Obies Using Language: Tomoyo Joshi, ’16

Tomoyo Joshi is currently a senior majoring in Gender Sexuality and Feminist Study. She have lived in both Japan and United States for an extended period, and this cultural background has enabled her to experience and formulate unique perspective of the languages she use. Here, she shares her somewhat personal but agreeable insight on how she identifies herself through language.


While I consider myself fluent in both Japanese and English, my relationship with language has always been complex—because language to me is intrinsically connected to culture, I felt like my loss of Japanese over time—when I was in California for nine years and when I’m in Oberlin now—reflects a disconnect to my heritage. At the same time, even if I am in Japan for an extended period of time to regain my Japanese, I constantly feel frustrated. I feel frustrated at my inability to express myself in Japanese in a way that I could have in English. ( “I could say this so easily in English.”)

When I am in Japan—my family lives there now—I feel like an incomplete sentence, a fragment, not able to say things the way I want to in Japanese. When I’m in the U.S., while I can express myself in English quite fluently, I feel like I’m day by day losing a language that was once, for a brief period of time, the only language I knew. Either way, I am never “fluent enough”. I am constantly in a state of in-between.

This is the irony: I struggled with English. And yet, I write this in English, or, I write papers in English, or, I can say what I mean best in English. What I mean by “struggled with English” is that English is my second language. I was born in Japan, so I grew up speaking in Japanese. When I went to the California at age five, I only knew how to write the alphabet and how to say my name. I barely understood what the teacher was saying, much less what “recess” meant—I cried the first day of school, surrounded by people trying to comfort me in a foreign tongue. The most heartbreaking moment, at least to me, was when I realized I spoke better English than my parents at age eleven. By fourth grade, I was translating for my parents, who, just four years before, was helping me spell “with” and count in English.

As a fourth grader, I had felt the power, and the sadness, of my English.

Even now, I am all too familiar with the privilege, opportunity, and power that this English provides me. Writing these words, thinking about language, in English, pains me, especially because I’m not sure if I could write this as accurately and concisely in Japanese. But I think I’ve come to terms that I will never really be “fluent enough”; I will constantly feel frustrated, one way or another. But what both languages have given me is more words to be myself, and so, while this is not a conclusion of any sorts (and in an attempt to provide a meaningful conclusion to this post) I know that I will always struggle with language and identity.


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