Changing languages, changing moods

By Tomoko Parry for Japan Story 

Some people are fond of asking dichotomous questions, which press you to give an either/or answer.

They might want to know if you are a dog person or a cat person. Extravert or introvert?  Right-brained or left-brained?  

What they don’t realize is that, in fact, most people are often a little bit of both. I, for one, have a sense of having distinct and rather separate personalities, depending on what language I am using. 

More money please, boss

I became aware of this some time ago when I was working for a Japanese company in the United States.

The branch was in San Francisco, where I was an in-house translator. 

During my very first annual performance review, I had a meeting with my boss, who was Japanese, so naturally we started by using the Japanese language. 

However, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had better switch to English, so that I could talk confidently about my accomplishments and the reasons I felt I deserved a pay rise.

If we had continued the conversation in Japanese, I would have been quite reluctant to assert myself. To use an American phrase, I felt I couldn’t really toot my own horn except in English. 

In fact, a rather intimidating Japanese phrase jumps to mind instead: 出る杭は打たれる – the nail that sticks out will get hammered in. 

Mood swings

I am still noticing that my brain works differently when I switch languages. 

Take food and drink, for example.

When I’m famished, I feel like digging into a juicy bison steak.

Yet when I use gentle sounding Japanese words to express my hunger –  kobaraga suita 小腹が空いた, literally, my small stomach is empty  – I crave nothing more than osenbei お煎餅 rice crackers and ryokucha 緑茶 green tea.

Maybe I should tell my American friends they should learn Japanese if they want to lose weight!

Poetry in nature

Another example of how language affects my mood relates to my response to nature. 

In autumn, when I gaze wistfully upon the last remaining yellow aspen leaves clinging to the almost naked branches of the trees, deep in my soul I am moved by a sense of mono no aware 物の哀れ, the transience of life.

However, when I am thinking in English, somehow the scene seems rather less poetic.

So this leaves me with the question: to what extent is the language affecting me emotionally?  

When using English, I somehow feel free to make mistakes and be open to new challenges.  

On the other hand, even though I have now lived in America for a long time, I still retain a strong sense that humility and modesty are among the most important human virtues.

So, I cherish the way that the Japanese language keeps me in touch with this refined sensibility. Yet I’m also glad to have the powerful English words to summon up courage when facing a challenge.