Catching up culturally too

Well, the Japanese ability screening test I’d been studying for is now over, so I no longer have to spend every minute of my free time studying (or feeling obligated to study). I can get back to my full gym routine (and just in time too–muscles are weakening! Anxiety levels are increasing!) and I can get back to work on song translations and updating my website. I spent the past weekend doing that almost exclusively, and I’m not done yet (I was already behind though) but I hope to catch up soon.

How did the test go? Hmm… I was told it would be post-N2 level, hence the frantic studying, and I’m not sure if it was quite that bad. The test’s difficulty ranged from “super ridiculously is-this-a-joke easy” to “ooh, that’s kinda hard.” I feel pretty confident about the majority of my answers, but I’ve also completely lost faith in my ability to predict if my answer will be the correct one. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m “whaaaat! How is that not it?!” wrong. It’s also difficult to know how you did on a test you’ve never taken before. With JLPT you know what to expect, but this was a test created by teachers I’d never encountered before. It was also strange in that for the listening and reading sections, the texts/dialogues were in Japanese, but you answered in English. It was that way for some parts of the kanji/vocab section too. This made it easier in some ways but it was also a little confusing/unexpected. I don’t feel like I bombed it or anything, but I feel like there might be a lot of answers I thought I got right where in reality they were looking for something totally different. Hard to say! Frustrating.

It will be a little while before I know if I did well enough for my goals… right now I am in a waiting period. And I hate it. I want to know so I can plan and announce, and I won’t know for a bit longer, and I’m worried, worried, worried the outcome won’t be what I’m hoping… it’s not fun. It will be this way for about the next month. In many ways this next month will be huge.

I’m not sure how much of my energy to dedicate to Japanese study from here on out… before this, I would try to dedicate at least a few hours of one weekend day to self-study at home with my textbooks, and usually I’d succeed. Last spring I tried taking the Saturday morning Japanese classes offered in my city–and then there’s a study group that meets at a nearby cafe afterwards, I went to that a few times–but it was too far away and I had a hard time motivating myself to go and to spend the gas. I promised myself I’d get serious about self-study if I wasn’t going to attend the classes, and I’ve definitely kept up with it the past two frantic months (I think my level has progressed quite rapidly and sort of launched me into the next stage of Japanese ability from where I was before, which is good–for the first time I feel like I’m solidly in the thick of N2 and just need to master it) and now I’m not sure of the best way to keep going now. I guess just keep reviewing and making progress in my N2 textbooks, but I also feel like I need more practical reading and listening practice. I’m considering downloading some raw drama episodes and just watching those. I have a lot of things I can read, although with that comes the urge to translate instead of just simply read. I’m also trying to find good reading sources online; my sister turned me on to a blog that’s been pretty interesting. I’m trying to read as much as I can without consulting Rikaichan but sometimes there are just words I haven’t learned yet. The frustrating part about reading is having to consult the dictionary so often, and feeling discouraged because of that–and also not knowing if it’s better to consult it for every unknown word or just press on. As for listening, I think I’ll go with dramas… maaaybe some variety shows I can find online. Dramas based on manga I read/like would be a good place to start, as well as those with theme songs sung by my favorite artists (that I’ve probably already translated). For a while there will be things that go over my head, but I’m hoping over time I’ll understand more and more. I’m not a huge drama fan, I’ve seen a couple series but that’s it, but this will also be good cultural education.

Because in the meantime, I’m trying to get my Japanese cultural knowledge up to speed by reading Japanese news and Japan-centric blogs. I was only there in 2006 so in a lot of ways I’m behind the times. I always scoff at people who focus on Japanese culture over language (because it’s obvious they’re doing it because they find the language too hard) so in some ways this makes me feel like I’m taking the ‘easy way’ out (especially because I’m mostly reading up in English–I plan to move to Japanese after I feel more knowledgeable overall, because news in Japanese is pretty hard) but I have to remember it’s just as important. One thing that’s particularly interesting for me is each year’s top slang/buzzwords. I’ve found 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 (one and two), 2005, and 2004. What struck me when reading those–aside from recognizing which have become such a permanent part of current vocabulary that it surprises me to learn their origins here, and which would be considered so passé by this point–was remembering the ones we’d covered in the conversation classes I took spring 2006 and spring 2008, as well as the ones I picked up living in Japan in 2006. Of course, that very fact reinforces that since those are the ones I know, it means I definitely need to get myself caught up to present times. So from 2007’s I recall KY [空気が読めない] for sure, as well as どんだけ — which doesn’t surprise me that it originally came from Shinjuku Nichoume. I was also struck by this one:

Oubei ka! [欧米か!]: Oubei ka! (“You’re not a Westerner!”) is the catchphrase of comedy duo Taka and Toshi. In a typical skit, Taka acts as if he were an American or European, and Toshi tells him to stop acting silly (like a Westerner) by saying “Oubei ka!” The humor apparently lies in the fact that they are both obviously Japanese, and not from America or Europe.

