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Kiroma Has Moved

August 15, 2013

Hi everyone,

I hereby announce that Kiroma will be moving to a new home at a different URL. From now on, my blog will be a self hosted WordPress site.

The new URL is easy to remember:

That’s it. My name, dot com. Just like my email, my twitter, and my Facebook, my blog will now be found under my real name at the domain

I will start posting again soon, and I hope you all will join me on the other side.


Why Did Europe Dominate?

March 14, 2013

It’s a troubling question for many. All individuals, individual cultures, and peoples are equal, but why did Europe dominate for so many centuries? Today at Fudan University, James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University, gave the third in a series of guest lectures on “Ancient History in the Modern Age.” He spoke about how the exclusivity of Christianity influenced the development of European thought, and how Europe “turned away” from the variety of human experience they found in the Age of Discovery.


After the lecture, a student asked, “What is the secret of the Europeans, that they can attract the attention of the whole world to follow them?”


O’Donnell’ answered, “Western ‘success’ has three factors, none of which were necessary. One is that there was an ancient civilization in the Mediterranean than was quite successful and well developed, so certain basic levels of economy and society and organization were achieved.

Second, Western Europe turns out to be geographically and in climate a good place for people with not much technology to live and prosper. Farming and shipping and trade and communication were possible for people with limited technology in ways that were more difficult for people in the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia, where the climate was different and it wasn’t so possible for simple farmers to be so successful.

And third, there is an element of chance and accident here. Moveable type and oceangoing travel were invented in China but they were decisively implemented and made use of in Western Europe, and so the great revolutions of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, in which westerners took a lead… happened in that part of the world, and gave an advantage to that part of the world. I believe that advantage is now expired and that the technologies of the last century put all of humankind on a more equal footing and essentially all societies with a certain level of industrialization and advancement can be successful.

“I spoke last time of my thought experiment, that maybe the west will continue to dominate, maybe China will dominate, or in my example maybe Brazil and Latin America will dominate. Since my last lecture [on Tuesday] we now have a Latin American Pope, that’s a first invention; Brazil is succeeding economically, maybe in 300 years Latin America will take advantage of its opportunities to become the most advanced society in the world. I think we are at a period in which it is no longer clear the west will continue to dominate, as it was probably clear a hundred years ago that the west had to dominate for a while longer. We’ll see.” (Recorded 2013.03.14 at Fudan University, Shanghai)

Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies

March 12, 2013

A young woman describes the third generation drop-off of her grandmother’s native language, Chuvash (a Turkic language spoken in Russia and the Chuvash Republic), in the post Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies, from the blog In Search of Perfect.


“My grandmother and her sisters speak Chuvash fluently. My mother understands the language, but does not speak it. I cannot claim even that, because I only know three words in Chuvash, albeit these are the most important words in the world, Ep Sana Yoradap. It is not difficult to imagine what happens to Chuvash when my mom and grandma are no longer here.” – Yulia, “Ep Sana Yoradap, or How a Language Dies

Children of Rome: Are the Romance Languages Latin Progeny?

March 12, 2013

(This post is a response to Chris Guillebeau’s call to action to “help someone for free.” I hope I can help you learn languages.)

I once thought that the Romance Languages were “descended” from Latin. In linguistics class at the University of Georgia I was taught to understand language relatedness in the form of a tree diagram. The proto-language (i.e. hypothetical mother language of which we have no records) Indo-European contains an Italic branch that becomes Latin, which further down the line spawns Italian, French, Romansch, Romanian, etc.  Indeed, with today’s advances in comparative linguistics one could hardly miss the similarities between these languages. But are they really descended from Latin? Did so-called Classical Latin really evolve into French and Spanish?

