Dublin woman Shereen Perera has a rather interesting career and one that you wouldn’t see that often on an Irish CV! The 26-year-old whose father is from Sri Lanka and mother is from Wicklow is a Japanese teacher and a singer in the Irish Video Game Orchestra.
How on earth did she get into Japanese? Well, Shereen’s journey began as a child when she used to watch Pokémon on VCR tapes back in the nineties. This was her first flavour of anime, a form of animation that originated in Japan. Anime has a particular style often characterized by colourful graphics and vibrant characters and both Shereen and her sister used to watch Sailor Moon, another massively popular anime, which her dad would bring back from his US business trips.
When she was 11 years old, Shereen and her friend would encourage each other to draw, using the anime style as inspiration as well as its music and themes. It was through these influences that spurred her interest in Japanese culture.
‘When I was 17, in 5th year and was looking to learn another language, I was encouraged to take on Japanese by my best friend who was doing it for the Leaving Cert,’ she tells me.
‘I decided I’d go for it because I realised, I had been in contact with Japanese pop culture for such a long time! The further I got into learning the language, the more I became involved in listening to more Japanese songs and watching more Japanese media.’
Shereen says that she took to Japanese quickly because of her love for their music and that became a key part of her learning. Following her own Leaving Certificate, she pursued music in UCD and opted to go abroad to Japan for a year. It was there, the Japanophile says, that she learned ‘proper Japanese’ and spoke it absolutely every day. It was a massive culture shock she tells me, but it was worth it.
‘This language is a joy for me to study and I’m a total nerd,’ Shereen says. ‘I think it’s because it symbolises something which I kind of did on my own, and I can see the results of the hard work I do.’
When Shereen returned to Ireland she realised that a single trip to Japan wasn’t enough. She applied for JET, a famous English teaching programme that brings graduates to Japan as assistant language teachers. She loved it and spent two years in the country with her partner before returning home.
It was upon her return that she discovered that Ireland needed Japanese teachers for the Leaving Certificate. It was meant to be! Everything had come full circle for her from those early days of studying Japanese for her own exams to teaching students the language that she now loved.
As of this 2020, Shereen has passed the JLPT N1, the highest level of the Japanese language proficiency exam. Despite it being almost 10 years since she started learning Japanese, she still tries to study every day.
‘I just want to get better. The adventures I’ve had through this language have become a part of my identity, it has given me confidence, it has made me who I am’ she says.
‘You would assume with most languages that one would be fluent by this stage, but I hesitate to say it. There’s still so much for me to learn. It gets harder and harder to find resources as well. If I don’t study it continuously, I won’t feel confident in it, I won’t feel proud, I won’t feel satisfied.’
Japanese has two alphabets (better known as syllabaries), hiragana and katakana and a writing script called kanji. There are 2000 kanji in common use. Right now, Shereen recognises a whopping 1200 of those standard kanji characters but stresses that it has taken her a very long time to get where she is today.
She likens learning Japanese to playing a video game.
‘In the beginning, you level up super-fast. You’re level 1 and then you learn numbers and you’re level 2. You learn the basics then you’re suddenly level 10,’ Shereen explains to me.
‘We don’t know what the maximum level is for foreigners who are learning a language. Maybe it’s level 100 maybe it’s level 500. But the higher you get, the longer it takes to level up. I’m probably level 70. Maybe that’s arrogant, I don’t know, but I want to be able to speak with all these random and specialised terms and I feel like that’s a long way away.’
Aside from Japanese, music is also one of Shereen’s passions and when she saw the opportunity to take part it in the Irish Video Game Orchestra (IVGO), she leapt at it. IVGO is a voluntary orchestra that was originally founded for QCon, the convention hosted in Queen’s University in Belfast.
Below Shereen’s performance of ‘Snake Eater’ from Metal Gear Solid 3:
They mostly play in Belfast but have also travelled to Dublin and Cork. Shereen originally auditioned to be their pianist but the position was already filled and so her partner suggested she do vocals. She is now their ‘resident singer’.
‘I absolutely love it. It’s just geeks playing music for geeks who want to listen. Our director Robert and conductors Keith and David, and all the committee; they’re all cheeky and geeky and still somehow professional and classy. Everyone puts so much into it all the time in a variety of ways.’
Though Shereen has fluency in both English and Japanese she says that she would love to know more languages.
‘My father spoke both Sinhala (an Indo-Aryan language spoken by the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka) and English growing up, but because of the sort of post-colonisation and class associations that occurs in Sri Lanka, English is seen as ‘better’ as it’s associated with education, and opportunity,’ Shereen tells me.
‘So, I’m sad to say none of my siblings can speak it, though we have a couple of words. My plan is to eventually return to it. But it would be hard not living there. All my Sri Lankan relatives are fluent in both languages [English and Sinhala] so there was never a need to learn it.’
The Irish language is also one that she would love to learn.
‘It’s such a gorgeous language, and so critical to our identity as Irish people. It brings me great shame to go abroad and not be able to say I’m fluent in my own ‘mother tongue’’ she tells me.
‘If we had more Irish language mainstream bands, music, art, television, I think people – especially us Dublin folk – would see more relevance in our lives today’.
Japanese remains at Shereen’s core but even though she is no longer in Japan there are events for those who want a slice of Japanese culture like JCon in Dublin, Kaizoku Con in Cork, Akumakon in Galway, the Japanese Film Festival, as well as Experience Japan in Farmleigh every April.
274 students sat the Japanese Leaving Certificate in 2019 and while the community in Ireland is still quite small, according to Shereen it’s very much alive!