Wow. That just sounds super racist. Could you imagine if two white comedians went onstage and one pretended to be a different race, speaking with an exaggerated accent and mimicking other stereotypical behaviors of that race, and that was the “joke”? Good lord. As if it isn’t hard enough as an obvious foreigner in Japan, you have to make fun of us too? Unbelievable.

I mean, a definite side effect of reading all these blogs, personal accounts, etc written by westerners in or about Japan is remembering all the bad parts, like how difficult it is to fit in, and how socially you don’t really associate with Japanese people all that often–how most of the time, westerners stick to others in their own foreign bubble, because that’s honestly what’s easiest to do. When I studied abroad I had a lot of Japanese acquaintances who hung out with us because they studied at the colleges we took courses at, and also a lot of them were studying English [and were very good] and wanted to practice with us, but almost no true, close friends. Yuuho is my only close Japanese friend I can think of and it’s only because we’re making an effort to communicate now–we didn’t then. It’s hard not to look down on westerners in Japan who say “I don’t have any Japanese friends/I don’t have any good Japanese friends” (or at least any they hang out with and talk to on a regular basis) and think that they must be lazy, but it’s really not the case–it’s just that it’s inherently so much more difficult to try and really be a part of Japanese society. There is a wall there, for sure, and you get fed up and don’t even want to try anymore. I see why it so often happens that foreigners stick together, especially when you’ve come over with a bunch of other people from your country so your urge is to stay near them instead of venturing out. Despite all that, I really don’t want it to happen again. I still want to try my hardest to make and keep real, close Japanese friends instead of hanging out with only other westerners. Not just because it will give me increased Japanese practice but because I think it’s pointless to come to another country for a limited period of time, with the goal of language mastery, and not do your utmost to become a part of it, even if you’re handicapped from the start because you look different and you’re not fluent and you’re viewed as temporary and a lot of adult Japanese people don’t venture out socially much anyway. I know it will be so much harder and in some ways almost impossible, but I still want to try.

But just in case anyone was worried that I’d end up tempted to live there forever, I don’t think so. Long enough to become as fluent as I can, yes; forever, no. While, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about the culture that I do like, it really is true that for me it’s the language that’s the draw.

The problem with translation

I love translation (I mean, obviously, considering my career goals). I don’t want to admit it has any problems; there are too many common oppositions to it already out there. I always want to defend it with all my heart against those who say translations are inherently flawed. After all, you can’t have a translation that’s both beautiful and faithful, can you? It’s gotta be one or the other. Actually, I don’t believe that at all. I believe you can have both, and that’s the philosophy that guides me as I translate. Some people dismiss translations as ultimately imperfect no matter what you do–and maybe use that as license to get lazy–but I believe a translation can surpass that, and that you can create a definitive, Platonic, close-to-perfect translation. (Some would say this is naiveté. I will still strive for it.) To that end I try very hard to achieve a balance between beauty and accuracy, in search of the close-to-perfect translation, and if you must lean more to one side than the other, I think that it’s better to have a slightly less beautiful, more accurate translation than one that’s slightly less accurate, more beautiful. There are those who would disagree with me on that point. But while I prefer both, I would choose accuracy as most important any day.

But there is a big issue with how translations are published. Accordingly with my beliefs outlined above, most of the time I disagree with translations made by other people. If I’m just reading it, I might think, “Oh, what good writing, what good English–this flows so well. This person did a great job!” and judge it solely on those merits. And I wouldn’t be alone in that thought. But then… I’ll compare against the original. And just about inevitably I’ll discover all kinds of things left out, embellished needlessly, mistranslated, and so on. Sometimes I can even tell when those things exist just from reading the English. I’m even noticing it in 1Q84, a major work translated 2/3 by a Harvard professor of Japanese! (One example, a character says something like “I felt like children in a Dickens novel, abandoned” and I believe it should have been a singular child–Dickens only wrote about one abandoned child per novel pretty much. In Japanese you often have to figure out based on context if a word is singular or plural).

But here’s the thing… unless you know the source language, you’re never going to discover that bad translation. Knowing only English, you will judge the English, as it’s all you can judge. And if the English sounds good, you will assume–and have no choice but to assume–that the translation must be solid as well. But that doesn’t mean it is! Often it’s not–at all! But well written English is covering that up.

Likewise, a translation could be extremely accurate and faithful, but if it’s not written well, people will judge it a bad translation, and call it clunky and so on. (I’m guilty of this too–I dislike stilted, dry academic translations; the ones of Kokoro and Snow Country stand out to me, though I believe Snow Country contains mistranslations as well. I haven’t re-read Kokoro since learning Japanese so maybe it does too.) That’s absolutely a problem as well; beauty is still important in translations. You simply have to try very hard to get both.