When I brought this up with Dr. Haneda Masashi of the University of Tokyo, he was skeptical of the idea. The influence of the Roman empire did not extend into all fields of linguistic endeavor. More likely than not, people did not consciously emulate the speech of Rome. They may have adopted Roman ways, but they simply did not have the means to emulate the speech of the capital. Why? I surmise because they never went there, they had no radios or recording devices of any kind, and there was no standardized education system. In his class on Chinese Topolect Studies at Fudan, Dr. Tao Huan(陶寰) said that linguists no longer consider the “Romance Languages” to be the descendants of the Latin language as spoken in Rome. Likely, they developed their own local dialects as Latin spread with Roman rule, and these evolved into the myriad “Romance Languages” of Europe.

What does this tell us about modern languages?

The modern languages most of us are likely to study are very likely recent constructs. I learned at conferences at Fudan that “Standard Japanese” and “Mandarin Chinese” were created in the late 19th and early 20th Century, respectively, fashioned out of different dialects by philologists who followed the European trend of creating a “national language.” After all, if you are going to create a “modern nation,” shouldn’t you also create a “national language,” a “national religion,” and a “national people?” In Japan, these were “Standard Japanese,” “Shinto,” and “the Japanese people.” The greatly varied topolects of Japan were stigmatized (and mostly driven to extinction), Buddhism was outlawed (temporarily, but many temples were destroyed and never rebuilt), and the diverse cultural makeup of the archipelago was denied in favor of a mythical “Japanese race.” In the 19th Century, much of what Japanese knew about nation building they learned from Europeans like Lorenz von Stein. Europeans were engaged in their own nation building projects, which they believed necessitated the creation of “national languages” like “German” and “Italian.”

This week Fudan is holding a series of guest lectures by James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University. Today he lectured on the “Old Story of the Old World,” or the traditional story of the “rise of Greece” and the “decline and fall of the Roman empire.” As he sees it, the Roman empire didn’t fall until 1924, when the Ottoman Empire, which had inherited the territory of Rome, was finally dissolved. I asked about the linguistic situation in the ancient world, and he told us a story. He said there was a German writer who grew up in Bulgaria, and he remembers that his uncle could speak 17 languages. By “speak,” he probably meant his uncle could ask directions, find a place to sleep, and make a little conversation. He could read only one language, but he could get around in a lot more. This is the “natural state” of language. People speak one way in their village; walk across the hill to the next village and they will laugh at their neighbors’ funny accents (or shake their heads in dismay when they understand nothing at all). St. Augustine, who was from Africa, was laughed at for his funny accent in Rome. Language is naturally extremely varied, and like nationality and ethnicity, “national language” is a cultural construct.

What does this teach us about studying languages?

Only understand that language is extremely varied, and modern national languages are a convenience. They are a tool to be used, not a bill to be filled. Stick to one language variety, and eventually the great variety will become apparent. Language isn’t perfect—it’s just something people do.

Four Phases of Learning a Language

March 1, 2013

There’s a lot of great writing out there about learning languages (much of it better than mine), but there are some things I’ve learned studying languages that I wish I had known a long time ago. For one, I have found that learning a language may be thought of as divided into four phases. I have only anecdotal evidence, but this has been my experience learning Chinese and Japanese.


1. Beginner

Assuming you start out with no prior knowledge, in the beginning you know nothing. In reality you almost never know “nothing”—Japanese, for example, is full of English words that are readily understandable, and Spanish is full of Latin cognates—but in the beginning you can’t understand more than a word or two of what you read or hear. The first step is to learn how to pronounce the language you are learning, and how to read and write it in a phonetic script (like Chinese pinyin, Japanese romaji, or the Spanish alphabet). After this stage I would begin to memorize the most frequent words, preferably embedded in short phrases and sentences with English translations. Some people do pictures. I find it’s easier to copy English translations, and the most common words are so common they don’t need much help to remember. In the Beginner stage you need English translations to make heads or tails of most sentences and spend a lot of time sounding out words.

