Brigid Mack: Calligraphy Lessons

The CIP that I chose for the semester was traditional calligraphy or shodō (書道). Shodō evolved from Chinse calligraphy and has been relevant to Japanese culture for hundreds of years, and so it is a common activity for kids to do after school. The person who led the class that I took held lessons in his house about three times a week and students could come any of the days that they chose and stayed for about an hour at a time. During this hour, you could do shodō with the brush and ink, writing exercises with either a pen or a pencil, and math with a soroban, which is essentially an abacus that was created in Japan. While I was participating in these classes, I did both shodō and the writing exercises.

At first when I started this CIP it was difficult to really pick up on the environment outside of what I was doing because I had very little confidence in my ability to speak to the Sensei in Japanese and my host mother would usually come along to help translate. I spent around three class sessions getting used to what it was like to be in a room full of shouting children while also comprehending very little of what they were saying. Finally, after several weeks I began to participate in the discussions and talk more to everyone else who was there. The kids who were taking lessons seemed very comfortable with each other and with the Sensei and were often making jokes or singing while they were there. It was easy to see that everyone was enjoying themselves and that while they took their work seriously, they were also there to have fun.

Most of the students seemed to have been in school classes together or were friends from around the neighborhood and knew each other very well. After a while it was more entertaining to watch them fight over who showed Sensei their work first as they stood on chairs or crowded around where he was sitting, waving their papers around before they had even finished drying.  Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to join in conversations or ask questions and clarify things that I had been confused about, or even to answer the things that they asked me. By the last week, it was a far less stressful environment because I was able to communicate and the kids were excited to try and include me in their fun.

As far as being successful in a CIP goes, I think that the most important thing to remember is that you’re there to learn, and that even if you aren’t sure about how to go about things like asking questions or joining conversations, it’s easier to just say something and gauge whether it was right or not by other people’s reactions than it is to overanalyze it and not say anything at all. I spent a lot of time just watching and trying to figure out how to fit myself into all of the chaos of shouting children when in the end, all I had to do was raise my hand and ask a question or talk to one of the kids. They let me know when I was wrong or if something I said was so off that it was funny, and in turn I learned more about the language while also being able to have fun. I think that if there was anything I would do differently, I definitely would try to be more confident in my ability to at least try and speak rather than overthinking it all and ending up saying nothing because even though I enjoyed going to all of the classes, it was definitely a much better experience towards the end.


4 thoughts on “Brigid Mack: Calligraphy Lessons

  1. Your Japanese is good! I am glad that you had fun with kids in shodō class, and I know you must have learned so many kanji in shodō class. I hope you would keep practicing shodō at home. (I used to practice shodō every week when I was young, and I think it’s fun.) Did you take your shodō works with you? And I want to know one thing you have learned from kids. <3

    • Sandy! Thank you for you comment, I definitely had a lot of fun with the kids in class. I didn’t know that you had done shodo growing up too, that’s so cool! I did take most of what I made with me, but some of the attempts were definitely best left thrown away… I learned a lot from the kids both about speaking Japanese and about being in a class in general. They taught me a lot of different songs and games that they had learned in school and I also learned that, at least for our classes, they were very free to have fun while practicing which was a really neat thing to see.

  2. I’m glad that the shōdo was a good experience! I’ve learned it a little bit as well, and I can definitely say that it’s not easy work. It’s especially frustrating seeing someone else do it while making it look super easy! I’m also surprised by the atmosphere of the classes; when I learned calligraphy, I was told over and over that the meditation is a super big component of it all, but I like this wilder and more fun version. When I was learning, I had favorite kanji that I enjoyed to practice whenever I got tired of the mandatory ones, 嵐、夢、and 檀。Was there a list that you had to copy every week, or did you get to choose what you wrote?

    • Hi Alexis! It’s really cool that you also did shodo while we were there! Did you take it as lessons in your town or was it through a club? The way that the sensei set it up where I went was usually the kids who took the class regularly or would be going to for the foreseeable future would practice one kanji or phrase at a time and then move on once they could do it really well consistently. I didn’t really do anything like that, but rather I was given a different kanji or phrase each week to try and do. Sometimes depending on how it went, sensei would give me a different one after doing the first one several times, but I never really got to choose my own. That being said, I did practice in my own time at home and would occasionally bring them in for him to see so that I could learn where to improve.