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Saturday, April 19, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The instant off switch -- it's all in your head


On the train, the guy to my left is telling a friend the following:

"What a goofy-looking 'gaijin.' What say we go tie him to a tree and force-feed him some 'natto'?"

Meanwhile, on my other side a woman is saying:

"So then I fix my hairdresser in the eye and tell her: 'Oh yeah? You call that a maniacal scream? Well, just listen to this!' "

And the couple standing in front of me are whispering:

"Stupid earthlings. How easy it is to blend in among them."

"But look, Zorkette! You forgot your skirt again! Your tail is showing!"

OK . . . maybe each of these conversations was instead rather normal.

Yet how would I know? For I have flipped that magical switch inside the skull of each foreign resident. And presto! Just like that, all Japanese around me is turned . . . OFF!

Despite long years here, my Japanese language skills are not the best. I make about one error per syllable and depend upon sheer volume to communicate -- the thought being that if I talk a lot, sooner or later something will make sense.

However, my ears are predictably much keener than my tongue and -- when I want to -- I can understand a great deal.

I repeat . . . when I want to.

Most times I don't. And I find this inner "off button" remarkably useful.

At work, colleagues will blabber all around me and -- invariably -- someone will end up on the phone right by my desk, earnestly discussing perhaps the end of the world or, at least, the end of the Japanese economy.

"How can you sit there and write," someone will ask, "with all this ceaseless chatter?"

"Chatter? What chatter?" For with my off switch, I don't hear a thing.

My train car then can be a cage of giggly girls, raucous boys and jabbering "o-basans" while I sit blissfully immune.

Of course, if the conductor should announce that our express is scheduled to plunge into the bay and that those passengers hoping to survive should step off at the next stop, I admit to a problem. Yet so far, so good.

Then at home my wife can rattle out neighborhood gossip and all I need do is plug in timely but hollow comments like "Is that so?" or "Yeah, you could be right" and she will never know that not a word she said has reached my brain. Sometimes we can go on like this for hours, or even days -- and all the while her Japanese is tuned out cold.

To punch me into conversation, all she need do is but peep one word of English. Yet she often finds me more agreeable as a semicomatose stooge.

The only problem with this magic off button is that it will not work with my native tongue.

In a room full of cackling Japanese, a single comment in English will draw my attention the way bananas attract apes. No matter what else I am doing, I find my soul -- and soon my body too -- leaning irresistibly toward the English speaker. This condition has been no doubt born from living so long away from home. I hear my native language and all at once my fog is gone and I am connected again to conversation. More than connected -- riveted.

Often this results in a sort of "Pied Piper syndrome," where the person speaking English can lead me across the room as if I were on rollers.

At no place is this more evident than on trips to the States. English is suddenly everywhere and I have no off button whatsoever. Every sentence, every word strikes home. In an airport or shopping mall, conversations in the crowd can spin me about like a top.

I cannot tune these conversations out. What's worse, many times I feel compelled to join in.

"Listen," hushes the woman in the seat behind me at a movie theater -- and instantly my ears pick up.

"Betty is seeing that Jones boy again. You know, the one with the tattoo of Elvis."

"Gosh," says her husband. "What does she see in that guy?"

They continue, but I am soon consumed with a question that I must have answered.

"Sorry to interrupt, but . . . do you mean what does she see in the boy? Or in Elvis?"

They stare at me.

"I mean, I'm not sure about the boy, but . . . c'mon . . . is Elvis that bad? People say he's still around, you know." I lower my voice. "Maybe even here now."

They stare at me more.

I try to smooth things over by offering a sip of my drink. They smile and politely decline . . . and then move to another section.

For a moment I am tempted to follow, but the film soon starts and I am mesmerized by the English.

Often I find time in the States fatiguing. Without my off switch, my brain will gun on eight cylinders every waking moment. How nice to return to Japan, where I can sink into my normal, mindless -- and restful -- funk.

Only to have my wife lecture me.

"Some day this habit of flipping off Japanese will get you in trouble. If Japan is now your home, you need to be more involved, more sensitive. Open your ears! Join the rest of society! It will do you good!"

I nod in agreement . . . but my eyes are glazed. Yet she seems totally satisfied by my response to her Japanese sermon. Which is, of course . . .

"Is that so? Yeah, you could be right."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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