Why Japanese?

Meet Chris, who brings his love for Japanese (among other winning qualities) to the SLE team!

Chris Gray Blog Post Pic

It’s been seven years since I began studying Japanese. If I had a nickel (or five yen) for every time I’ve been asked that– by friends in America, fellow Japanophiles, and by the Japanese themselves–I’d have money to fly out to Narita International Airport as often as I pleased. Yet in spite of all these potential airline miles I’d be racking up, I still don’t have a great answer to this question.

I could’ve gone for French, exposed to it as I was from an early age. My mother was born and raised in Montreal, and only two years after I was born here (in northern Virginia), we moved to Ottawa.

I could’ve gone for Arabic. My family moved to Egypt just as I was starting middle school. I studied Arabic and got to use it every day, and I exercised it a bit when my family moved to Tunisia while I was in college. Whenever Arabic comes up in conversation recently, people tell me about how much bank I could be making if I picked it up again. (This has happened enough times to make me wonder where I put my old copy of Al-Kitaab.)

But, ultimately, I didn’t. Or haven’t. I chose to study a language of a place far away that I’d never been to, belonging to a culture that has no influence on my heritage. And so we come back to the original question: Why?

I started out with Japanese just before I graduated high school. As per my brief life history above, language was always an important thing in my family. I wanted to keep on going with language, and I knew I wanted to challenge myself. There’s another part of the equation: I was what you’d call A Pretty Big Nerd. (To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, I still am, but I used to be one, too). I stayed up late watching Japanese anime, played video games like I was trying to land a job at Nintendo, and went out for sushi as often as my summer jobs’ pay allowed me.

So, propelled by a love for languages and an incipient interest in Japanese culture, I worked my way through my university’s Japanese program. Halfway through my undergraduate career, my small group of classmates had gotten smaller, and I’d shed most of my Japanese hobbies along the way, too. But I didn’t feel myself slowing down. I knew that I wanted to see Japanese through as far as I could–recalling the premature demise of my French and Arabic studies–but I also wanted to confirm for myself that I was really serious about it. Does that make sense?

I’d still never been to Japan, and I could’ve counted on both hands the number of Japanese people I’d met up to that point. What if I totally freaked out when I found myself in a situation where I had to engage a real live Japanese person in conversation beyond, “Hello, my name is Chris, I’m from America?” I had to find out for myself, so I applied to study for a term in Osaka. The result: My general, kind-of-vague reasons for being interested in Japanese were replaced by very real and specific reasons. Those four months are a whole other story–as are the two years I spent teaching English over there–but to make an extremely long story short, I loved the people, the food, the culture and history, and the way of life. While I was over there, I learned a lot about myself, too, and I think I was able to give back to my friends and community.

So why Japanese, after all? It’s still kind of a weird thing for me to answer, because I guess the reasons I had changed over time. Originally, it was just out of a desire to explore a new language and culture that I’d had only basic exposure to, but also a persistent and intrinsic interest in. But I stuck with it because it led me to meeting so many wonderful people and having so many awesome experiences. And I’m pretty confident that Japanese will keep rewarding and surprising me with those things if I keep on going.


Chris Gray is a graduate of Rice University and a recently-returned alumnus from the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. When not keeping up with his Japanese, he enjoys running, cooking, and pretending to capably snowboard.

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