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Saturday, June 19, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Doom and despair -- worry, worry, everywhere


"If there's one thing I've learned from my life in Japan," I tell my wife over a pot of black coffee, "it's how to worry."

She frames me with narrow eyes. "Oh, right. You needed to learn how to worry like a fish needs to learn how to swim. You were born worrying. You can't blame that on Japan."

And just like that, we are off . . . in another his/her battle over our mixed cultures -- one that I soon worry I will lose.

"I mean," my wife continues, "you are more than just a typical Type A stressed-out personality. You are a Type A Double XL. You wring your hands about everything under the sun and -- considering your fear of rogue asteroids -- things beyond the sun as well. With you, panic does not come in sporadic attacks, it comes in parades."

"Ha!" I counter. "Panic? Stress? Hyperanxiety? Why, I can handle those things as well as any man alive!" And then I spill coffee down my shirt.

She rolls her eyes as I wipe myself with a napkin that -- unfortunately -- has already been smeared with jam. Still, I launch my defense.

"To start, I am not now, nor have I ever been, afraid of asteroids. Why should I be? A killer earthquake is bound to get us first. Either that or SARS. Or the bird flu. Or mad cow disease. Of course, once the economy melts, any such calamity might be merciful."

"Asteroids, hemorrhoids, whatever -- you're a minstrel of never-ending doom."

I shift on my seat -- uncomfortably -- and say it didn't used to be that way, that Japan is to worrywarts what helium is to balloons.

"Listen," I tell her, "and you can almost hear it. Tick-tick-tick-tick. This entire nation runs at the demand of a clock: 'Gotta catch my train, gotta catch my bus, gonna be late for work, gonna be late for my meeting, gonna be late for tomorrow.' . . . Ever watch Prime Minister Koizumi walk? Well, it's not a walk; it's a sprint. That's Japan."

She taps her nails on the table. Tap-tap-tap-tap.

"And it's not just the wristwatch worship. People bow to the calendar as well. 'The test must be passed! The job must be found! Now is the time. Now, now, NOW!' "

"You'd better go wash that stain," she says. "You'd better hurry."

"See! We're always racing the clock! But what if I'm proud to be a slob? What if I just wanna lean back and smell the coffee?"

"And what if people think you're an idiot?"

"Which brings me to my second point. If the time pinch doesn't jack your anxieties, then the probing eyes of the masses will. In Japan, those critiquing eyes are everywhere -- from colleagues to neighbors to the crowd on the street. Each group places you inside parameters that no normal person can fill but absolutely anyone can judge. You have your up relationships, your down relationships and then your lateral relationships, each as tremulous as tofu on a fork. With all of these linked together by the minefield of polite Japanese speech.

"And in that minefield, you're a marching band."

"Right!" I slap the table for emphasis and accidentally flip my spoon across the room.

"More than that, as a foreign resident I exist inside a petri dish. Everyone studies me while I routinely mangle the lingo and lifestyle. If, for example, my waitress hesitates, I can't help but wonder, 'Gosh . . . did I glitch on "ippai" and "oppai" again, and instead of a drink, ask for her breast?' Talk about stress!"

"In such a case, she would surely understand."

"Surely understand what? That I'm a pervert?"

"No, that you need a drink."

"OK, but I don't need to pay for it. Japan's cost of living feeds my insecurities while it starves my wallet. I'm forever light on cash. Then if all these factors don't make me bite my nails down to my knuckles, there then comes one more -- the chief culprit of all my anxiety."

"Which is: you're totally paranoid."

"No, not me! The nation! Japan feasts on fretfulness. The media continually pumps out stories of fear. Falling stocks! Rising unemployment! Crime, delinquency, aging, crummy test scores, bad harvests! Marauding crows! Bears prowling down from the mountains for food!"

"Bears? You mean . . . like the one behind you now!?"

For a second I grip the table -- then sneer and say, "Oh and like I'm gonna fall for that!" Then I spin around and check.

"See. You have nothing to worry about. Japan and the Japanese are no less nervously inclined than any people any place else. You just have to relax. Besides, what comes, comes. Haven't you ever heard that tomorrow will take care of itself? It's better to focus on today."

"Yeah, because tomorrow we'll probably all get cell phone poisoning and drop dead. Or lose our minds and become Tokyo Giants fans. Or Japanese science will discover a direct link between cancer and all forms of food -- except 'natto.' "

"Yet for the moment -- despite that smear on your shirt -- aren't you well off? It seems to me the only real thing you have to worry about it that you worry too much. And all that will gain you is gray hair and ulcers."

"It's not just me," I repeat again as I pour myself another cup and splash coffee on my tie. "It's Japan. This place is to apprehension what the Sahara Desert is to sand."

"Well," she says. "if that's how you feel, there might be but one solution. Perhaps we should consider moving someplace else."

"Nah," I tell her, as I grind my tie with the same napkin. "We don't dare do that!"

"And why not?"

"Can't you see?" I tell her. "I worry if I'd fit in!"

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


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