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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Expats all losers, choosers or abusers?


Wetting my whistle on a humid afternoon inside a Tokyo establishment for the soberly impaired, I listened to the following affirmation by a foreign longtime friend.

"Half of the gaijin in Japan couldn't succeed anyplace else," he declared. "While the other half could make it anywhere." He seemed to be waiting for a response, so I told him I supposed half of what he said to be true. Sensing our souls to be in synch, he blitzed on.

"Can you imagine any other nation on earth where people can earn money just by speaking their native tongue? I know this one fellow, for example, with no degrees and no common sense. Yet, this pair of doctors pays him 60,000 yen a month only to sit and speak English with them once a week . . . while at the same time they cram him full of sirloin and beer. Criminal!"

"I'll say! I'd do it for 20,000 yen and hamburger!" The jibe falls flat. "I mean, can you picture doctors in Boston taking some brainless schnook out to steak each week, just to hear him prattle in Spanish or French!?" I keep trying. "Not unless they were trying to prove that the steak causes cancer."

"Precisely! And how many foreigners here can't speak Japanese or don't even try? Why, some old-timers have milked a living in Japan for decades, but still know next to nothing about either the country or its language."

Hmm. This reminds me to have him ask our Japanese waitress for refills. "I mean, it's like they expect the whole nation to accommodate them. As if as Westerners they felt they deserved special treatment. How arrogant can you get!"

"Listen . . . " I drum my fingers. "If you don't order more beer right now, I'm leaving." Further lubricated, our conversation sloshes on.

"And these very same people spend all their time complaining about life in Japan! The nerve of them!" "Well, maybe they wouldn't," I point out, "if the weather wasn't so rotten."

He slams the table.

"Most of these whiners should pack a grip and hike aboard the first plane home! But one thing stops them! Can you guess?"

"Uh . . . " I pause. "They don't know what a 'grip' is?"

"No. They realize they couldn't cut it. They don't have the people skills to hold a decent job and back home no one treats them as special. There they would simply wallow about like bums."

"Wallowing bums . . . Sounds bad." "That's why most of them leave home in the first place." "What? They wallow out?"

His eyebrows bend. "Of course not. They flee on their own volition. 'Cause they realize they are as welcome as warts. They wander off in search of a place where they might qualify as something finer. But -- unfortunately -- a wart is a wart is a wart."

"Logical."

"Except in this country -- where every Westerner gets treated like the prettiest girl at the dance."

"Oh . . . " I think of the trains. "So that's why people stomp on my toes!"

He frowns. "Japanese over-indulge their Western guests -- no matter how goofy they look or act."

For the first time, I feel uncomfortable. "Define goofy," I say, but he doesn't hear me. "If I were from Asia or Africa, I'd be upset. Those people are expected to be competent. But all someone from North America or Europe needs is a Western face."

I stretch my neck. "Um, some people think I look sort of Asiatic. Not many, but some." "And," he bobs his head as if to tap home his final point. "Need I even mention the girls?"

I blink and tell him, yes, he needs to mention the girls.

"Some girls here are so enamored with the States in particular that they will fall for any American guy that comes along. No matter if he looks like a squirrel, thinks like a goose and acts like a pig.

"I mean, haven't you noticed all the great-looking Japanese chicks hanging on the arms of cross-eyed twits who probably have the words 'American reject' stamped on their butts."

I squirm in my seat. "In my case, I think what attracted my wife was my firm grasp of reality. Or perhaps . . ." I stop and pat myself as I try to find them. ". . . my muscles."

"Are Japanese girls blind or what??" "Well," I admit, "mine does wear contacts, but . . ." Then it hits me.

"Hey, wait a minute. You're not married. Neither are you exactly rolling in girlfriends." "So?" "As a matter of fact, I seem to recall Japanese women drop you so often your life story could be titled, 'Look Out Below!' "

He lifts his palms, "Hey, can I help it if I'm in the half of the community that has its act together? Japanese girls hate that."

"Tell me about this 'other' half."

"Well . . . you know . . . we're dynamic, efficient, cool. We could have ended up anywhere, but just happened to land in Japan. The truth is we don't need this country -- like the other losers do. We can get along wonderfully all by ourselves."

I lean at him. My eyebrows arch. "I'm going to ask you a question and I hope I get the right answer."

His face beads with sweat. "What?" "You are buying, right?" "Well . . . yeah." "Then . . ." I lean back. "I completely agree with you."

We click glasses. "To competence!" he cheers. At which point, he spills his drink. Leaving us both all wet.



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