But the real problem is that the publishing house’s editors, same as the readers, are incapable of judging a translation’s accuracy–only its beauty. I saw this all the time at TOKYOPOP. There, freelance translators were contracted to complete a translation of a volume of manga and create a script. Then, a freelance rewriter came along to polish up that English from the translation and make it sound natural. So step 1 was translation (accuracy), step 2 was localization (beauty). (However, this second step wasn’t spelled out to the translators as clearly as it should have been, as many of them–at least the ones I worked with–took it upon themselves to localize as well, when they should have provided nothing more or less than a neat, non-embellished, accurate and faithful translation.)

And that’s all fine if the translator can be relied upon to produce a good–beautiful and accurate–translation. But that’s not always the case. Even professional, experienced translators can screw up–but if there’s no one to catch those mistakes, that’s not good. As the rewriter looking over that manga translation, I’d routinely uncover tons of mistranslations. Tons and tons. But as I was often the only other one in this entire process who knew Japanese, no one would have pointed them out if not for me! Of course, a few TOKYOPOP editors were more or less fluent in Japanese. But it wasn’t a job requirement; it wasn’t a necessity, so many weren’t and things just went over their heads. I firmly believe that if your regular job involves working with translations of [x] language, you must be fluent in [x] language in order to do that job. To this day I don’t understand why this isn’t valued more; why people like me, who can do a QC on these translations, are not in higher demand. I believe anyone who wants to be or is already a manga editor should be fluent or highly advanced in Japanese. It’s just an absolute necessity in my mind.

I imagine it’s the same with publishers of translations of Japanese-language novels like 1Q84, or really any publisher of translations in any format (but it’s probably worse if the publisher puts out translations coming from multiple source languages; the editors can’t be expected to know all those). The only one who’s in charge of the actual translating is the translator, and if you don’t know the language (and most editors don’t), you have NO WAY of knowing if their translation is actually good; if their language skills are actually that good. No way! No way of knowing. That is frightening. All editors can do is judge the quality of the English, which doesn’t equate to the quality of the actual translation. Even if the translators initially pass a translating test–judged by a speaker of that language–before coming on board, they can still make mistakes in the actual job, and no one will be there to catch them. Certainly not in the case of a 900-page behemoth like 1Q84.

So I think one of the worst aspects of the published translation industry is this complete lack of quality control. There is no one to check over a translation once it’s made, and to me that just seems totally reckless and dangerous.

The only solution I can think of to this problem, even though it’s a small one, is to offer myself as a recourse: as someone who will translate with an eye to both beauty and accuracy. At my current job I regularly call owners and founders of various types of businesses and ask them questions so I can write about them; I usually ask about how they decided to get into their industry and start their business. One frequent answer: “I wanted to provide a level of service and quality that I wasn’t seeing in my industry at the time. The lack of it was frustrating to me as a regular customer in search of those services, so I decided to step up and offer it myself.” In other words: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

I can’t transform the industry all on my own but I hope to at least make some small contribution to the world of beautiful, accurate translations. Unfortunately, translating is also very subjective; what seems both beautiful and accurate to me may not seem so to someone else. That’s probably the reason why I’m not able to ever think someone else’s translation–even one made by pros and experts–is as good as one I could make myself. Which is a problem–I’d love to have a translator I wholeheartedly admire, but I currently don’t. I’m just too picky. But hopefully that’s a quality that will make me a good pro translator myself.

In any case, if you don’t know the source language you’re not capable of judging a translation as “good” just based on how well its English flows.

Japanese progress, weekend of 2/17/12

This might actually be the last of these entries, at least posted every week. The thing I’ve been studying so hard for is this Thursday and after that I’ll move to a slower, more manageable pace of Japanese study. Cause let me tell ya, I’m reaching my breaking point. I am losing patience with this shit. I have basically taken away all my free time and replaced it with an overarching obligation to study. After a month, maybe longer… IT’S GETTING OLD. I want my free time back! I want to relax on weekends and weeknights! Plus, I’ve been reading a lot about this thing I’m studying for, and I think I might already be at the right level to do well on it. (But at the same time I have no idea what to expect and if it’s going to be harder or easier than I’m thinking, and that’s bothering me too. I like to be prepared and know what I’m getting into!). So I’m just ready to get it over with so I can have  my normal life back! I miss my other hobbies! (Which, come to think of it, most use Japanese too, but feel more fun…)

However, somehow I was able to still summon the motivation to work hard over this last weekend, and I pretty much got done everything I wanted to do. I finished my reading textbook, Nihongo So-matome N2 reading–and while it started out easy, it got pretty difficult by the end and I was getting things wrong. Frustrating. I’m still not sure my reading abilities are at N2 level–but they might not need to be, for this? I don’t know!

