Machiko Yasuda

Random access memories: On learning

How my mom learned how to make California rolls, or, reason #321 why my mom is rad

My mom grew up in a seaside merchant town on the southern island of Japan. She grew up learning how to eat a whole fish with chopsticks, carefully picking out the spine out of the fish. She can slice a raw squid without getting the ink all over herself. Of course, she rolls sushi.

But even after she moved to Los Angeles, she did not know how to make a California roll. A California roll, if you don’t know, has rice on the outside — not the inside.

So what did she do? At the local grocery store with a sushi bar and deli, she asked the chef if she could learn some time. He said yes. One morning before I left for first-grade, she woke up extra early and left the house to learn. She got behind the sushi counter and learned from the pros. Now she knows how to make California rolls.

I still remember the first time I rolled a Spanish rr

My journey in learning Spanish started the summer before 8th grade. When we learned the alphabet, I still remember quite painfully — I couldn’t roll my tongue to make the “rr”.

By the time we started a full-year Spanish I course in 8th grade, I still couldn’t get that tongue to move up and down to make the Spanish “rr.” I asked our teacher, Señorita Hyatt, how I could learn, if I could even learn and how to practice. She told me to practice saying “errre”. Just loosen the tongue and practice over and over.

One day, in 5th period PE class after lunch, I was telling my friends how it was so hard for me to learn. We changed in the locker room and walked down the portable slope. And then, like magic, out of no where, a real tip-of-the-tongue “rr” slipped out. In disbelief, I tried it again. And it was a real “rr”! I was so happy. I’ll never forget this moment.

Subject-verb agreement IRL

Japanese is my first language. My parents spoke to my brothers and I in Japanese as we grew up. Until we started pre-school at a local Jewish congregation, we’d never spoken it. Though now English is my strongest language, I grew up listening to the type of English spoken by immigrants — not entirely colloquial, not always grammatically-correct either.

When it came time to learn grammar in school, I remember some of it sounded so wrong to me. So foreign.

But I’ll never forget those days after my high school friends and I had taken the PSAT – the junior level of the SAT – and my friend proclaimed that the grammar questions were so easy. “All you have to do is say the sentences out loud, and you can hear which sentence is correct,” he’d explained afterwards while we were in line at the local movie theater.

“If the sentence is, ‘everyone gets their license at age 16’ it should be ‘everyone gets his or her license at age 16.’ It just sounds correct!”

But it didn’t sound correct to me.

Had I grown up listening to botched English all along? Even on the news radio or cartoons?

It shocked me a little bit. I always got A’s in English class. I could memorize some grammar rules and regurgitate them correctly on a test. But I hadn’t trained myself to hear or speak English correctly, as per the College Board.

I spent the summer trapped in SAT class, learning textbook English Grammar. Now I can read and hear those subject-verb agreement errors as “correct” or “incorrect.” I cringe every time I see a sign at the grocery store that says, “Express Lanes: 10 Items of Less.” I had to re-teach myself how I speak and write English.

The whole experience left me with a bitter memory.

Newspaper copy editors guard grammar, syntax and style rules, not because of the rules themselves, but because following those rules helps readers better understand the text. I’d adopted that view too. I don’t think it’s terrible that the SAT tests whether we can understand these kinds of sentences correctly.

But I felt disadvantaged growing up around people who did not speak it correctly. I grew up listening to that, and that felt correct to me. And we communicated just fine.

Nowadays, I try very hard to speak correctly. Not because I’m a grammar prick, but because I want people to hear what they might get in some stupid standardized test sometime in the future.