Conversation Corner with Alex Hurst, Author and Traveller

When I first ran across fantasy author Alex Hurst’s blog, I was immediately attracted by the quality of her writing (as evidenced in her Archetypes in Fiction series) and her beautiful photos. I soon found that Alex is also a wonderful person who is very supportive of her fellow bloggers. During the April A to Z Challenge, Alex wrote an excellent series of posts about her life in Japan. I asked her if she would like to come by DBW to speak about her experiences communicating in a different cultural environment. Here is our conversation about travelling, introversion, English teaching, and the perils of ferocious kanji.

On your About page, you talk about travelling around the U.S. while growing up “in the wilds of the south.” How did you go from being a local traveller to living in Japan? And did you find your experiences of moving around helped you at all as you made that transition?

Well, that’s a very long story, but I’ll try to keep it short and interesting. I was born close to a bayou in Louisiana, where I spent a lot of my formative years playing outside in the woods around our property. My father collected a lot of Asian art, as well, so when I wasn’t outside pretending I was on some grand adventure with my siblings, I was inside looking at Buddhas, thangkas, and giant calligraphy scrolls. This would become important later, naturally, as my interests shifted from living in the U.S. to studying Japanese, and eventually coming to live in Kyoto.

A few years after my family moved to California, when I was around twelve, my family decided to have a real grand adventure and circumambulate the United States in our car. For 10,000 miles, it was just my father and my three younger siblings, with my mother staying in San Francisco for work. Though there were hard days, I think that was when I caught the travel bug. I need to explore, to go to new places, and often, as with Japanese, I tend to choose things that I know I’m not inherently good at, in order to challenge myself. But yes, moving around so much as a child, and my home life, more than prepared me for the move. When I came to Japan, I didn’t experience any culture shock and settled in quite quickly. However, whenever I visit my U.S. home, I always find myself getting what’s known as reverse culture shock, and that’s a bit uncanny, given how long I lived there!

It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I think it’s wonderful that you challenged yourself to learn Japanese and experience a new culture. I’m curious – what are some of the key differences that you notice when you come back to the U.S.? And what do you like most about the Japanese culture?

If I were to go with the first thing that pops into my head: the noise. U.S. Americans, and Canadians, are just louder, in all things. When I lived stateside before, I never noticed, but in Japan, things are so quiet all the time. On the train or bus, no one talks to each other (it’s considered rude). In restaurants, conversations are carried on as quietly as possible. Even in parks, children are so quiet that you can still hear the small birds in the trees several meters away. My ears have become much more sensitive to sound while I’ve been here, so when I go home, I constantly find myself flinching to regular noises, as if someone is always yelling when they shouldn’t be.

Otherwise, I would say the openness of Westerners is much more pronounced once you’ve been in Asia for a time. People like to keep direct eye contact in the West, shake hands, even hug strangers. There is a certain willingness to bare yourself to another human being in even the most base of interactions. But in Japan, it can take years to get to that point, and not even family members hug one another. It’s actually one of the quickest ways to make a young Japanese person uncomfortable: hug them. However, every now and then I find an old lady who is more than eager to get a hug from the exotic foreigner.

That’s not to say that either extreme of the above two observations are bad. I love both cultures for those things, in different ways. I’m just generally more quiet and reserved, being a low-key introvert, and so coming to Japan and adjusting to their way of things was very easy. But I do miss big bear hugs and people’s general, every day excitement in the West.

Of course, there's excitement here too...

Of course, there’s excitement here too…


As an introvert, I can relate to enjoying the quiet. 🙂 You mentioned that it can take a while to get close to someone in Japan. How did you go about making connections with others? What kind of new communication approaches did you need to learn?

That one’s a bit tougher! To make connections with other people in Japan, I didn’t change much inherently about myself, or my approaches in meeting people. I can’t honestly say that I “cracked the cultural code” in my time here, either. I did have to learn that where Americans are often shown to pigeon hole their friends (golf friends, poker friends, shopping friends), the Japanese people I’ve met are even more intense in their separations. It feels, at times, that my friends will not discuss any family matters with me at all because I am not family, or will only discuss one subject consistently, and it’s usually the topic we met under (like traveling). The only exception to this has been in the relationships I’ve built with my adult students over the years. Because I can decide the topic, I’ve gotten to know so many of them very well through our English conversations in class.

My best example of this is actually also my best friend in Japan. We chatted weekly for about a year, going to various places around Kyoto together and talking all about cultural differences between America and Japan, before I even found out that he was married and had a daughter. A full year! When I asked him why he never talked about them, he said that it was his private life, and not something he shares. And he is the most open person I know!