I dedicated Saturday to grammar, and got as far in my grammar textbook (Kanzen Master N2 grammar) as I could. It’s a really good book, but in the last section it started breaking things wayyy down. I can’t really explain it but I just started to feel like these lessons weren’t going to be all that constructive for my immediate purposes, and that I didn’t need to make any more progress in the book for the time being–I could better cover these things over the course of weeks as opposed to hours, and that I should just focus on reviewing what I already learned from here on out. Of course, again, I have no idea what sorts of grammar difficulties and challenges to expect.

Listening went a little better. I finished the lessons in my book (Kanzen Master N2 listening) and began the review test at the end. Of the first 11 questions, I got 6 right. Not super heartening. But I was doing very well with the last lessons of the book. Like with reading, I think I just need more practice; I need to read and listen more in general. I need more familiarity with actually encountering the vocab words I know in context in spoken and written language. I’m doing better than I thought though. I might be okay with this section. I did also listen to some unintentionally hilarious exchanges as part of the questions.

So, the rest of this week is dedicated to review. I’ll probably listen to the listening exercises without worrying about writing down answers, just focusing on comprehension, review the grammar points and read sentences over and over, do lots of Read The Kanji vocab drilling, and read texts (I haven’t decided exactly what yet–maybe go back over the ones from the textbook, or any number of Japanese books/magazines/blogs at my disposal). What I’m taking isn’t really a pass-fail thing, it’s more meant to assess my skills in a variety of areas (though of course it’s also checking to make sure I meet certain minimum requirements), but I still want to make sure I’m up to speed on everything so I’m not perceived to be a lower level than I actually am. And while exercise is still out for the time being (but, planning to hit the gym this weekend hardcore), I’ll eat mostly healthy and try to get lots of sleep this week so I’m in good physical condition.

Soooo… yeah. Getting sick of studying and pushing myself to the max (like I said, I never worked this hard even when I was in school, unless of course it was to cram the night before) and just want this to be over. I think I’ll be okay so I just want to get in there and prove myself so this isn’t hanging over my head anymore. Ahhh, I can’t wait to get back to translations, and to get back to the gym and the rest of my normal routine… and everything else I’ve been putting off doing for the past month. Wish me luck on Thursday…

Japanese progress, weekend of 2/10/12

[No kanji/vocab progress bar, because I’ve been using the site less this past week since at this point it’s just review and I had to focus on getting through my textbooks instead, so there really won’t have been much change from last week.]

Second weekend of three to spend studying… once again, I didn’t finish all the (very optimistic) tasks I had set out for myself, but I did get through all the grammar this time (and will spend weeknights completing listening and reading–I got through some of it but not all. I’m getting better at listening! Except numbers. I hate numbers, in any foreign language, always. I’m trying not to listen to each scene more than once–since tests will only play it once–but it’s hard when numbers are involved. Boo). Of course, that doesn’t mean I mastered all the grammar… I still made a ton of mistakes on the quizzes and I need to review the more difficult points. (However, some stuff was also really easy, so easy that I thought “This is N2 level difficulty? Really?” Good sign?!). I think I’m getting a little better at intuiting grammar though. Studying grammar and trying to pick up an intuitive knack for it has made me realize how much I rely on my intuition when it comes to doing well at things like this. The way I see it, there’s two routes: you memorize every single nuance of a grammar point and what situations are appropriate for it as opposed to the next very similar, only slightly different point, or you read all of that, absorb it, couldn’t repeat it back completely, but just know intuitively which one is right for the sentence.  Maybe the intuition route isn’t the most reliable or the safest, but I don’t think I’m capable of truly memorizing everything there is to know about each point. I would much rather read buckets of example sentences until I can just sense how to use it. And come to think of it, that’s how I do a lot of things in life: recipes, human interaction… It seems to be working okay…

