My son, standing before me dressed as Tokyo’s epic monster, refuses to speak his first language, Japanese. Koun and I try to engage him again and again, but he balks: “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English or French.” Boy likes rules. Some rules. I want to point out the irony to him—his costume selection, his random-but-unshakable embracing of black-and-white edicts. But I know he’ll just tell me how it is again. Canada. English and French.
This attitude of his puzzles me. He can spend an entire day changing costumes—Godzilla to Batman to tiger to Spider-man to fairy princess to Mr. Fixit to witch (and back again). This is a kid who gets—really gets—the concept of multiple selves. And perhaps that is part of the difficulty. He knows that “self” is all about context.
For a couple of months now, Koun and I have been struggling with this conundrum of how to keep up our kids’ Japanese—especially in the case of Boy, who is so far along linguistically. We’ve tried various ways to keep the language in our lives, but when Boy reacts angrily or even violently, followed inevitably by Girl’s mimicked reflex, it’s hard not to feel that maintaining bilingualism is a punishment, maybe for all of us.
When we first arrived here in Canada, we eagerly planned to join a local Japanese expat group. Our aim was to maintain some connection to the language and culture for our bilingual children, especially—as well as some tangential connection for us. At the first gathering, though, it was obvious that we were gaijin (“outsiders”) there, as we were in Japan, and I got to thinking a lot about how the part of my son that is culturally Japanese recognizes that “different” is not really a desirable status. There he was, fresh off the plane from Kumamoto, yet he spoke not one word of nihongo in a roomful of nihonjin. Something in him must have known. “This is Canada. In Canada we speak English…or French.” Maybe he was just aiming to fit in; maybe he was being Japanese.
I don’t want my son to forget his first language. I love that rich and fascinating part of him that is Japanese, and I believe that having two very, very different linguistic perspectives has the potential to add valuable dimension to his life. I so want that for him. To me, this was the gift we gave our children by living abroad for so many years. It was what I most wanted them to keep. But maybe this is just me, my own ego, my own hopes and dreams. I don’t know.
I will say that I’m not quite yet ready to give up. There are little things, linguistic echoes reminding me that Boy’s Japanese self is still there, beneath the surface. A few days ago, sporting a red cape and well-worn Superman shirt, Boy paused dramatically at the open door of our home and shouted in pitch-perfect katakana English: “Burasutofu!” (“Blast off!”) And away he flew to vanquish, to redeem.