps I should say, better prepared. I was shocked during my first quarter. The demands and expectations were far greater than I had anticipated--by leaps and bounds greater than at the community college I attended the previous few years--and it took me hours of studying just to keep up with my classmates, let alone the class. Indeed, I was surprised at having a full class from the very first day, caught embarrassingly unprepared. But not this Fall quarter. My notebook was open, my pencils were sharpened, I had previewed the first chapter of the textbook and looked up the kanji I didn't know. I was sitting in Akatsuka sensei's Advanced Japanese class in Bunche Hall at the ready. Sensei outlined her expectations of the course, and immediately directed us to the first chapter of the text book, just as I had anticipated. She pointed to one student, then another, both of whom struggled through the sentence they had to read. C'mon, sensei, call on me. I'm ready. But she called on someone in the back of the room. In a low baritone, this student proceeded to read one, two, three sentences in flawless Japanese.

What the fuck? Who the hell is this native speaker? Doesn't he realize he'll screw up the curve?

This was my first encounter with TY.

To be continued...


An old friend (2): You again?

...Continued from yesterday

I've always considered myself a rather naive guy when it comes to women. I am forever infatuated with them. Up until the 9th or 10th grade, I would be convinced I was in love if a cute girl gave me the time of day. Of course, I could not fall for every girl, and the more women I met, the more I realized how many different kind of women there were. Good, bad, indifferent. Still, I cannot deny that I often found myself easily infatuated with women.

Take PW. I met her in Intermediate Japanese class my first quarter at UCLA. Now I had met a number of young ladies during my band days in high school. Being a band member always attracted a pool of girls and I got to know many of them--not necessarily in the Biblical sense. But I had never met a girl like PW. She was a "half", as they say in Japanese: Half white, half Japanese. And I think she was at the time the most adorable girl I had ever met. It was one thing to have her in the same class, but to have her talk to me from time to time. Were you able to understand the whole passage? Did you get this sentence? Did she just ask me a question? Man, I now had a tangible reason to study and be prepared for class.

Of course, I was the new guy in class, and she had friends with whom she was far more familiar, and anything she had to say to me was limited to polite and generic conversation. But this changed in the Fall quarter, when I found her not only in Advanced Japanese, but also a Japanese literature course on the I-novelist Mushakoji Saneatsu. When I saw her on campus, I made sure to chat with her about class--Do you like the new teacher, Akatsuka sensei? What do you think of Mushakoji? When I think about it now, my conversation probably bored her to death. But she was a nice girl who was willing to talk to a dork.

Anyway, we would bump into each other at the University Research Library in North campus, sometimes at night after seven or eight. We had coffee a couple of times and I would offer her a ride to her car when it was dark. One night, after we had studied near each other at URL, I got up the nerve to ask her if she wanted to get some dinner. Her first reaction was positive, but as we walked toward my car, she asked me if she could bring a friend. Of course, I said. How could I refuse? She called her friend from a pay phone and we went to a restaurant they go to periodically, a place called Sushi King on Wilshire in Santa Monica.

I was rather mesmerized with PW. On our way there, I'm sure we had a nice conversation, but I don't remember a thing. My thoughts were on having dinner with PW and wondering who this friend was. But as we walked into the sushi bar, my infatuation was in danger of fading... quickly. PW called out: Hey, there's TY. Hi! You know Onigiriman, right?

It was the second time TY--Mr. Native Speaker from Advanced Japanese--made his presence felt, rudely and unwelcomed.

To be continued...


An old friend (3): Making new friends

TY came over my house for a BBQ on Sunday and I met him and one of his other friends for dinner on Monday. We had a very pleasant time reminiscing again, and I was happy to make a new acquaintance who seems to speak better Japanese than me. In any event, I know that TY is reading this, so I thought I should put in a disclaimer: Memory is subjective and fallible. Definitely fallible. Everything I write here is filtered through the prism of my memories and is not necessarily an exact representation of the past. In fact, if you ask me, it is virtually impossible for anyone to represent the past perfectly from memory. But it is the past as recorded in my mind and I present it as such.