But really, I hadn’t realized just how much of an intuitive person I am. I feel like a cat with extra-sensitive whiskers just going through life sensing things intangibly. (Well, maybe everyone is like this, I don’t know.) The Japanese word that applies in this case is 勘 or kan: perception, intuition, the sixth sense. Along those lines I’ve been thinking recently about personal compatibility, and how it seems like a lot of the time, I can just tell instinctively if I’m compatible with another person, if we’re going to be good friends. In Japan studying abroad, my study abroad program center wanted people to volunteer to help make a scrapbook of events that happened over the course of our semester. For some reason I volunteered, so a few times after classes I’d sit at a table in the center with a couple Japanese girls–who attended the nearby college where some of the program’s students took classes; I had some there–and we’d cut and paste photos and write descriptions. One of the girls had somehow been matched with me earlier as a conversation-buddy type situation, and I think we had exchanged emails? Which is why she’d been partnered with me for this project too, I think. (I really don’t remember this clearly.) But I thought the friend she’d brought along was my matched partner, because we made an instant connection, at least to me. I just sensed it, I had an immediate feeling of “This is someone I will get along with, this is someone I really want to be friends with.” (I had had that same feeling when I encountered Lil for the first time at Narita waiting for our bus shortly after getting off the plane–I saw her Rilo Kiley shirt and just knew! And when I think about it, I’ve had this gut innate feeling about my compatibility with someone else countless times, and it has compelled me to pursue the other person in some way, even just for friendship). I feel bad now because I was supposed to bond with my assigned partner, not her friend, but I ended up totally ignoring my partner–I just figured, “This person I instantly like must be my partner” when that was in fact wrong. The friend’s name was Yuuho and whenever I saw her the rest of the semester, I made sure to talk to her. I think we both felt that connection but we didn’t get enough opportunities to really bond that semester. She wrote me a very sweet message in our yearbook and we had become Facebook friends but I had had almost no contact with her since 2006.

Recently Yuuho posted a picture of her cat on Facebook, and I was shocked because her cat looks almost exactly like mine. I commented on the photo saying so (in Japanese, though Yuuho’s college was for students interested in languages so most were fairly fluent in English too), she replied, and I moved the conversation to Facebook message so we could talk in greater depth. We’ve been exchanging messages ever since and it’s been so much fun! (Good reading and writing practice too.) In the last one she commented on how it turns out we’re really alike–we both have individualistic personalities so we don’t have such a hard time with long-distance relationships (mine isn’t anymore but was for the majority of it; her boyfriend currently lives and works in Osaka and she lives in Chiba prefecture), we both like cats (and, as she said, they even look the same!)… and when she said all that it just confirmed my initial impression I’d had in 2006. And made me start thinking about all of this.

So needless to say I’m sort of realizing how much I really value my intuition and how glad I am that I have this ability to just sense things. I mean, I’m not always right–there have been many times where I had an initial very negative impression of someone, and then eventually grew to like them a lot, or times when I really liked and wanted to be friends with someone who turned out to be terrible. (And similarly, the word 勘違い or kan-chigai refers to when your intuition wasn’t right–a wrong guess or a misunderstanding.)

And on the subject of reconnecting with Japanese people, I also reached out and resumed contact with my host family that I first stayed with in January 2006. My host sister was six years old then and she’s 12 now! My host mom sent photos and it’s just insane! It was really good to hear from her; hopefully we can be in regular contact from now on too. I only lived with them full-time for a week (and then during the fall I’d come spend a night or two there every month) but we had so much fun together. For some reason she wanted to talk about the earthquake in her reply; she asked me if I’d heard about it. I’m going to have to be like, “Of course! Everyone heard about it! My relatives and friends wouldn’t stop pestering my sister about it even though she lives in Kyushu, and it really pissed her off that they didn’t know geography!” (okay, I won’t say all that)

I’m also reading some of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 each night before bed, and loving it. I like Murakami–enough to have read his entire bibliography in English, enough to have purchased and read After Dark in French since the French translation came out before the English–but I’ve never been able to choose a favorite from among his works. This one just might be it, which for some reason is really exciting. The book is in high demand at the library right now though (I don’t buy hardcover books, only trade paperback, so when a new book comes out I always have to wait for the library to get it in before I can read it), with a long list of holds, and I only get two weeks with it before I have to return it. I do not expect to finish the 900-page beast in that time, so I’ll just join the hold list again and wait for it to come back to me! It’s a really, really good read. Highly recommended. Although I can’t say if it’s a good starting book for Murakami; you might want to read Norwegian Wood first to get a feel for his style? Hm.

In any case, slow and steady but hopefully real and lasting progress; feeling more confident about my Japanese all the time. Actually studying and putting in effort and time somehow works! I think I really am N2 level; I just need to master it.