2. Intermediate

After Beginner you will reach the Intermediate stage. I define intermediate as the point where you can read texts and listen to speech and understand some parts with the aid of a dictionary. There’s no fine line between Beginner and Intermediate. I probably spent more than a year as a Beginner in Japanese, but not more than a week as a Beginner in Spanish.  This was only partly due to differences in the languages themselves, but mostly due to the fact that I made almost no effort to engage with real Japanese (for native speakers, by native speakers) in the first year I learned that language, whereas I began Spanish with Borges and Wikipedia pages. The Intermediate stage is what is usually stretched indefinitely by language courses of all stripes. (Perhaps because by the time you level up, you no longer feel the need to pay them for what you can get for free?)

3. Advanced

When you are fluent, you are Advanced. I get asked a lot how I define fluency, and the honest answer is: I don’t. At some point I just didn’t need to check the dictionary all that much to read Japanese, and the same thing happened with Chinese. At some point, I didn’t have to keep asking people, “What did you just say?” It’s not that I was suddenly able to understand everything, but that I was able to understand enough. I believe a dedicated learning can skip the Beginner stage in a couple of weeks and make it to Advanced in not more than a year. The key variables are your level of interest and how much input you receive. The former depends upon your ability to know thyself and pick engaging materials, and the latter depends on your consumption.

4. “Native Fluency”

Like many language learners, I too hope to someday evolve into a “native speaker.” Do the scare quotes betray my skepticism? I have a gut feeling that a native speaker is nothing more than a speaker who is really good at matching patterns in sound to memorized patterns in speech, and at catching high-frequency words while ignoring words they don’t quite understand. In other words, just someone who is Really Advanced because they kept getting better until they were “good enough” at their language to do what they want with it. That is, they have internalized the most frequent patterns of speech and text so as to know what to expect, and how to break those patterns to be “creative.” (Or how to follow the patterns and bore us to death.) I talk a lot about “patterns” because I think they are the key to efficient learning and effective use of language. My teacher Dr. Kretzchmar once said that on the level of language, almost all “creative writing” depends upon the manipulation of expected patterns of language. Grasp the patterns, and you hold the key of the mundane. Open the door to the garden of language delights.

Mexico from the Sky

February 14, 2013

I am in Mexico City. I have come with my girlfriend Joy for a week in Mexico, beginning and ending in the capital city, including a few days in Cancún. We arrived Feb. 9 by plane from Atlanta, on a direct flight operated by AeroMexico. Our flight took us southwest over the US, over Georgia and Alabama, and crossed the Gulf of Mexico. I saw the volcanoes and plains around Mexico City as we landed.




Zócalo, Largest Square in the Americas

February 12, 2013

I am in Mexico City. I have come with my girlfriend Joy for a week in Mexico, beginning and ending in the capital city, including a few days in Cancún. We arrived Feb. 9 by plane from Atlanta, took the Metro into the city center, and found our hostel, the Hostel Catedral next to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. The rooftop terrace at the Hostel Catedral faces the back of the cathedral and the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. The square is the second largest in the world, after Red Square and before Tian’anmen. It was filled with thousands of people for a concert and surrounded by riot police. Photos of the square are below.






Yuantong Temple in Kunming

February 9, 2013

In the summer of 2011, I took a two month trip in China that I chronicled on kiroma. Recently I posted photos from Shanghai and photos from Suzhou. I now live in China as a student at Fudan University. Before starting school, I took a two week trip with Joy to Yunnan and Guizhou that took us to Lijiang, Dali, and Kunming, and me to Qujing, Huangguoshu, Anshun, Guiyang, and Chongqing.

We began our journey in Yunnan by flying to the stunning modern airport in the provincial capital, Kunming. Walking out on the street our first day in town, we came across the enchanting Yuantong Temple, an old and very active Buddhist temple. It was late August, just in time for the Yu Lan festival, also known as the “Ghost Festival.” We burned joss sticks, paper and candles as offerings but were not able to take part in the chanting at the main hall. A large crowd of worshippers were gathered to make offerings before the altar. They prayed under a large tent. We passed a few monks walking around the grounds, and a portion of the entryway was under construction. Below are my photographs from Yuantong Temple.










