Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kawaii or Kowai?

As in many languages, Japanese has some words that sound similar. Some of them can then be rather embarrassing to confuse…. My personal mistakes include kirei (beautiful) and kirai (to hate); I was trying to tell my hairdresser that I hated my hair and instead I told her that I thought it was beautiful, ningen (human being) and ninjin (carrot) and for some reason, kakigori (shaved ice) and gokiburi (cockroach); one summer found me telling my friend a number of times that I really wanted to eat a cockroach.

A pair that I have always been very careful of are kawaii (cute) and kowai (scary). Soon after I arrived in Japan the first time, I was told a story of a guy who saw a baby on the train and told the mother “Oh, he’s so scary” and couldn’t understand why the woman looked rather upset.

Japan loves all things kawaii and the word is thrown around, sometimes rather loosely. Often at school, I will have girls gushing at me telling me I am kawaii. I admit, I like the flattery, but it can be rather off putting while in the middle of explaining an important grammar point to a class.

Now, I don’t often get angry at a class, but it does happen on the occasion if I’m in a particularly foul mood or if they are being really annoying. One such day, my class was being really rowdy and would not quiet down. I’d had enough and went off. My diatribe went something like this;

“Everyone, BE QUIET! I’m serious! You have your interview tests today and I am trying to explain something very important. Now you want to be quiet because if you are not, I am going to be in a VERY bad mood and if I’m in a very bad mood, you will get a bad score on your interview test. So now everybody LISTEN”

The hushed atmosphere of the room as everyone looked at me, mouths open, gave a moment of false hope that I’d had some effect, until… one of the girls at the front of the room, in a loud voice gushed…


I turned bright red and quietly said, “Kawaii jyanai deshoo, kowai deshoo?” (I’m not cute, I’m scary aren’t I?). Mmmm so much for my attempt at being scary.

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