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Wednesday, July 5, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Mind reading, or am I just predictable?


It is often said that long-time married couples grow so close they can actually read each other's minds, but either that's hooey or my wife and I are out of synch, ESP-wise.

For her part, she claims reading my mind would be about as productive as reading a noodle. For my part, I argue, why bother to read her thoughts when sooner or later she's going to tell me anyway?

Yet, beyond these marital pie fights, I admit there are moments when my Japanese wife's grasp of my foreign mind-set can be downright spooky. I don't know if it qualifies as ESP, women's intuition or just lady luck, but whenever I feel unsure about something, all I need do is ask her. More often than not, her grasp of my inner thoughts proves just as firm as my own.

Example One: A civics group called requesting that I, as the local foreigner, address their organization. Free topic and "only" 30 minutes. All in Japanese.

My wife answered and informed the group that I was not feeling well, with the prognosis (by coincidence) looking quite dour for the days prior to their event. I must therefore, regretfully, decline.

Meanwhile, I was outside chasing the kids with water balloons. How did my wife know I would be sick?

Because I always get sick when I speak in public. It's a bona fide American disease, in my case made more severe by having to talk in Japanese, a language I handle the same way steamrollers handle eggs.

To make such a speech I usually spend hours working on a Japanese text, which my wife will still have to twist into something comprehensible. This is then followed by the tedium of listening to me practice, similar, she says, to the sweet sound of someone ravaging a piano with a mallet. Practice will reach fever pitch a day or so before the talk, leaving me sleepless as I writhe nervously about our bed like Lon Chaney Jr. morphing into Wolfman. Leaving my wife sleepless as well.

I worry right up until the end, the awful memory still fresh from the time I slaved over an address on "formal" education for a group of housewives, only to arrive at the hall and find a bunch of sun-withered men expecting a talk on "farming" education.

When the presentation is finally done, I then remain numb for hours. Reliving all my speech errors, like counting snowflakes in a blizzard.

So . . . she was right. If I accepted that request, I would have been sick. Plus our whole household with me.

Example Two: For her mother's birthday, my wife pulls out all the stops. Grandma has long since lost interest in such mundane things as gifts, parties and other people. Her septuagenarian focus falls on mainly one item: food.

So my wife serves platters of fish so raw they are still flopping. Sushi of every type known to humanity. Shrimp with their slimy feelers and buggy little eyes still attached. Pickled varieties of things no one would dare eat any other way.

A feast before which we all sing "Happy Birthday" and then dig in!

But back in the kitchen in a warm cardboard box rests a large pizza with extra cheese, which my wife has earmarked for me.

How did she know that's what I wanted? Well . . . because I always want pizza. Like most people always want air.

She also knows that no matter how much Japanese food I eat, it will never fill me up. I will yet have some mystical craving that will lead me to either poke about our fridge, rattle through the freezer or just sit and suck my thumb. A craving that more or less always whispers, "pizza."

Furthermore, she knows I come from a landlocked state where people eat fishy stuff only if it has been thickly battered, dunked in a bucket of boiling oil and served with copious amounts of tartar sauce, or pizza.

So she was ready, making grandma's birthday a treat for me too.

Example Three: In meeting me for lunch, my wife rushes to catch the express train so she can arrive 30 minutes early. Only to find me already there, leaning on the wickets.

How did she know I would be waiting? Because I do tend to arrive in advance -- an anxious side effect of my first years in Japan, when getting lost was as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth. Consequently, I learned to pad extra time into my schedule. Time, for instance, to take the train six stops in the wrong direction. Or time to wander myself dizzy before I found my way. Or, if needed, time to pester some poor passerby with slow questions about how to reach my destination.

As the years bubbled past, I got lost less and less, but became fixed in my habits more and more. So she sensed I would be early. In fact, I had been waiting for two hours.

Does this add up to mind-reading? Or simply knowing her spouse inside out? "To tell the truth," she jabs. "You're as easy to predict as gravity."

A zing she would never dare if I were cradling a cream pie -- which serves, I submit, as Example Number Four.



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