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Saturday, Feb. 22, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Time proves relevant for aging Japan hands


"Oh really?" the girl says to me -- with the "r" stretched so painfully the word sounds as if it has been ripped from the back of her throat.

Her eyes, too, seem to expand as if being pushed from within, by a brain cortex that now throbs with warning. "Nerd alert!" it wails. "Break conversation and escape to toilet now!"

All I did was to answer her question, perhaps the most common poser placed from one expat to another.

"So . . . how long have you been in Japan?"

Till this point we had been getting along fine. We had nitpicked at Japanese politicians and business and reached the heady conclusion that the whole country was in a dizzy mess, kind of like America without the flag-waving.

Then she asked and I answered . . .

"Twenty-three years," I said.

A number that classified me not as a clever partner in conversation, but rather as a crusty creature from the bottom of a "gaijin" fossil pit.

"Excuse me," she says with a smile around a voice slippery with evasion, "I just remembered. . . . I have diarrhea." Then she scoots straight for the john.

OK, perhaps all she says is, "I have to go." Whatever. I do not hear. I am lost in the echo of my own words.

Twenty-three years! Where have they gone?

For just like that, I can snap my memories and recall how it felt to hear some foreigner confess to having lived here for 20-plus years.

Why, they were lost souls! Wandering ships with a misplaced anchor, too far from home in both distance and time to ever return.

And not just them. When I heard others admit to 10 years or even a modest five, I would crack a vertebra in head-shaking disbelief.

"How can you possibly have stayed here so long?"

It wouldn't happen to me, I swore. I would be in and out -- hop, skip and then jump. I would do all the Japan "things" and then blast off, taking only my recollections with me.

Not that I didn't like it here; it's just that I planned on seeing much more of the world -- the sooner, in fact, the better. Like Bogey and Paris, I figured would always have Japan . . . in my heart.

At this point, enter cute girl with manga-esque Japanese eyes.

"Aren't you glad you met me?" she often says.

Yeah. I am. But that still doesn't explain what happened to all those years.

I sort of remember the first few. I sort of recall telling people that, sure enough, I had lived here four years, five years, six years.

The next thing I knew I was saying, 21, 22 and now 23.

And I think: You don't need to be Einstein to understand that time is relative. When I was younger, the phrase "20 years" sounded like a sentence to Alcatraz. Now it seems as fleeting as a summer butterfly.

So, I wonder, am I now one of those lost souls that I used to disparage? Do I sail in circles with no true harbor and no set destination?

And am I guilty of regaling newbies with dusty tales of an older Japan, in the days when we gaijin were all fabulously foreign and even we knew it?

With lines like: "You guys today have it easy. When I first came, the fish was so raw it was served underwater!"

Or: "This train's not crowded! Why, I can remember being pressed so close to other passengers that it took us three city blocks to peel apart."

Or: "You call this humid? Heck, back in the old days, the humidity was so high it was almost a fashion. It was air you could wear."

Still, I have trouble cataloging myself as an antique from ages past. For my memory of the hoary Japan hands of yesteryear is that they were all quite accomplished. They knew Japan inside out and could gaggle Japanese like geese.

Not me. The longer I live here, it seems the less I know. Then my Japanese skills eroded before they even had time to build. Not only am I a lost ship, I have a leak in my linguistic bulkhead.

Meanwhile, the younger arrivals appear to be more in synch with a globalizing Japan that no longer does double takes at foreigners.

I wonder, I tell my wife, if the luster hasn't skipped a generation, that between the shine of the postwar pioneers and the sparkle of the recent go-getters, there hasn't been some sort of hole.

In which I sit.

"Silly boy," says my wife. "You fail to recognize two fundamental points.

"First, no one really understands Japan, not the vets of the past nor the stars of today. Second -- and more important -- that's OK, because Japan doesn't want to be understood."

Then she winks and adds, "Only loved."

Back at the party, the diarrhea girl pokes out of the can to be once again trapped in a chair next to mine.

"Gosh," she announces. "I'm never gonna stay here 23 years. I'm not even gonna stay here two."

"I guess you don't like Japan," I say.

"No, no. . . . In fact, I love it here."

My eyebrows jerk and I speak fast before she runs to escape -- or escapes to run, depending on your point of view.

"Better watch out," I tell her. "For that's all it takes."

Just ask us old-timers. We know.



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