Learning Global Culture From How We Write

There is something different about writing by hand to typing on a keyboard. From the letters you got long ago to handwritten notes or even just scribblings — handwritten letters and words are not the same as ones displayed on your monitor or smartphone screen; the personality of the writer seems to be present somewhere in them. A keyboard still requires someone’s hands and fingers just as a pen does, yet it’s different. Why? And is it the same in different countries?

As it is such an everyday thing to do, we don’t usually pay much attention to handwriting. But like all things, everyone had to learn to do it once. How did we learn? How did we get better at it? PingMag recently went down to Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu with Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (aka Hobonichi) to speak to students there from all over the world and find out about the letters and alphabets in their cultures.


APU is a college in Beppu City in Oita where roughly half the student population are exchange students from overseas, making in the most internationally mixed university in Japan. The students hail from all over, including Southeast Asia, America, Europe, and the Middle East. The campus feels like a small international city, a truly universal university!




When did you start to learn to write?

Seyha: I and most Cambodian students learned how to write from the first grade in elementary school and some learned how to write it from kindergarten. From around first grade in elementary school. The Khmer language has the most letters in the world. Almost all sounds have a letter. Truly, there are 35 Khmer consonant symbols but modern Khmer only uses 33, two having become obsolete. Moreover, there are subscript consonant forms at the foot of each letter called cheung âksâr. Additionally, we also have about 20 vowels. To make a word, we combine them together.

Kanika: Spelling is very hard even for Cambodians. There are letters that are similar but the pronunciation is different, so you have to understand and remember all this. Plus there are other special letters, so all in all it’s really hard. [Laughs] You first learn the letters that are easy to pronounce. The teacher writes it and then you learn by tracing. Unless you first trace the letters like this, you just won’t be able to write them properly.

That’s the same as Japan.

Kanika: And all letters have lower case letters too. Some are similar-looking, others are totally different. The big letters have “hair” on them, as my teacher used to say.



Kanika: Yes! [Laughs]

Do you still write things by hand?

Seyha: Yes, I write letters to my friends. But I don’t write much to my family.

Kanika: I brought a letter from my best friend with me today. He’s like a brother to me. It’s the letter he gave me before I left for Japan. He normally talks in English every day so he also almost always writes in English, but this one is in Cambodian. He told me it’s because this letter is special.

It’s a very beautifully written letter. Does everyone have their own style of writing letters?

Kanika: I don’t really know but they say that older people can look at how you write and can understand what job you will do in the future. When I was around one years old I could write in the same way as I can today. When I was three or four, my father told me I would become an engineer. My grandmother was a teacher and my mother a doctor, so I thought I wanted to be a teacher or doctor. My father was an engineer but being a girl, I had never thought about becoming an engineer.

When I was around eight, my father started an engineer business and than I really began to aspire to be an engineer.

Fate works in mysterious ways!



Huyen: In Vietnamese there are 29 letters — the Roman alphabet plus a few other symbols. The alphabet is pronounced phonetically. After the alphabet, we learn the phonetic symbols. The spelling is simple so if you memorize it once, you can read anything. Of course, grammar is a different story.

Before you had the Roman alphabet, did you use different letters?

Huyen: No, I don’t think we had any. We probably wrote in Chinese and words also came from Chinese. There is a word in Vietnamese which means river and mountain, and there is a very similar-sounding word in Chinese with the same meaning. The influence from Chinese still remains in letters and official events.

Did you bring something written down with you today?

Huyen: Yes. My friend wrote this to me when I graduated from junior high school.

It’s very beautiful and written so carefully. Do you like to write characters?

Huyen: Yes, I like to write by hand more than typing an email. Your thoughts can be channeled into the letters.




Bek: In Uzbekistan you start to attend school from five. School actually starts from seven but you begin to learn basic writing from around five years old. I started to go when I was about that age and learned the 29 letters of the alphabet over two or three months. And then you gradually start to learn things like upper case letters.

It’s the Roman alphabet.

Kamola: Yes, but the pronunciation is different to English. The letters are simple but pronunciation is difficult, because there are all kinds of accents. The second language in my country is Russian and almost everyone can also speak Russian. But Russians can’t speak Uzbek.

Bek: There are people from countries that cannot pronounce sounds like “che” or “ze” but people from Uzbekistan can. We can pronounce all kinds of sounds. I don’t really know why but our tongues are very ambidextrous. When I was learning English I remember my teacher told us that Uzbekistani people’s tongues are very adaptable. For example, we can learn English and also Arabic and Turkish without difficulties.

What was it like when you first learned to write at school?

Bek: Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 and the education system changed in 1997 to the Latin alphabet. Before that we used the Cyrillic alphabet. I have two brothers and they both studied Cyrillic, but from my time in school it had already changed to the Latin alphabet and so I learned to write using that.

So it has changed only just recently, then. Does that mean you can also write in the Cyrillic alphabet?

Bek: Yes, but I’ve never learned it properly.

Kamola: I think that children today can also use both. It might be a special case and I don’t really know how we learn it, but perhaps it’s through things like watching movies. Certainly it’s not the case that someone teaches them.

It must be tough for parents because their children can read and write in an alphabet totally different to their own. What’s it like writing by hand? Do you like to write things by hand?

Bek: Yes, I do. Technology has developed recently but people from Uzbekistan prefer to send handwritten letters. I think you can create deeper communication with a letter written by hand, more so than with an email sent from an iPhone. I remember the first letter I wrote. I sent it to my girlfriend. I really tried to write the sentences carefully and beautifully, but in the end I couldn’t do it. [Laughs]

Did your love letter still go down well?