Monterey representative meeting

Last night a representative from MIIS (my hopefully future grad school) was in town so I was invited to come out and meet him (I’m on a mailing list for potential students now I guess). Most of my questions had been answered during my visit, but I figured why not go. It ended up being me, the representative, a MIIS alumnus who graduated in 2009, and a lady whose title I never caught but I believe she was affiliated with the MIIS administration somehow. It gave me a lot to think about, mostly because I was able to ask a more in-depth question of what I could expect my starting salary to be post-grad. I mentioned earlier that I was surprised to learn it could be $35k, which seems low to me, and surely that had to be a mistake. Well… unfortunately, not so much. It could indeed be as low as that, but–as both the representative and the alumnus hastened to reassure me–I could expect to see my salary rise dramatically very quickly, even if things did start out that low. But they were honest that the few years post-grad could be a little rough, even though things would probably improve considerably after that point. Certainly they seemed tough for the alumnus, who was not yet working in his field exactly, even though he seemed on the verge of breaking in, but then he also didn’t do TI, he did international business with a concentration in German. So it’s hard to say what a Japanese translation graduate’s prospects would be, and if I could really expect $35k even with that. I guess I should ask the school to put me in touch with Japanese-language TI alumni. I still really want to attend MIIS but I also want to make the extra loans I’ll have to take out to go to grad school worth it–even though of course I’ll try for absolutely as many scholarships as I possibly can–by giving my career a more lucrative boost. I mean, in any case, I know I can’t stick with my current career forever and be happy. I have to do something, and I really want to work with Japanese and this seems like the best way to get into that field. But I also want this to be a smart decision, not just a passionate one, that will pay off concretely. Ahh. In any case, I’m glad I went. MIIS also picked up the tab of my cocktail!

I also mentioned before that I think getting a non-constructive graduate degree just because you don’t have anything better to do, with no plans for how it will benefit you career-wise, is silly, and I hate that so many of my peers are doing it. Well, what the alumnus and the representative said gave me some things to think about on that topic: namely, that while a graduate degree might not pay off in the short-term, in the years right after graduation, it will pay off in the long run. At some point, with only a bachelor’s, you’ll hit a wall in your career where you can’t advance any further, whereas with a master’s more doors and options will be open to you. So you have to view it like a long-term investment in your future. That’s what they believe, anyway, and I certainly wish that were true. Hmm.

I also spent the evening reading about the intensive Japanese program I want to do… and that was more reassuring. I learned a lot that made me more optimistic about my goals and plans. I also learned that it’s very likely that while I was told I needed to be able to pass N2 before entering the program, the average for most students in the past has been about N3. Which is really what I thought when I read some other things a couple months back. Which means I don’t need to be busting my ass to study as hard as I have been, since it looks like I’m already right where I need to be–but I’m still going to anyway, because I want to give myself an advantage any way I can, and I’m still worried about my aptitude regardless (have I mentioned how slow I am at reading and how hard grammar is for me? Yeah). So until the end of the month I still have 0 free time. March will be really big for me… and at least if everything falls apart and I’m having to deal with nothing but disappointments by the end of it, the new chapter of Sekaiichi Hatsukoi will console me (ahhh, so excited).

Pilates/yoga/personal training/exercise

In my paleo post (which generated some controversy over what I said about non-meat-eaters! One vegetarian former classmate/friend took great offense, as she is often wont to do, and immediately cut me out of her online life. Let’s just say that was more of a relief than anything and move on–though I did go back and reword that portion to sound a little more sensitive) I mentioned planning to spend a future post getting into how I’ve changed my workout/exercise routines, as well as my diet. Well, this is that entry! So here we go!

While I’ve curtailed my gym activities quite a bit while I’m buckled down studying, my normal routine has me going to the gym, ideally, five days a week. On weekdays it’s for an hourlong class, and on the weekends it’s a class plus about another hour of either cardio or weights. (I am also supposed to spend two mornings a week doing an hourlong workout at home before work, but that hasn’t happened in quite a while… it’s hard to retain motivation when you don’t need to lose anymore, and extra sleep is always so tempting.) I keep up with this pretty well, actually, mostly out of loyalty and fondness for my regular class instructors. I’ve found some really good ones at my gym, and both my regular yoga instructor and my regular Pilates instructor know me. In Pilates most of the other students know me as well, at least by face. Yoga for some reason, ironically, is less of a community even though I go super regularly!

My history with the gym: it’s taken me a while to get into the habit of physical activity, much less actually enjoying it. I never really liked PE classes in school and did no sports. I got into DDR and Para Para in high school but didn’t really consider it exercise. When I got to college, I automatically gained access to a gym (something I seriously took for granted). I would go a few times every semester to do some elliptical while jamming out to music. It would feel great but I never made it a part of my routine. I did bike around campus a lot and loved it, and in Japan I biked to and from the station every day. (I was shocked in Paris when we rented bikes at Versailles to realize how out of shape I’d gotten by how difficult bike riding had become for me!). The summer before senior year when I was living in LA with Lil (a very active, sporty person–a rugby player!), she introduced me to some fitness activities. We would go to her college’s gym and work out on ellipticals and go for jogs around the neighborhood (which was difficult for me at first after Paris, and bless her for being patient with me, but I grew stronger. On one run we saw a peacock!!!). (It’s another story, but Lil introduced me to sooo many things that summer–American Apparel factory outlet store, Little Tokyo, Arrested Development, cooking, beer appreciation, Trader Joe’s, The Melting Pot. We had so much fun, ahh!). That primed me to spend my senior year biking to campus regularly, taking an aerobics class in the fall where I mostly did elliptical, and going to yoga.

