As a kid who grew up in a Chinatown shophouse that shared a five-foot-way with a mama shop stocked with sweets, I was particularly intrigued by the squiggly Japanese characters at the back of colorful little imported candy and chocolate boxes that were often accompanied by a plastic toy or a gadget of sorts.
One of the great childhood joys of growing up in Singapore -- visiting a mama shop with coins jingling in the pocket
Happiness comes in small boxes with tiny toys within
I enjoyed listening to the language, which was sometimes heard at the end of Japanese cartoons played on Singapore television, when the characters would break into song and the local producers had found it unnecessary – or perhaps too challenging – to translate that segment of the program. When I got to secondary school, it was no surprise that one of my favorite subjects was Japanese as a third language – then taught at a Ministry of Education Language Center (MOELC) building near Newton Circus. I was so enamored by the language and culture that it was unthinkable to me that I might one day be annoyed for being mistaken for a Japanese.
My first serious cartoon, Heidi, as envisioned by the Japanese animators
Years later, the onset of junior college, university, and work life had swept me along and my Japanese language proficiency became all but a distant memory. But, as the locals in New York might say: You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can't take the Jersey out of the girl. My penchant for learning languages remained strong but dormant. I enjoyed foreign language films and loved reading menus of foreign cuisine in the original languages (hello, moules et frites). When I learnt that the Italian ministry of foreign affairs was awarding scholarships for Singaporeans to study the Italian language and culture in Il Bel Paese, I promptly applied.
So it was that I'd find myself in the beautiful Estruscan town of Perugia, a two-hour train ride from Rome, four months later. Prior to my leaving, many people had questioned my decision, expressing doubts on the relevance of the Italian language in Singapore business and society. I, on the other hand, saw it as the chance to learn the most beautiful and melodious language in the world. I had known little about the rich past of the Romans and their place in the ancient world and saw this as the prime excuse for some long-overdue history and cultural education.
The Italian Etruscan town I grew to love
I soon learned that moving to a foreign, non-English-speaking country with an arsenal of three words (in this case, buon giorno and ciao) in my vocabulary was challenging, but also plenty of fun. By the second day, I was going nowhere without my dictionary, allowing the entire town and country to be my classroom. The supermercato proved to be the most stimulating of experiences – I would spend hours repeating the food labels under my breath, while at the same time, enjoying the Italian gastronomy tour of biscottis, salamis, cheeses, pastas, and olive oils. I was secretly relieved to be in a country where food is as big of a deal as it is back home.
Traveling in a foreign country with knowledge of the local language is unmistakably a wonderful experience, although there were certainly moments when my Italian linguistic adventure felt less than fantastico. High up on the list was the time when I lost my student visa. That document was crucial to my scholarship; without it, I would be denied the monthly government funds. I soon suffered through the long and frustrating ordeal to file a police report: what would easily have taken minutes in Singapore ended up being a complicated web of police visits that lasted over a week, with each police officer giving me a different set of instructions and sending me to yet another location for a new form.
Looking back, the only bit of fun I derived from that experience was learning to use the complex regional bus network and seeing a little more of pretty Perugia beyond the main streets leading to its beautiful town square . . . unless you'd consider the visit to the central police station, where I surprised myself by going into a little tirade in Italian, shouting at the impossible (read: useless) policeman for his incompetence and giving him an earful for causing me to miss numerous days of classes and sending me on a wild goose chase.
Fontana Maggiore in Perugia's Piazza IV Novembre -- a place to unwind after giving a Carabinieri (Italian cop) a dressing-down
Of course, a fun advantage of understanding the local language where you live, is the ability to know what people -- particularly those who think you don't understand them – are saying about you. In Italy, one such word that was most often said in my presence under a half-breath was “giapponese.” I seemed to detect a variety of negative connotations in the delivery of that label – sometimes it was used as a standalone remark, other times as a descriptor followed by the decline of a service or a request for permission. I concluded that Italians think all Asians are Japanese, and that we would meekly take a "no" just because we are giapponese. (The only exception was during the week immediately following Italy's loss to South Korea at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where I was suddenly cast with dirty looks and assumed to be an uncouth "coreana.")
I Coreani take on the mighty Italiani at the 2002 World Cup
Take, for example, the time when I was in line to buy tickets to see Greek ruins in Syracuse and the ticketing lady up front mumbled, “Giapponese, no,” and refused to sell us student-priced tickets. Or, the time when I was on board a crowded train in Florence, and a twenty-something Italian guy sneeringly said, “Che fai, Giapponese?” (“What's up, Japanese?”) as my white Australian girlfriend and I walked past his friends and him. Unluckily for him, I was already in a bad mood due to a particularly long travel day compounded by a bus strike and train delays, and so I spat, "Non siamo tutti giapponese," paused for a brief moment, then added for effect, “stupido” ("we're not all Japanese, stupid").
The train ticket to Florence: 20 Euros. The seat reservation on the train: three Euros. The look on the Italian ah beng's face: priceless.
The second-class train on Trenitalia: the source of many dinner-table conversations
And so goes the many fun, playful aspects of learning a foreign language – especially if you're able to practice it with said foreigners. As una ragazza da Singapore (a girl from Singapore), my fantastic time with Italian in Italy would soon prove to be just the beginning of my linguistic adventures abroad. It would, one day, even burrow its way into my love life. But that's a story I'll save for another time.
(Some pictures taken from the Internet)