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speaking of dogo onsen

February 2000

It was just another one of life's little adventures. One of those things that I knew I needed to do, even though the prospect scared the bejeezus out of me. I had enough perspective, even peeking through my fingers, to know that it was something which would be of little consequence later, except for adding another interesting story to the mix of tales that sums up my existence.

This one took place a couple of weeks ago. It is really a reprise of another adventure a year ago. But this year there was a surprise twist.

Each week I sit sometimes numbly, sometimes nimbly, through a 90 minute Japanese lesson. Tod is leaps and bounds ahead of me--he runs grammatical circles around me thanks to endless hours reading dictionaries and puzzling out kanji and speaking in Japanese with his coworkers.

Admittedly, I don't put as much effort into my studies. My job is writing in English and I fret about losing my ability to write well. Will Japanese overflow into the English parts of my language abilities? I don't want to find out.

Needless to say, this attitude keeps me from advancing very quickly. My instructor, Oyama-sensei, must be frustrated with my inability to progress past my current level, but she never lets on. So I keep at it, learning a little and forgetting more than I absorb.

OLJ, the language school we attend, has an annual speech contest. Last year, when we were only a few months into our studies, we wrote and read very simple speeches to an assembled crowd of thirty other students and their supporters. I talked about Hello Kitty and Tod told about a favorite Japanese band. The speeches were short, simple and we read them from our neatly handwritten scripts.

Oyama-sensei warned us that this year we would have to memorize our speeches and recite them. Ouch! That announcement, so casually thrown out at the end of a class period, invited my nerves to start jangling. But if that was the assignment, then I would do it.

Writing a speech in my own language is not a big problem. I'm a writer and I used to teach so standing up in front of people and talking isn't new to me or even very frightening. If I'm working in English. So it was natural to begin by writing my speech in English, and then to translate it into Japanese.

The theme for the contest was "The Most Interesting Experience I Have Had in Japan." I've done so many interesting things I can hardly rank them all and pick a Most Interesting, so I opted to relate one experience that I knew I had appropriate vocabulary for--taking a bath at a hot spring called Dogo Onsen.

I wrote my speech and translated it, taking care to incorporate some of the complex sentence structures I've been taught. Having to use them and memorise them for the speech would, I hoped, take them from taught to actually learned. From the instructional standpoint I knew this speech contest for what it was, an excellent opportunity to reinforce learning.

With Tod's help on the tricky verb tenses and conjunctive phrases, I finished the Japanese version and set to memorizing it. It was only 29 sentences. About 3 minutes when spoken at top speed.

But it took two weeks of lunch breaks to get it right. I recited a paragraph aloud, checked for mistakes, and if correct rewarded myself with a bite of last night's leftovers. If I made a mistake I started over until I got it right. Those were some long lunches...

I recalled the problems from the previous year's contest when I was a rank beginner and more advanced students' speeches were a blur of undecipherable vocabulary and conjugations. I decided to create some visual aids. I painted pictures to illustrate the main points of my speech. At least those who didn't understand what I was saying would have some idea of what I meant.

The night before the contest, Tod sat and drilled me as I held up pictures and rehearsed. He corrected my pronunciation. He timed me. And he practiced his own speech--an apology for not having a speech--that he had written that afternoon.

On the morning of the contest, there were plenty of other nervous students, including our friends Seth & Tara, who sat near us and commiserated. Seth was no longer studying and didn't have to give a speech, but Tara, Tod & I nervously discussed the correct way to hold our props, our place in the lineup of speeches and whether or not we'd freeze at the podium.

Seth just sat there reminding us that this was not a life or death issue. Of course, the logical part of me agreed. But my nerves figured that this was probably the climax of a cataclysmic event and behaved appropriately.

Of the three of us, I went first after some other students at earlier stages of study. Unfortunately, the speech right before mine was given by a woman who talked about her profession as a singer and then sang a long song in Japanese. What an act to follow!

I screwed up my courage and went to the podium with my watercolor drawings and a copy of my speech. I sat the speech down, apologised to the crowd for not being able to sing and launched into my talk.

The rest is mostly a blur. I think I might have been holding the first drawing, a map, upside down. I never bothered to ask anyone later. I stumbled over some verbs and got completely confused when I was explaining how I arrived at Dogo Onsen. I watched my hands shake as I held up the last few paintings. But other parts went relatively smoothly; even the complicated, long sentence that Oyama-sensei helped me to construct. I glanced at her for approval as I spit it all out, and she was smiling and nodding encouragement. That felt good.

Soon enough it was over. I had slowly stumbled through the speech I had sailed through in practice the evening before. Nerves reigned supreme. Although it seemed like it went on for dozens of minutes, it was only four minutes at the podium.

Then it was Tod's turn. His apologetic speech described how he'd sat has his computer, thinking, writing, erasing, and finally giving up all hope of writing a speech. His was short and funny and over quickly. But I'm sure it seemed long while he was up there, bowing and apologising and asking the audience what they would have done if they couldn't think of anything to write.

Tara, in a more advanced class than us, was a few people down the line. Her speech was about her collection of Doraemon goods. Doraemon is an anime charater, a "cat-like robot from the 22nd century," and Tara owns everything imaginable with Doraemon on it. She brought a modest selection of her collection with her for a show-and-tell. It was really cute and funny.

The speeches continued on as people talked about their vacations, avocations and interests. The best speech was a man who introduced himself with "I have my youth and my health, but I don't have much money." He went on to give five tips for budget travel. My favorite tip was "Wear a cute hat." His experience proved cute hats attract friendly drivers when you are hitchhiking. He demonstrated with his own cute hat, but no drivers appeared to give him a ride.

Eventually, the speeches concluded and the assembly was invited to eat and mingle while the judges (the school's instructors) scored the participants. Big plates of sushi appeared, along with tiny sandwiches, small morsels of fried chicken, and other tasty finger foods. We wandered around, complementing people on their speeches, eating and laughing nervously, until our attention was recalled to the podium.

The judging was in two categories based on class level--beginner-intermediate and advanced. During the break, we had opined on who we thought should win. Some of the candidates were pretty obvious--the couple who brought in an overhead projector to illustrate their vacation and joked about the silly things they'd done. The singer. The budget traveller. The Indian woman who spoke so smoothly and fluently that she would certainly win, even though I had no idea what she had said.

Needless to say I was surprised when Nobu-sensei mentioned drawings as she introduced the beginner-intermediate level second prize. When my name was announced as the winner, I was in shock. I won a prize for my awful speech? Wow.

My knees shook as I walked up to receive my award from Oyama-sensei, who is the president of the school, as well as my instructor. She beamed at me as she read out the inscription on the gold-encrusted certificate and handed over 5,000 yen in bookstore gift certificates.

The rest of the prizes went to the people we'd figured would win. We all crammed together for photos and then it was over. It still hadn't quite sunk in--I kept repeating over and over, "I won a prize; I won a prize for a speech in Japanese..."

[If you'd like to see the text of my speech and the drawings that illustrate it, it's best if you have Japanese fonts enabled on your web browser. If you don't, you should still be able to read the English but the Japanese will be garbled.]

Copyright 2003. Kristen McQuillin,