But after graduating college, I got very sedentary again; I wanted to be active but I didn’t want to pay for a gym membership (and I also wanted to be lazy, let’s be real). Two years of more or less complete inactivity passed before finally, at the end of summer 2010, I joined a gym near where I was living. I quit briefly when I moved and then re-joined a month later at a different branch, which is the one I go to today. Up until this past August though, I wasn’t doing much right. Elliptical for cardio, then a round of various weight machines. That was pretty much my routine. And from about November 2010 to May 2011, I didn’t go to the gym very often at all; maybe several times a month. I was bad. Then, as I mentioned before, I started to go very regularly (doing my old circuit of elliptical + weight machines, with the occasional yoga class) but I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted even after a few months.

So in August, frustrated with my lack of progress, I decided to start seeing a personal trainer, hoping she would teach me how to use free weights and help me lose body fat. This flew in the face of my other decisions geared at making and saving more money (moving in with parents, taking a higher paying job) but I rationalized it somehow. I just felt like I needed to do it. I chose a trainer from the board of them up at my gym, met with her, we clicked, and I bought an introductory round of three sessions. I liked them so much that I bought 10 more when they were over, with a discount, and that lasted me until October. After that I couldn’t justify the cost anymore (personal training is sooooooooo expensive!) but I learned so much and I love my trainer. We still wave to each other when I pass by her in the gym. She’s from Iowa and most of my family is from Nebraska (my grandma though is in fact from Iowa) so we bonded over Midwestern heritage. Mostly what I learned was how to use free weights, which weight machines were good, how to do cardio properly (treadmill, row machine, and stairmaster instead of elliptical), how to do things like squats, and she also encouraged me to re-start Pilates (I’d gone to some Pilates classes at my old gym, and before that done a Pilates DVD a few times, but it’s hard so it was difficult to motivate myself to go again). And of course I saw great results: gained muscle, lost fat–not as much as I would have liked, but at least some–though a lot of that was due to paleo as well. I absolutely wish I could keep seeing her and improving and getting stronger, but I can’t when I need to be saving instead. I still have some exercise routines she wrote out for me, and I go through them weekly.

I’m glad my trainer got me back into Pilates, but at the same time I have such a love/hate relationship with it. Let’s just say I would not be continuing to go if it were not for my instructor. I like her a lot, she’s funny (she’ll make fun of people who walk in during class to use the water fountain despite her sign on the door, often while the person is still in the room, and the other night we shared a laugh over some guy blasting “Dude Looks Like A Lady” on his iPod loud enough for us to hear it), and it’s out of loyalty to her that I return weekly even though I do not ever want to go. Do I want abs/a strong core? Yes. Do I actually want to put in the work to get that? No. Every class I’m kicking and screaming in my head, but I do it. I’ve now gone consecutively, without missing a single mat class, for a month and a half. I also go to her reformer class, with the machine, which is not quite so torturous as the mat class, but the time isn’t as convenient so I don’t go as regularly. In any case, I’m getting better. Slowly. It’s now easier for me to lift my legs over my head while lying down using my core strength; I was surprised the first time I realized that. Pilates also used to seriously kick my ass, and now it’s more of a manageable challenge. Some new people are always just collapsed and half-assing it by the end of class, and I never have that much difficulty anymore. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a low enough body fat percentage for visible ab muscles, but my stomach does feel a little firmer in any case, maybe.

I’ve also been involved with yoga for a while, but fairly recently is the first time I’ve been going regularly. I first went in college, since they offered free classes one night a week and I wanted to try it out, aware that my mom did it sometimes and liked it. (Free yoga! So jealous of that now.) I really liked it, and liked the instructor (something I took for granted then, even though it’s so valuable), but it was hard to motivate myself to go regularly. I didn’t go very often freshman year but sophomore year I would lend Han-Hee (Japanese language TA) a mat and we would go together a lot. Senior year I also got back into it and went fairly often. During the two years after college when I lapsed into a sedentary lifestyle, I did a couple yoga studio 10-days-for-$10-type trials; one studio I liked a lot and I wish I could afford a membership there and also that it was closer to where I live now. One studio was a Sunstone branch, which is hot yoga. It was my first time doing hot yoga and I think I could actually handle that aspect a lot better than the fact that while there are various types of classes, every class in the type is exactly the same every time. I hated that.

