Japanese is for nerds

What is it about Japanese that so attracts the dorks?

I’m talking about the language, not the people, though if my own experience is anything to go by, the Japanese may also attract dorks. (Ted is a thankful exception, though I suppose there may be the occasional person out there who finds him to be plenty dorky.)

Photo from The Suburban Crab archives

Photo from The Suburban Crab archives

Billup takes Japanese lessons once a week. At one time, both kids took Japanese, but after fighting with Boof once a week for the last five years about why he had to learn a language that he would apparently find no use for in his lifetime—never mind that it’s part of his heritage—I finally gave up.

Billup, however, was willing to keep taking classes. And while I’ve never once seen her pull out her Japanese binder during the week to study and further have no idea whether she is learning a thing in class—i.e., is there a return on our investment? Hard to tell—it’s been lovely having a child who doesn’t seem to mind spending 80 minutes of her Saturdays practicing phrases like “Eki no mae de denwa o shite imasu” (“I am on the phone in front of the station”).

Recently, however, the girl’s enthusiasm for learning nihongo has waned. Due to scheduling issues, I had to switch her out of her usual morning class and start bringing her to the Saturday afternoon session. The morning session consisted of kids aged 8 to 11; the afternoon was typically reserved for high schoolers.

Billup is 11. She’s only a few years younger than the other students, but it’s a big difference when you’re talking about a sixth grader compared to a high school sophomore, say. She was certainly wary when I first informed her she’d be attending class with high school kids. And I must admit to having been worried that some 16-year-old would be mean to my little girl.

This, however, is not the reason why Billup is no longer as interested in going to Japanese.

After her first afternoon session, I eagerly met her outside of class. She came out looking grim.

“How was it?” I asked hopefully.

“Eh.” She then elaborated: “I don’t like the people in my class.”

Uh-oh. “No?” I tried to adopt a casual air.

“They’re just… so… nerdy! The kid sitting at my table was so obnoxious; every time sensei asked me a question, this kid couldn’t stop himself from answering! He was so annoying!”

OK, this was not what I’d expected. This was her big problem with Japanese class? The nerds?

Apparently, yes. Because Billup has now been attending the afternoon session for three weeks, and her displeasure has not waned. “Instead of spending my time with my friends, I have to spend it with a bunch of high school dorks who want to learn Japanese because they like anime,” she recently told me. When I asked her this past Saturday how class was, she responded, “Fine-ish. At least I didn’t have to interact with the nerds.” Here her voice became a sneer.

I’ve typically viewed Billup as the more tenderhearted and sensitive of my two kids. While Boof pursues riches in the soulless land of commerce, she’s the one who will perhaps devote her life to saving a rare sloth in Indonesia. Maybe she will become a journalist, documenting the plight of America’s poor.

Or maybe she’ll just grow up to torment the socially awkward people at her workplace.

It’s an odd thing. Billup is smart. She’s in a magnet program at school. She loves to read and is enthusiastic about learning. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but just by dint of being intelligent and (thankfully) openly embracing her intelligence, isn’t it possible that she’s maybe somewhere on the spectrum of nerdiness?

So what gives? Is this a sign that my daughter is getting older? Is she becoming more aware of the cliques, of the social outcasts? Does she suddenly feel a need to fit in and distance herself from those she considers socially inferior?

Or, is she just pretty darn astute?

Because I have to admit, I agree just a little with her sentiments. I mentioned to her that she may not have liked me when I was in high school, because I was a bit of a nerd myself. “No, Mom,” she protested. “Even you would not have been as nerdy as these people.” I didn’t exactly appreciate the “even you” part of her response, but I can’t fail to acknowledge the truth behind what she’s saying. I’ve experienced it firsthand: There’s something about the Japanese language or culture that attracts the dorks. Billup and I, we’re just telling it like it is.

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