Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Unleashing my incompetence

Professor Shinohara of Tohoku University, Japan, has kindly agreed to let me join his group for a long visit. This is exciting, and the opportunity of a lifetime, but it also throws up some uncomfortable facts about how I see myself and the things I do to cope with the limits of my competence.

Coming from a chaotic family background, competence has always been hugely important to me. I've not minimised its importance by choosing to work as a woman in a male dominated discipline. Jorge Cham sums up pretty much how I feel most of the time in this strip:

Representing All Of Womankind - PHD Comics

Ever since school reports I've been described as "dilligent", "studious", "competent" and "enterprising". Solver of problems. Learner of things. Nose in a book, head in the air, feet on the ground.

So working in Japan for a month is going to be a huge challenge for me on a personal as well as a practical level. Regular readers will have noticed that I'm already trying to prepare. I'm learning as much Japanese as I can, downloading street maps, buying city guides and pumping every Japanese person I meet for data.

It's starting to dawn on me that being able to control my environment by knowing everything about it will be impossible. At some point in the next four weeks this has to stop, as it's more than bordering on an obsession.

My drive for competence has - not for the first time - reached its limit. This time, however, I'm going to try something new. I'm going to try letting myself be incompetent. Get in the Onsen the wrong way? Embarrassing sure, but really the end of the world? Use "Taberu" not "Tabemasu"? No-one will be rendered catatonic by my breach of etiquette.

And yet the mere thought of these faux pas is enough to render me clammy handed and weak legged. The thought of being incompetent is bad enough. The though of being the incompetent representative of womankind is enough to give me the screaming abdabs. I'm sent rushing back to Google, the Rough Guide and the friendly waitress in the Japanese restaurant.

I forever miss the moment because I've rehearsed it so many times, in order not to get it wrong. If I could unleash my incompetence, how liberating would it feel?


mrswhatsit said...

I think I understand what you mean. The stress of being so scared I'll make a mistake or do something wrong is probably the reason I'm so tired all of the time.

LJG said...

Well, luckily the Japanese get so excited when you use chopsticks and/or try to use their language that they praise you for even just a smidgen of skill. I think this will build your confidence!

Mika said...

hajimemashite, Em san
I was just surfing the internet and found you out. I'm a Japanese and also living in Aberystwyth with my husband.
Hoping you'll enjoy your learning Japanese and exchange in Tohoku Uni.

Auntie Em said...


How are you finding Aber? Are you working at the University? I'd love to hear more from you - I'm very excited about the visit to 日本!

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