So when I finally got that gym membership, I also began attending yoga classes at the gym. My first class back was wonderful, and I felt so happy to be going to yoga again. I soon memorized the after-work and weekend yoga times, though–as with going to the gym at all–I was sporadic at best in my attendance. It really wasn’t until this past summer that I got serious about all of this and started forming real habits. The yoga schedule at my new gym is a little different, and I miss one of the instructors from my old gym (who remains the only one that has ever had us do goddess pose, which is the most successful way to stretch my normally super-tight hamstrings I have ever found, so I wish more people would incorporate it), but I’ve worked it into my routine. It’s also funny because the woman who is my current regular instructor also used to teach at my old gym, and I couldn’t stand her. I didn’t like her music or her style at all, and after I attended a couple of her classes I avoided them, and I cheered to myself when she stopped teaching there. At first when I walked into her class unknowingly at my new gym, I was really unhappy, but I gave her another shot. To my surprise, I grew to love both her music and her teaching style. I mean, it’s also fortunate, because she teaches most of the yoga at my gym, and the other teacher is someone I really, truly do not like and refuse to attend her classes. So I’m glad I like her now. I also discovered she does this great thing where, if the room isn’t jam-packed to capacity (and sometimes it is–my gym is a popular location, frequently crowded), during shavasana she’ll go around and give everyone a brief upper arm massage and then press down on our shoulders. (She’s also applied pressure to our lower backs when we’re resting in child’s pose in a gentler, slower class.) I really love nothing more than for someone to play with my hair, draw on my back, whatever (which I would often bug my elementary school friends to do whenever we were sitting in a group on the floor, and of course reciprocate), so this charmed me immediately. I love that she does this and it’s really probably that which endeared her so much to me. Also, as it turns out, our music tastes are really similar, so I don’t mind that anymore either. So I feel very fortunate to have found such good instructors.

As it stands today, I’ve gone to yoga at least once a week since probably the fall, and most weeks it’s 2-3 times, and might even bump up to 4 in the future. That’s pretty crazy for me, to realize I’ve stuck with something this long. But it’s really rewarding. As with Pilates, it’s become more of a fun challenge. I’ve developed the arm strength to actually be able to hover for more than a second in chaturanga, and I understand now how downward-facing dog can be a break/rest pose of sorts instead of cruel torture. When I finally got my boyfriend to join me for yoga in November, he was seriously impressed with what I can do, and reassessed his opinion of yoga as “easy.”

But I do have some yoga pet peeves.

  1. When people get competitive and even though I can tell they’re still fairly new to yoga, if I do something more demanding/advanced, they do it too. Pride isn’t supposed to come into play at yoga at all but, hey, we’re human, it happens; still, it’s distracting to try and be focused on only what you are doing when the people around you are too intent on proving something to do what’s right for their level and I get dragged into that competitiveness as well.
  2. When people just decide to check out or not do something. Like the teacher says forward fold and you decide you feel like showing off in plank, with an attitude of “I’m too cool and chill to do what everyone else is doing.” Some guy was doing this the other night and it drove me crazy. There’s also qi gong guy in another class who spends the 5-10 minutes before things get going doing a bunch of random qi gong moves; he even makes breath noises. What the?? And there’s the lady who seems to treat yoga as social hour, and I always see her in the back just doing whatever she feels like and not following the rest of us, since apparently yakking it up before class starts is the real reason she came.
  3. People who seriously just don’t listen to the instructor explaining the details of how to do the pose (where your feet/arms should be, etc), or even look at those around them to check, and persist in doing something totally wrong just to get through it, and don’t even seem to care! Why are you here if you don’t even want to try to do it right?!
  4. People who set up exactly parallel to me with their mats. Great, now we’re going to fling our hands into each other all class! You are supposed to stagger your mats so that doesn’t happen. Ugh.
  5. People who come to class in booty shorts and see-through tops. Really? Really.

At this point what’s keeping me going and into the gym and these classes is the knowledge that if I stop, I’ll lose my hard-earned muscles and strength and endurance and have to start all over. So right now, that’s my motivation to keep going. Plus, loyalty to my wonderful instructors. I’m happy to have found a routine that works for me and keeps me sane. I really have never felt so little general anxiety and OCD thoughts than in these last few mostly-paleo, variety-of-regular-exercise-filled months.

I’ve also started tracking what I do via Fitocracy and it’s been fun to see what my friends do as well. There’s certainly a temptation to start competing with them, but as studying is my priority now–and I’m in weight maintaining not loss mode anyway so no need to go hard–I’m not really able to. It is fun though! More fun than I thought it would be.

Let’s close with my favorite humorous yoga articles.

My final warning, when you are talking to one of your new yoga buddies, do not accidentally buttdial an old friend, especially if he is a sniping, gym-going homosexual, and allow him to hear you speaking the lingua franca of Yogaland, because, after seeing the record of the call and hoping he heard nothing, you will receive a text message reading: “YOU ARE SO FUCKING BUSTED BITCH – YOU’RE A LOSER!” and no amount of yoga will ever mitigate the shame.

It’s not like you’re the first. Other substitute teachers have come out with some real dillys too. Who can forget “think of your spine as a flexible snake in space?”