Bek: Yes! [Laughs]

That’s good. [Laughs]

Kamola: My mother is a doctor and after I came to Japan she sent me a letter. This made me really happy but actually her handwriting isn’t so nice! [Laughs] I asked her later why she wrote it in this way. “I was busy,” she said. [Laughs]



Korean is phonographic, isn’t it?

Gano: Yes, it is. The letters are put together like Lego. You start by learning letter by letter. Like Hiragana, you can’t make a word by one character. Long ago in Korea we used Kanji, but it was just one part of the elite who used it, so King Sejong established Hangul as a language that is easier for everyone to learn. Well, I don’t know so much about this, it’s just what I found out online. [Laughs]

When did you stop using Kanji in Korea?

Gano: I don’t know exactly, but even now newspapers use Kanji in their headlines. But young people almost never use them. Koreans have picked up Korean expressions rather than Chinese or English.

In Korea, is there a culture of writing by hand?

Gano: I think it’s the same as Japan. We have calligraphy and use a brush. But we don’t have lessons like you do in Japan. We do it for special events.


apu09Xia Ying


There’s something we thought was very unusual about Chinese. You can have the same character but the pronunciation is different. So how do you write things?

Nancy: Well, in China we have the Pinyin alphabet system and we use this in our first year of elementary school to learn pronunciation. The alphabet is only for expressing the pronunciation, so we learn Kanji with Pinyin. After this, we then learn the parts of the Kanji.

Learning from the parts is very smart. From what age do you start to learn?

Xia Ying: From around the same time that we become able to talk, I think. I don’t really know but perhaps in general from around six or seven months. It’s from around this time or from before children can talk, you put up things like Japanese Hiragana on the walls. They explain what something is, that this is an apple, and so on. From kindergarten we start to write Kanji.

In Japan, people start with Hiragana, so if you have something you want to write, you can always write it down at least in Hiragana even when they do not know the Kanji yet. What do children do in China in this case?

Nancy: You can write using Pinyin, though it’s not true that all generations can actually read this.

Xia Ying: When you cannot write a Kanji, you can mix Kanji with Pinyin.

Until when are you able to get away with doing that?!

Xia Ying: It happens sometimes when you are a first or second grade student, but after that you stop mixing when you write. When there’s a Kanji you don’t know, you ask your parents or teacher, or look it up in a dictionary. So you learn by yourself and this means you can learn more vocabulary than people long ago. Until around 1940 and the new China, there was a totally different system. Of course, at the time the culture was completely different so you can’t simply compare them.

When are you able to read? In Japanese you can get away with skipping any Kanji you don’t know in a text. And there may even be Furigana over the top of the character telling you how to read it.

Nancy: There isn’t any Pinyin in newspapers. I think you are able to read normal newspapers by the time you are in sixth grade. When I was in the first grade, I saw a fifth year student reading a newspaper and I remember thinking this was amazing.

You would have to be a genius.

Xia Ying: My junior and high school were all together so I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but in my case, in the first grade of junior high the teacher taught us handwriting. We did calligraphy together, covering around three pages a day with handwritten characters. Up till then my characters were not very good but after that I got much better.

So you learn to write properly again from around 13 years old, then?

Xia Ying: If your handwriting is very good, then the teacher would be surprised. But it’s not just about writing. Kanji is different to what you learn at school. It’s not just a Kanji as a character, it’s strongly connected to Chinese culture and the arts. Calligraphers are also poets, and writers and even politicians can write characters very beautifully. It’s a type of fundamental skill. Almost everything in Chinese culture has a meaning that goes beyond just writing things down.

In Japan a little time ago things felt similar. Politicians would write calligraphy and it was a completely normal thing for ordinary people to be able to write beautiful letters. Recently, though, things have been changing bit by bit.



Ash: Nepali came from the Sanskrit language and is very old. Its roots lie in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, and even today the words and accents are similar. But speaking Nepali is really hard. There are around 122 different languages in Nepal. I speak Nepali and also Newa Bhasa, the language of the area where I used to live. But these are two completely separate languages.

What language do you use at home?

Ash: English. [Laughs] My parents always talk in English so I also use it. When we learn English at school, we also learn the equivalent word in Nepali. I can also speak Hindi.

How did you first learn to speak these languages?

Ash: I think it started from copying. I don’t really remember but I think I tried to write words by copying. The way I write English is also a bit special; I can’t write straight. It’s a Victorian cursive style because that was how the reference book was when I learned to write.

It’s very beautiful.

Ash: This is a letter from my father, and if you look at this you can see my writing is different. He’s a businessman, so his style is more formal. I’m still a child so my handwriting is a bit different. [Laughs]

Do you have a system of honorifics or respect language?

Ash: Yes, it’s really crazy in Nepal. The base of Nepali is Sanskrit so it’s very old. There are around 15 types of honorifics per phrase. With some of them you have no idea what they mean. And they are difficult to read. The honorifics are always longer than normal and really complicated, with lots of combinations of strokes.

15 patterns is certainly a lot! Do you have a special memory of something connected to handwriting?

Ash: At the moment I’m the Resident Assistant at the dormitory, and there are 64 of us in the whole college. We write these notes to each other and they always have a lot of personality. “Ash, you talk a lot. Otsukaresama!” and so on. If this was in Nepal, we’d probably just send out a group email. But it’s more emotional to get these kinds of notes.