Anyway, where was I....

It became pretty clear to me that PW did not see me as anything but a classmate and perhaps a friend. We got along well enough talking about class and common interests. I would still offer her a ride to her car at the parking lot, and sometimes took her home to her parents house on those occasions when she went home for the weekend, as they lived on the east side of town, where I lived. I held no illusions. To have someone as cute as PW as a friend was amazing enough for me.

In the meantime, I had more or less placed TY in a back drawer of my brain. He was neither a threat nor a rival. Just another hurdle in my quest for an A; I just had to work harder. By the Winter quarter, he had virtually vanished from my consciousness.  I was taking a heavy load--18 credit units--and TY was not in any of my classes. I had little time to develop friendships--let alone relationships--and was content with the casual acquaintances I had made in my various classes. Study, study, study. In the Spring quarter, I took another 16 credit units and even made the Dean's list. I had arrived! I thought as I looked forward to a pleasant SoCal summer.

And pleasant it was. Blue skies, moderate heat--for LA anyway. And the beginning of a variety of friendships.

Over the Winter and Spring quarters, I had become acquaintances with a number of people but I didn't really have a chance to get to know them until the summer. I had enjoyed my year at UCLA so much, that I decided to take a couple of classes over the summer. Although the classes were daily, they were mostly in the morning; in the afternoon, I would spend it with these acquaintances at North Campus, the local coffee shop/cafeteria. Every morning, JK--a girl I had met through a mutual friend--would find a table and squat. After class, a variety of people would come by and take a seat to eat lunch, have coffee, or just chat. We would come and go during the day, but there was always someone there, so when we driffted back, we knew we would have a place to sit no matter how crowded it was. We became a very close knit group of friends. Including TY.

One early afternoon, as we sat down to eat lunch, PW suddenly giggled uncontrollably. There's TY! I looked over my shoulder behind me and couldn't help but yelp in amusement. There was TY striding into North Campus wearing what I first thought was his pajamas. In reality, is was a jinbei, cotton summer wear in Japan, usually worn around the house (see right). I have to admit that I had never seen anyone wear one outside--well maybe except when going to the local convenience store. But not to college or for some other away-from-home event, unless it was something special like a summer festival or fireworks display when people often turned "traditional". But there was TY, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, approaching our North Campus table in his jinbei.

Did you wear that on the bus? PW asked in wonder.

No, I rode my moped to school, he responded in Japanese.

As you might imagine, this elicited another round of laughter. But TY simply smiled as if nothing in the world was wrong. From that moment on, I felt something special for this native-speaking, curve-screwing spirit. And we had a grand summer.

It seemed like each day was filled with laughter. On some days, TY would bring his mahjong set and we'd play mahjong, clacking our tiles loudly right there on a North Campus table. On other days, TY would try to figure out what J-pop songs would suit me--he introduced me to Memory Glass by Horie Jun. One day, I saw my first Walkman and was simply amazed at the quality of sound emitted by these tiny tape players. I think I spent two hours listening and marvelling at this piece of technology, much to the chagrin of HY, my new friend from Tokyo University. But mostly we just chatted and enjoyed out summer afternoons, as I made new friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with.

Unfortunately, all this chatting did not serve me well in my Modern Japanese history course. I'm lucky I passed, just barely. On the other hand, the anthro class I took was a joke. The professor literally lectured from the textbook he assigned us. I guess since he wrote the textbook, it did not constitute plagiarism, but it did mean that I didn't have to go to class. All I had to do was read the text book, take the midterm and final and get a B for taking what amounted to a correspondence course. TY also took this class, but he was enjoying the summer as much as I did, maybe more so. On the day of the Final, a couple of guys sitting behind me were whispering outloud. Look at that guy. He hasn't come the whole quarter and he's now trying get the professor to sign a permission to withdraw form. What? I thought and looked up, only to see TY talking to the professor, then leaving the classroom with a piece of paper in hand. When I think about it, I never did ask him if that was really a permision to withdraw slip. Hmmmm...

To be continued...