Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

My knowledge of the Japanese language is entirely functional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m functionally fluent. If I need to find a bathroom, I can do that. If I need to make special adjustments to a restaurant order, I can do that. If I need to tell my kids to stop chewing on each others’ arms, I can do that, too. I can converse in a rather verbose, if boring and stilted, manner. I cannot, however, write a story. I cannot string together a poem or express complex emotional ideas. I cannot weave a tapestry of words to evoke emotions, to encourage empathy, to fundamentally move a person and leave my mark on them.

And it’s frustrating when I’m in a situation where I have to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, struggling to find a voice in a language I have yet to master, overflowing with emotions to relate but unable to relate them in the right way.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding, they had a slideshow of pictures from the lives of the bride and groom. The first picture of the bride’s life was her as a baby in the smiling arms of my mother-in-law. As related in an earlier post, she died before I ever met her. My first trip to Japan was for her funeral.

All I could think when I saw that picture was how she’d never been able to hold any of her grandchildren like that. How my kids will grow up without their Japanese “ba-san”. How she will never be able to pass on to her daughters that special kind of motherly advice that can only come from one’s own mother.

The next pictures were of my wife and her sister growing up, going through all the various milestones kids go through, with their smiling mother by their side. All these things she’ll never see for her own grandkids, never be able to do with them. I was touched, but at the same time I was standing in the back of the reception hall holding my one-year-old son. I couldn’t break down–it was my job to keep him from breaking down.

But then the last picture came up in the slideshow. The family all stood together, smiling, with a caption whose beauty I can’t exactly translate but is best rendered as: “Her mother watches over her from Heaven.” And that’s when I lost control. I excused myself and walked out of the reception hall and over to the large windows overlooking the city of Nagoya.

It helped that my son chose that moment to go a little nuts, so I had some cover, but that’s not exactly why I left. I’m no stranger to embarrassment–you get used to that marrying into a foreign culture. No, I had to leave because I knew that if anyone asked me what was wrong, why I looked like I’d been chopping onions, I wouldn’t be able to express exactly how I felt. “I’m sad” and “I was moved” are functional phrases. They’re all that came to mind. They’re all I knew how to say in my functional Japanese voice. And they weren’t sufficient. They wouldn’t do the moment justice. So I hid away by the windows, watching the traffic in the streets below for a while to gather my thoughts and let the baby settle down.

As authors, sometimes we struggle to find our own voice. I’m discovering the same is also true when learning a foreign language. It’s my goal to someday be able to tell my Japanese family exactly how I feel in my very own Japanese Ben voice. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s for a good cause.

Family at the Wedding

Actually, five good causes.

Death from Overwork is Forbidden

I noted on Twitter the other day that the chrysanthemum is obviously more important to the Japanese than it is to us Americans because their word for it is simply kiku (菊). I followed this with an observation that they also have a word for “death from overwork”: karoushi (過労死). That word really stuck with me. Here was a culture that experienced this so often they needed a simple vocabulary unit to express it.

During the daytime hours I manage video game development teams. Being the Japanese geek that I am I’ve taken that word and made it part of my team charter: karoushi kinshi (過労死禁止): “Death from overwork is forbidden.” I write it on my whiteboard, I hang posters in hallways, and when people ask me what it means it sparks an interesting discussion–one I know will stick with them every time they come to my office to ask for advice on handling a given problem.

The stories about terrible workplace conditions in the video game industry are fewer than they were 6+ years ago. The industry has acknowledged that months of 80+ hour work weeks are counter-productive and has started taking measures to combat it. I like to think I’ve had a lot to do with that during my tenure across three studios of Electronic Arts. They had one of the worst publicity problems in the industry at the time.

But “death” and “overwork” can apply to far more than salaryman type jobs and shuffling off this mortal coil. Very often we get wrapped up in our own pursuits to the detriment of the relationships we hold dear. For me, this pursuit was writing. It’s been all-consuming these past two years, and I’ve spent all the free time I could carve out between my job and my family writing some books and honing my craft. One night my wife went to bed before me and I stayed up late to get some writing done. The next night, I was really close to finishing some scene or other, so when she asked if I was coming to bed I let her know that I’d be there as soon as I finished up. Two hours later I rolled into the bedroom. Of course she’d fallen asleep, the lights still on, waiting for me.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern with our most passionate pursuits that unknowingly builds barriers between us and our loved ones. Two years later and it’s hard for me to remember the last time my wife and I went to bed at the same time. The worst part of all is that I didn’t even recognize it was happening. No, it was pointed out to me by a friend’s wife–and neither the friend nor his wife know my wife. Yet after I spent just one evening chatting with my friend’s wife, she immediately identified this as a significant problem I needed to address. And she’s right. I can’t believe I went so long without seeing it.

Just like the video game industry. One late night wasn’t so bad. That led to another. Then another. And it all snowballed until the only way to get a game built to budget and schedule was by crunching for weeks or months at a time. There was no malevolent intent, no man behind the curtain–just a blinding passion for one pursuit (in their case, making great games, in my case, writing great books). Like I remind my team that overwork isn’t always the answer, it’s good to have friends (or wives of friends!) there to remind me about the important things in life I’m missing out on or inadvertently allowing to die. Of course this problem will be rectified posthaste with lots of hugs, lots of flowers, and a reasonable bedtime.

過労死禁止。Death from overwork is forbidden. Is there something in your own life that’s suffered as a result of your dedication to a given pursuit? Ever stop to think about it? Perhaps some random blog post by some random guy who talks about random Japanese and writing-related things can spark your awareness of it.

Anything’s possible.

Where’s Ben?

Dude I'm right here!

Dude I'm right here!

If I only had some glasses, I’d look a lot like Waldo.

So where have I been lately? Buried. Sorry for the lack of updates, but I’m neck-deep in writing at the moment. The novel is coming along nicely, just past the 60k mark, and should be wrapped up in another 15k words. Then after a short break the edits begin. I’m trying to have it all tidied up for a conference in May.

In the middle of all the writing going on this month I’ve had some visitors, and to top it all off my family is heading out to Japan next week–for a five month trip. Language boot camp for the kids. Time for them to understand what that Japanese half of them is all about.

It’ll just be me holding down the fort in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

Me and my novels.

Next time I’ll post about endings, both because I’ll have finished this draft, and because I’ve had some interesting conflicts going on about how to end this thing. So many ways to go, and each one has a substantial impact on the tone of the novel. I’m going with my gut. Time will tell if I’m right.

See you guys on the other side of “THE END”!

Joys of Childhood

Maul and Yoda hug it out.

I took my oldest son to Target the other day where he bought his first Star Wars action figures. Yoda, Darth Vader, and Darth Maul. He’s got good taste, this kid.

I thought I remembered how wonderful childhood was. I was wrong. I realized how much I’d forgotten when I witnessed the joy on his face and in everything he’s done since we picked them up. From gazing longingly at the boxes all the way home in the car, to tearing them open at home and playing with all the accessories.

He went to bed terribly late that night because he had to play with them. And I thought he would sleep in because of it, but no, he was up before everyone else in the house, asking me if I’d get up and play Star Wars with him before his sisters woke up.

Of course, I did.