Four Tasty Treats in Fukuoka

February 6, 2013

In August 2012 I returned to Fukuoka for the first time. In 2009-2010 I studied at Kyushu University as an exchange student, where I studied Japanese culture and linguistics and learned Japanese.

My return was part of a five-week trip from Tokyo to Shanghai via Nagasaki by boat. I spent about five days in Fukuoka meeting old friends, teachers, and my host family. (I also wrote a post about the temple of the Great Buddha.)

Today I want to share four of the most delicious things I ate in Fukuoka. Can you guess what they are?

4. Fugu bibimba

The Fukuoka Fuku Festival was all about showing off the versatility of fugu, a delicious poisonous pufferfish. I didn’t find fugu sashimi very flavorful, but I once bought a bit and fried it with excellent results. At the festival was a very popular stall selling fugu bibimba (a Korean rice bowl) for 500 yen (~$6).

3. Tonkatsu, or pork cutlet


My friends recommended this place that serves tonkatsu, Japanese pork cutlet, among many other washoku, or Japanese-style, foods.

2. Tofu hamburger


A tofu specialty restaurant was a favorite and a recommendation of my host mother’s. She took a friend and me to eat there. The decor was very “Japanese” to our eyes, and the many variations on tofu were amusing and creative, like tofu croquette and tofu hamburger. I went for the latter, with no regrets. It came with steamed vegetables in a wooden box.

Now anyone familiar with me or Fukuoka will certainly guess what tops my list. The historic neighborhood in downtown Fukuoka known as Hakata is practically synonymous with Hakata ramen, a tasty noodle soup made a broth brewed from pork bones. Japan is home to many good ramens, and tonkotsu is king and queen of them all. (Am I biased?) I was overjoyed when Ippudō, Fukuoka’s best known chain, with branches in Hong Kong, New York, etc., opened a branch in Shanghai. Feast your eyes on Hakata ramen!

1. Hakata ramen at Ippudō




Have you eaten any of these foods? Please comment on your favorite Japanese foods!

Tokyo in the Snow

February 2, 2013

In January, I posted on this blog about returning from Tokyo to Atlanta via Seattle 110 years after the writer Nagai Kafu made his transpacific journey. I also posted photos from Ishioka, Tsuchiura, and Kasumi-ga-ura, places I reached by hitchhiking down Highway 6 to Tokyo.

My reasons for visiting Tokyo were two. One was to catch my flight from Narita airport back to the USA, since I had booked a round-trop flight to Tokyo in July. I first traveled to Japan and went to Shanghai to study at Fudan University via boat from Nagasaki. My second reason was to attend a conference connected with the research of Dr. Haneda Masashi, a professor and Vice President of the University of Tokyo with whom I had the pleasure to be acquainted in Shanghai, at a conference at Fudan. Dr. Haneda is deeply involved in a project to rewrite world history in a way that reflects the discoveries of science and diminishes the influence of the concept of “nations” and “nationality.” The conference was called “Southern Barbarians, Redheads, and Chinamen: Conflict and Trade in the East Asian Seas” (J: 国際シンポジウム「南蛮・紅毛・唐人―東アジア海域の交易と紛争」) and was held at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo. Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Haneda, I was granted the important opportunity to attend this conference (conducted 90% in Japanese) and witness the proceedings of an academic conference in Japan for the first time. More about the conference later.

While in Tokyo, I met with many friends, but unfortunately caught a bacterial intestinal infection (again, as I mentioned last year in July when I got sick in Yokohama). I made up my mind the next morning to go for a doctor, and when I stepped outside, I found the world covered in snow.

The photos below were taken outside my hotel (the first three), on the University of Tokyo campus (the fourth), and on the train to Narita Airport.









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