I’m curious how this type of separation works for the Japanese in the age of social media, where everything ends up online. How are online social platforms used?

Actually, social media is not used in the same way it is used in America, I think. Most Japanese people use Twitter or mixi (the Japanese equivalent of Facebook), but they use it to share photos, mainly, or gush about various things they are interested in. I don’t have a mixi account, but the friends that do use Facebook use it like Instagram, taking photos of food (sometimes adding very detailed explanations of the daily bento they are making for their children every morning). I rarely see a post that discusses anything personal. In that respect, I think Japanese people are still a bit reserved about digital things. The use of credit cards is still quite low (you can’t use a credit card to pay for a lot of things over here – it’s a cash-based society), and I think the mistrust of digital presence is one of the reasons it hasn’t changed (much to the chagrin of international visitors).

I’d love to hear more about your experiences working with your adult (and child) students. Did you find there were aspects of English that were difficult to teach? What helped you?

English has proved a very difficult language to teach, once you move past the stage of simple vocabulary and grammar study. I’ve found that prepositions are the most difficult. Japanese only has a handful of prepositions (は、が、に、を、で、として), which can be combined to create a further meaning, similar to the combination “into” in English. However, as most people know, English has well over a hundred prepositions, and their meanings are quite distinctive. As a native speaker, these meanings are quite clear, but for a Japanese learner, where に [ni] can mean ten different things (screenshot attached!), the idea that prepositions aren’t flexible is a difficult hurdle to overcome.

ni

The other thing that is hard to teach is stress in speech. Take the sentence “I never said she stole my money.” In writing, this is rather simple, and in certain contexts, the meaning is quite clear. But, change the stress on any word, and the meaning actually changes! So, teaching this is also difficult, since in Japanese, there are basically no stresses in a sentence until the very end. Their stresses denote questions, or confirmations, or invitations to respond. Ours are quite trickier, I think!

Teaching these things is difficult, but also fun. I find that doodling on the white board helps a lot, to show the difference between being “at” a place, and being “in” a place, or “on” a place. For intonation, I get my drama on, and exaggerate my delivery in speech, so students can understand the real meaning of a sentence based on how it is spoken.

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Japan with my readers. It’s been great having you here. One final question: Do you have a favourite kanji or Japanese expression that you’d like to pass along for those of us who may visit Japan someday?

Oh, yes, I do have a favorite kanji. It is not really practical, in the strictest sense, but that is what elevated it to “never forgotten” status in my mind.

The kanji is: 悪循環. It is read aku-jun-kan and means “vicious circle.”

Why is this my favorite kanji? Well, when I was in my third year of studying Japanese, the kanji understandably got way more difficult. And our teachers gave us a lot of kanji to study, many of which we would never need again, like “International Date Line” (don’t ask me why). But akujunkan became this sort of mantra in my class. The students would repeat it all the time, and even start using it as the reply-all to any complaints about the class. So, it’s very much an inside joke, but given the stressful course load and its compounding effects on mental health, it definitely fit.

Plus, it’s just fun to say. Akujunkan. Akujunkan. Akujunkan.

Thanks so much for the wonderful interview, Sue! I had a fabulous time! 🙂

***

Images courtesy of Alex Hurst

For more about Alex, I would encourage you to check out her blog or her latest illustrated novella, D.N.A.

Do you have a question for Alex, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

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29 thoughts on “Conversation Corner with Alex Hurst, Author and Traveller

  1. I always enjoy fiction with a Japanese setting, so I found this blog post fascinating. As a reserved, introvert, it sounds like I would feel right at home in Japan. In fact, I just read an article this morning in USA Today about the increased amount of tourism there. Hmm, maybe I’ll have to add a visit to my bucket list. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You would love it here, I’m sure! I think getting culture shock from a place like this comes from a place where there is no will to adjust or “bend” to the social norms, but for an introvert, living in Japan is quite easy!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful interview. I love learning about new cultures, so found it completely enthralling. I imagine within the complexities of the language there a so many words which have no real equivalent, or don’t translate between one language and the other. How did you tackle this issue? Did you find the closest equivalent, or did you just translate in a way which made it appropriate culturally?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there are many words that don’t translate well both ways. For example, the English “I miss you!” has NO equivalent in Japanese. It simply isn’t said. Neither is “I’m proud of you.” These phrases are distinctly cultural, something I sort of had to realize when I was trying to translate a lot of our common phrases. Because the sentiment doesn’t exist, I chose not to translate at all, and teach it, or convey it, in my very American way. 🙂

