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Sunday, Aug. 4, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The world according to a certified oddball


Once you finally know them, most people are . . . nice. A rosy sentiment paraphrased from Atticus Finch in the fiction classic "To Kill a Mockingbird." Words I now twist to match my own barbed view of life in Japan.

"Once you finally know them, most people are . . . weird. "In fact, this entire country is popping with oddballs."

My wife pauses at this comment and wrenches her face. "Oh really? And shall we discuss whose mother leaves her TV on when she departs for work -- just in case her dog wants to watch."

"OK," I concede. "But all mothers are a bit weird." I nudge her, a mother of two. She continues. "And now that the dog is too old to walk, your mother instead takes it for a daily drive."

"OK, OK," I concede some more. "Maybe when it comes to weirdness, my mother is something of a leader.

"Then there's your friend who likes to eat peanut butter with apples. But instead of first spreading the peanut butter on the apple, she smears it across her lips."

"Well, it sticks better that way," I explain, now feeling somewhat defensive. "People like to smooch her, too."

"Then," my wife adds, "there's the guy who, rather than move his hand up and down when he brushes his teeth, holds the toothbrush stationary and moves his head."

Now she has gone too far. I snarl with my fangs bared. "So what? My teeth are white, aren't they?"

"My point is," she concludes, "yours is not the well-baked side of our union. Therefore, how can you call my countrymen weird?"

Because, I tell her, my experience says so. Or maybe foreigners here just attract eccentrics naturally -- the way white shirts draw spaghetti sauce.

"Birds of a feather . . .," she says.
"Opposites attract . . .," I say.

And then remind her of some of the folks we have known through the years. Like: . . . The doctor who believed my belly-button lint was being produced from within. This man begged me to tape my navel shut as a test. . . . The mother who received our phone number from her son, who was our neighbor in the States. "Did he bathe today?" she would ask in regular calls from Japan. "Could you please run next door and check?"

. . . The girl who presented her ex-boyfriend with a bill for having the interior of her car shampooed. "I wanted to wash away your memory," she told him. And then she wanted him to pay. And he did.

. . . The academic who would routinely show up at our door past midnight with reams of English paperwork to be checked. "Thank goodness I found you home!" she would say.

. . . The man who used to scoop his jumbo-size goldfish out from its tiny aquarium, drop it into a plastic bag and then carry it to a small pond each morning so the fish could get some exercise. Sometimes he would search the pond for hours to get it back.

. . . The man who wore a ring of hair on his finger. He got this by snapping long strands off the locks of young ladies in crowded trains -- when the girls were pushed in too tight to stop him.

. . . The man who wrote me a lengthy letter raving about the cultural insensitivity of his non-Japanese co-worker. His central complaint? "I gave Jeff a Christmas gift, but he didn't give one back!"

. . . The young man who would come and sit in our living room for hours and hours without speaking. We would conduct our family business around him and ask him to leave at bedtime.

. . . The man who told me one reason his beloved wife was "too good for him" was because she never complained when he slapped her -- "even when she didn't deserve it."

. . . Then there was the exchange student in the States who disappeared into her dorm room for days and days. She didn't answer the phone and when the dorm superintendent tried his key, he found the door bolted from the inside.

He brought me over and we pounded on the door, shouted the girl's name and even tossed pebbles at her window -- all to no avail.

Fearing the worst, the superintendent called the police. A cop arrived and helped us batter down the door. To find the girl sitting calmly on her bed. She smiled like a cat. "Oh? Were you calling me? I guess I didn't hear."

This was the same girl who would pull out her split ends and keep the hair piled in a tray by her bed. On the day we broke in, the loose pile was knee-high.

Most of these people I did not just meet. They hung around me, like I was the Pied Piper of Peculiarity.

"Maybe you are," says my wife -- and again I bared my teeth.

"For Japan can be hard on those who don't mesh with society. To many such people, life overseas appears happier, whether that is true or not. They thus polish their language skills and gravitate toward foreigners.

"The flip side," she continues, "is that lots of foreigners leave their homelands for the same reason: They don't fit in. So in Japan we often get this premium blend of weird and weirder."

"Does this mean," I ask, drawing the natural conclusion, "that we were made for each other?"

"Well . . . perhaps so!" she answers, then winks and takes my hand.

What's this? A romantic moment? How very nice!

"Quick," I tell her. "Stretch your lips. I'll go fetch the peanut butter."



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