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Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A cookie a day for your fluency


Foreign visitors adapting to life in modern Japan have scores of advantages that travelers of the past could never have envisioned, even in their wildest dreams. Like e-mail, Skype, YouTube and the general all-encompassing mesh of the Internet.

But now there is a further boon. One that makes me shake my head in wonder. For my knee-scraped adjustment to the daily grind of Japanese life would have been so much smoother if only I'd had . . .

Kanji cookies.

Yeah, kanji cookies. I found them on sale at a shop near my local station. Manufactured by Bourbon, the actual name — in Japanese — is "Kanji Biscuits." Yet, they crunch up more like crackers.

But let's leave name games to the semanticists. These "cookies" are more for the masses, those people hungry to learn Japanese.

Personally, I long ago moved on to other appetites. My own Japanese has fossilized into a piece of linguistic antiquity and I feel very little motivation to defossilize. These days I'm more interested in e-mail, Skype, YouTube, etc. But only if I would have had kanji cookies back in the day. Things might have been different.

Yet all I had were kanji cards. Stacks of them. They used to taunt me from my desktop . . .

"You lazy slouch! How dare you watch English TV when you could be shuffling your way to better Japanese!"

Mostly I let them sit there and jeer. But if they had been cookies and not cards . . . Who knows? I might have eaten my way to proficiency.

For not once did I feel tempted to eat a kanji card. Burn them? Yes. Hack them up with a cleaver and confetti them out the window? Yes. Slip them into a pie and then whap them in my teacher's kisser? Well . . .

But a cookie alters the entire structure of rewards and punishment.

When I guessed a kanji card correctly, all I got was a blip of momentary satisfaction and then another damned card. Yet, the successful reading of a cookie offers an added, yummy incentive. Plus the promise of even more yummy-ness to come, until the entire bag of cookies has been victoriously devoured.

And if I misread?

Misread cards went back into the pile, maybe to be chucked across the room if I kept faltering. But kanji cookies are not to be tossed even at the height of frustration. No . . . they are to be threatened.

"Reveal to me your secret, O cookie — or else. And it won't be pretty either. First, I'll lick you front and back. Then munch you to smithereens between my molars. So what'll it be? You can either slide down quietly or be grinded to bits. It's up to you."

There must be something Freudian about this. Perhaps I have been repressing painful memories of brownies and Oreos denied me as a child. Or maybe my id has at last wrestled off my super-ego and is now bossing my ego around. A good cookie can have that effect.

And kanji cookies are good. But more than that, they're fun. Especially if you like to play with your food.

In my case, I never had much flair with alphabet soup. I could never scoop together enough letters to spell a respectable word. Oh maybe I could poke together a d-o-g or a c-a-t, but "beautiful star" or "love festival?" Forget it.

Yet, with kanji cookies such word combos are a snap. You can even make "big beautiful star." Or "flower love festival." Or any other doodle your heart might conjure from the 45 kanji available.

And if there's a character you can't read, just edit it out. Kanji cookies tend to be salty (like a cracker) so — from my experience — they edit best with a little cheese and wine.

How to deal with the remaining kanji remains a bit of a problem. I always ask myself . . . Should I really swallow the "truth?" Is it right to chew up "harmony?" Do I dare send my "dreams" to the inner abyss?

With enough wine, the answer is always, "Yes." And I have found that "beauty" need not rest in the eye of the beholder. It can reside in his tummy as well.

And I have also learned that — in the grander scheme of things — beauty, truth, love, harmony and more all taste the same.

If I'd had kanji cookies when I was new to Japan, I might have become a real heavyweight with the Japanese language. For a single bag holds 483 calories. And if they came chocolate-coated, who knows what a language giant I might be now.

Yet I remain a language fossil. Waiting patiently for that great day when some erstwhile educator makes an even finer motivational device.

Kanji doughnuts. If you bake them, I will come.



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