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Saturday, Oct. 4, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Surf is always up for Internet addicts


At least I have a decent excuse.

Sure, it is not one of the classic, all-time great excuses, like:

"Not tonight. I have a headache." Or . . .

"My dog ate my homework." Or . . .

"No, no, I love raw fish. I'm just not hungry."

Yet it is still fabulously functional. Especially in my situation. Which is: I am a castaway expatriate cut off from my family, my home culture and my native language by thousands and thousands of wet ocean miles. So . . .

I of course cannot help surfing the Internet day and night. It is my cyber-link to the English world and the life I left behind.

"Oh, right," says my wife. "You need a link to the English world like Bill Gates needs another bank account."

Hmm. Could this be an oblique reference to the fact that I work with other foreigners? That I listen to English music and radio, watch English TV and videos, read an English paper and speak nothing but English at home to people who speak it right back? I ponder a snappy comeback to these flimsy allegations, yet in the end can only clutch my computer and howl . . .

"Don't take this away! I need it! Do you hear? I need it!"

She snaps that I spend so much time camped before the computer that dust bunnies have adopted both my feet. She further claims that I check my e-mail every few minutes, that I elbow others away from the screen for the slightest pretext (like for checking my mail), that during meals I try to click on food instead of forking it, and then suggests that maybe . . .

(At this point, I had to interrupt her to check my mail.)

. . . we should establish a time-sharing method, with each family member given only so many slots a day with the computer.

"You," she insisted, "have become an Internet addict!"

That's when I hung out my excuse. I don't know how it stacks against those waved by Internet addicts elsewhere, but mine is -- or perhaps "was" -- typeset in truth.

For there was a day in this country when I did feel cut off from the world. I close my eyes and my memories scroll forever upward: Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away . . .

I lived in Kyushu and was as green as the grassy slopes of nearby Mount Aso. I understood barking dogs better than I then followed Japanese, and the other foreigners around could be counted on the fingers of either hand. There were no English radio programs, no bilingual TV casts, no video shops. Phone calls to anywhere cost five figures' worth of yen. Even the English papers arrived a full day late.

I felt like Robinson Crusoe, surrounded by Japanese instead of sea.

And -- sure -- things have changed dramatically since, with broadband Internet being the latest and greatest pipeline to the information resources of the world.

Yet, motivated by my memories, I suck up updates like the info-deprived youth I once was. Besides, I am still a kid at heart, and no one loves his toys as much as an older boy.

"So you can't take this away!"

"But do you have to look at the news so often?"

"It's a big world. Who knows when something dramatic might happen? Like Madonna kissing Britney again."

"But every two minutes?"

"I don't look every two minutes! . . . Sometimes I wait four or five."

"And must you always check your mail?"

I list the different time zones where we have family, friends or possible DNA linkage. Somewhere, somebody is always typing, and who knows when mail might arrive.

She eyes me. "But all you get is spam."

"So? Someone has to get rid of it, right?" For a moment then, we play one of those trees-falling-in-the-forest games. If there is no one to delete spam, she argues, does it really exist?

"I don't have time for such silliness," I yell back. "I have to check my mail!"

Yet she persists. So to preserve family harmony, I relinquish my seat before the Macintosh. The cobwebs fly and my knees creak. She takes my place with a grin.

"But I get it back as soon as you're done!"

She laughs -- like a witch before a caldron -- and drips drool on the keyboard.

"It's mine! All mine!"

"But I get it back!"

"First," she limbers her wrists, "I'm going to e-mail everyone I know!"

"OK, but then I get it back!"

"Next I'm going to visit all the Web sites in the universe!"

Fortunately -- for me -- my wife has no understanding of computers. To her such machines are an enchanted combo of hocus-pocus, science fiction and wishful thinking -- sort of like the Japanese economy. So, similar to a novice driver at the steering wheel, she shouts for my advice every few minutes.

"What do I do now? I'm clicking, but it won't go where I want!"

"You have to click on a button or something. Not just randomly."

She feels the monitor. "But there are no buttons!"

Soon she has an error box.

"What does this mean?"

I push up my glasses and study the screen. "This? Well . . . if I read the kanji right, it means the computer is about launch cruise missiles at the neighbors. Better let me take over."

But we've been married too long, and she doesn't trick like she used to. By the time I get my seat back, hours have passed.

Then my son bustles in.

"I have to type my term paper! I need the computer -- now!"

"Nice try," I tell him. "But you've gotta have a better excuse than that."

For we Internet addicts do not budge from our seats so easily.

Besides, I tell him, I have to check my mail.



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