A moment for dictionaries.

Despite their occasional (or bizarre) flaws, I am extremely fond of electronic and online dictionaries. What a wonderful world when a small electronic device like a cell phone can carry entire languages! I was a sophomore in high school, with NO foreign language skills when I very suddenly went to Japan as an exchange student and was plunked into the middle of a family in Northern Japan. I quickly learned that (despite their weight) dictionaries were wonderful pieces of translation equipment; I could find a word in English, point out its translation in Japanese, and communicate my thoughts. My host family and I spent hours in “dictionary” discussion, learning about culture, gardening, and my new temporary high school.

A day or so after my arrival, I was sitting with the grandmother watching my host family go about their afternoon. Host grandmother was a sweet looking old lady in traditional kimono who beamed every time she saw me, and kept patting me on the head and asking me if I was hungry. We nibbled on rice crackers together and used the dictionary to discuss the vegetable garden outside the window.

The peaceful flipping of pages was interrupted by piercing screams and shrieks from outside the room. It sounded as though my host sister was being murdered! She was completely hysterical. Interspersed were howls in Japanese that I was ill equipped to understand. As I tried to unfold my legs and stand to find out what disaster was occurring (Fire? Murder? Bear in the kitchen?) the grandmother patted me on the head, gestured for me to stay there, and walked out of the room, pulling off a slipper as she went.

The screams were cut short by a SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! Silence reigned and I sat there frightened speechless by the prospects of what had ended the screaming. Then there was a shuffling noise as host grandmother came down the hall, wearing both slippers again. She carefully slid the shoji room door closed again and settled down on her cushion at the low table. I sat there quietly, uncertain of what to do next and baffled by what had transpired.

Some of my concern was probably reflected in my face because host grandmother looked at me and started laughing. She patted my head again and gestured for my ever present dictionary. She flipped through the Japanese section a moment and then pushed the book back, pointing at an entry: “cockroach”.