      On the other end of the spectrum, Japan has their own untranslatable phrases. When someone leaves work before their boss or coworkers, they say “Otsukaresama!” which is loosely explained as “I’m leaving work before the rest of you (hard workers).” There’s a lot of ceremony to it, as with many things in their “aisatsu,” or polite language, culture. In fact, where in English we simply use “please” or “Mister/Miss” to denote formality, Japanese has a whole new set of verbs that must be used, depending on who is doing the speaking in the situation. It’s quite confusing, and I’m thankful English is easier!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It does sound complex, but so wonderful! I really enjoy learning about other languages – the nuances, the rich structure and the cultural norms that form part of the whole. Thanks, Alex. As an interpreter I experience similar challenges; the words or phrases which just don’t translate and, most of the time, I choose not to translate them either. There’s no point, as they wouldn’t mean anything. So I find a culturally appropriate way of conveying the message and its meaning. It’s a topic I could talk about for hours! And, based on what you said in the interview/this reply, I can assume jokes are mostly lost in translation too. That’s a particular problem for me – those little asides speakers make and the times they think it’s ‘hilarious’ to put you on the spot. It must be wonderful teaching English, finding whichever communication method work to aid learning. I liked what you said about your expression coming out to show emphasis and intent. You have an incredibly cool job!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I could talk about it for hours too. It’s a great deal of fun. And yeah, some jokes are lost, but sometimes you have great opportunities for puns (which the Japanese love) when words work out similarly in both languages.

        For example, the sound ‘te’ in Japanese can mean “hand.” I was playing Mr. Potato Head with some kindergarteners, and put hands in each hole of the potato body, then said “Po-TE-to!” The kids got a kick out of it….the mothers groaned. 😛

        Liked by 2 people

    1. It totally is. It’s going to be a shock for me to go back to the west coast…. I’ll need a few days of social buffers to give myself time to adjust!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating interview, Sue and Alex! That car trip around the U.S. must have been quite an experience. The quietness of Japanese life sounds lovely. I know I would have a hard time learning Japanese, because the symbols don’t compute into words in my head. It’s amazing how you’ve learned it so well, Alex, and how you can translate back and forth and find such creative ways to teach English to the kids. Bravo!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Some kanji are very pictorial, and are quite easy to learn! For instance, this is tree: 木. It looks like a tree. This is book: 本… it’s a cut-down tree. 😉 The book kanji also means “base” (the location of the “axe” mark), etc.

      I can gather the “meaning” well enough from kanji these days…. but HOW they are read is a different beast all together! 😛

      I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I had a lovely time. Sue’s a great interviewer. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That reminds me, Alex, did you visit the Letters from the Land of Cherry Blossoms blog during A to Z? I can’t remember if I saw you there. Romi did a great series on kanji that I had a lot of fun with. http://romisdg02.blogspot.com/

        I’m relieved a tree actually looks like one. 😉

        And thank you for the compliment! You can come back anytime. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, she is! I find the kanji beautiful and my first inclination is to look at them as artwork, rather than letters. The tree kanji makes sense, and the book kanji reminds me of a book that has been put down open with its pages facing down so as not to lose one’s place. Turning the artwork into sentences, though, would be a challenge. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I could comment on a bazillion beautiful things in this interview, Sue and Alex, but I’ll keep it down to two.
    Alex–I think the sentence you chose to demonstrate stress in speech (and therefore meaning) was brilliant. I kept laughing with each new run of the sentence as I tried it out. Seriously, I’d never really thought about how difficult our language must be for someone learning English. Poor people!

    And Sue, I learned more incredibly interesting things about Alex from this one interview than I have visiting Alex’s brilliant blog for the last couple of years. Thank you for that, as I find Alex to be one of the most admirable and talented people I’ve come to meet online.
    I do so hope to meet her in person one day.

    Cheers to you both for an excellent and entertaining post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m really glad you had fun reading it, Shelley! Thanks for popping over here. Sue was super kind to share her blog space with me. Her blog is excellent. 🙂

      Yes, stresses were definitely something I never thought about before Japan. And I can’t take credit for the sentence… sadly. 😉 Still, it’s a great tool to show the complexity of our language. Our beautiful, bizarre, diverse language. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahah, you two are going to make me blush! I’m glad you guys enjoyed it. I should probably blog about the nitty of Japanese life more, but I think I’ll still need another five years to digest everything I’ve experienced so far. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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