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Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

She can't find her way, but she found me


My wife looks normal, both at a distance and up close -- though, like with most people, if you draw too close, all you can see is a blur.

Anyhow, the truth is she is about as near to normal as I am to being named Mr. Trapezoids. For she has a peculiar glitch in her Japanese brain that can cause her to short-circuit at a moment's notice -- in fact, each and every time she opens our front door.

Picture me now in a sensitivity session. The chairs are circled. All around brawny men with hair on their arms offer me tissues and pat me on the back. Bricklayers, oil riggers, cattle ranchers -- they are macho men, all.

"Out with it," one whispers softly. "It'll feel so much better to clear the air."

"My wife," I sniffle, "my wife . . . is . . . " I float from moon-eyed face to moon-eyed face, then . . . bare my miserable soul.

"My wife is hoko onchi!"

The men wince in unison. Eyes of care shift into orbs of pain. Lips tremble. People cough, retch, pass out. One man mutters, "Poor devil. How can you live?"

Yes, my dear wife is hoko onchi, spectacularly so. Which is why I always hug her tight whenever she leaves the house -- for I am never, ever sure if she'll find her way home again!

In a straight sense, the Japanese term "hoko onchi" refers to having no sense of direction. But the crooked sense is much more fun, as hoko means "direction" and onchi means "tone-deaf."

So when it comes to directions, my wife can't carry a tune. She has no ear for bearings. Unless someone holds her hand, she can't even hum herself around the block.

"Can, too!" she cracks.

Item: My wife once dragged me to this "cute little bookstore" she had visited with friends. We got off the train and tramped all around the station for hours with no luck.

"I don't understand!" she screeched. "It was just here yesterday!!"

Turns out she had the wrong station . . . on the wrong train line . . . in the wrong town. Although in her defense, the names of the stations did share one vowel in common.

Item: Arranging a rendezvous at a far-off station, I stressed she should get off at the back of the train. I even performed a clever skit, acting out the direction of her train and the mighty difference between front and back.

I waited at the back of the train for an hour before deciding to cross to the other end. Where she shook me and exclaimed, "Where have you been!?"

Item: On a vacation, we would skip outside our hotel and always hop on the same bus. A simple procedure: Open hotel door, turn right, walk 10 strides to bus stop. We did this together a half-dozen times.

One sunny day I was running a tad late and she said she'd wait for me out by the bus. I still hit the lobby in time to see her open the door and . . . turn left.

I cranked my neck up the street to see her frantically searching for the bus stop, forever wandering farther and farther away.

"Not only are you off-key, wayfaring-wise," I shout, "you take the cry 'Get lost!' as a personal challenge."

"How stupid can you be!?" she taunts, as if tossing me a challenge of my own. "I have never been lost, not even once! . . . There were just some moments when I didn't know where I was."

For years I used to take this directional confusion as a male/female thing, tangible proof, albeit sexist, that the mind-sets of Japanese and Westerners were on the same plane. A sort of navigational affidavit on the universality of the human race.

Then my wife gave birth to two boys, one of whom can find his way through the darkest forest aided with but a penlight and another who gets lost rolling over in bed.

"It's you," I croon to my wife. "It's your blood. You are the repository for the genes of some lost civilization."

"What I don't understand," she glares, "is how you and most other men can take such pride in locating some odd destination leagues from our house, when inside that house you can't spot things sitting right before your nose!"

"Can, too!" I snap.

"Item: You sifted through the fridge for five minutes trying to find the pickles," she says, "when all the while you held the jar in your hand."

"That means nothing!"

"Item: Your keys spend more time lost than found. So does your wallet. So does your watch. So do your marbles."

I dart her with the ultimate rebuttal: "Oh, yeah!"

"The fact is, you have trouble finding your socks even when they're on your feet!"

I glance down and think, "Hmm. Now if I can only find my keys."

"Having no sense of direction has no relation to gender or my genes!"

So saying, she stomps off to our bedroom and slams the door. Only to find she has instead entered the pantry.

Later, when we have made up and she is so close she is nothing but a blur, I confess I find my wife's hoko onchi-ness attractive. It is one of those indelible gifts, like her smile and her sense of humor, that all add up to her.

Besides, I tell her, if she can't find things outside and I can't find them inside, we not only match, we need each other.

"Nice try," she nuzzles. "But I still won't find your keys."



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