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Saturday, Dec. 4, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A little knowledge can be a silly thing


One hitch about living long years in Japan is that sooner or later people expect you to know something about it. Not folks from home, mind you, for they mostly practice that ignorance is bliss. A la:

Friend: What's life like in Japan?

You: Well, Japan's rather congested, but the public transportation is --

Friend: Say, do you get "American Idol" there? Don't you just love it?

Dropping in some spice doesn't help much either.

Friend: Tell me about Japan.

You: OK. Most Japanese are zombies and they eat their guests whole.

Friend: That's nice. But is it hot there like it is here?

No, the people who truly expect you to know something are those who have shared the same experiences -- fellow foreigners. Some end up knowing a lot about this land, while most can never know enough. At times, however, I sense an undercurrent of rivalry among some graybeard residents, a rip current that can leave the overzealous among us all wet, as with the following trio of drips . . .

I sit in a bar with two friends, whom we'll call Moe and Larry. After an eye to the menu, I push away my curly locks and wave my hand for the waitress.

"Moron," spits Moe. "Raising your hand's not the way to summon the waitress! Just yell, 'SUMIMASEN!' "

"No, no, no. If you really want results," says Larry, "you gotta yell, 'OI!' "

"SUMIMASEN!" "OIII!"

Frantic staffers dash from all sides with their eyes popped out like bubble gum.

"See," smirks Larry. "It was my 'oi' that got 'em."

"No, no, my 'sumimasen!' "

"No, my 'oi!' "

I interrupt this heady debate by inching my finger across the menu, pointing being my favorite way to order.

"Aw, you're hopeless," snaps Moe. He yanks the menu and rattles off a half-dozen dishes in guttural Japanese, projected with thespian gusto.

"I didn't get that last one," says the waitress. Having found no fire, her colleagues have faded away.

"Oh, too fast for you, eh?" So he reads it again . . . and again. When finally he has to point, his ears sizzle with embarrassment. "Yeah, but that 'kanji' was difficult."

Larry grins in lieu of sticking out his tongue. "I used to struggle with it myself . . . years ago. And I love that dish. Good choice." To me, however, the character looks like a millipede playing Twister.

"Bring us some sake as well." Larry then requests a rare brew from Niigata.

"We don't have it."

So he asks for another, even more rare, from Nagano. Then another and another, rolling out the names like a list of honored kings.

"If it's not on the menu, we don't have it." The waitress flashes a smile . . . one sharp enough to scalp.

"Showoff," hisses Moe. Then, as the girl puts us down for three flasks of everyman's Gekkeikan, he scoots away to the restroom.

Once Moe's gone, Larry leans in close. "Gad, what pronunciation! He sounds like a duck playing a kazoo!"

I figure I sound fowl myself, but before I can comment, the waitress hustles back with our drinks. I reach for my flask and Larry slaps my hand.

"What are you doing? This is Japan! First, you have to admire your cup!" He lifts his to the table light and sighs from the cockles of his Japanophile soul.

"Ahhh. How exquisite! Judging from the density of the glaze, I'd say 'Arita yaki' from Saga. An excellent piece at that!"

Moe returns, but now Larry trips to the toilet as well. So I flip his cup upside down to read . . . "Made in Hong Kong."

Moe chuckles/snorts/growls/spits. "The only thing that guy knows about life in Japan is how to use a pit toilet. And that's because he's full of it. Did you hear his pronunciation? He sounds like a cat having a rectal exam."

"But he always gets it in the end. I mean . . . he communicates."

"So? Compared to us, he's a ninny. Why, the other day we were discussing history and he placed the Fujiwara period in the Kamakura Era."

I gasp, just to be polite. For I myself put TV bimbo Norika Fujiwara in the Heisei Era, with her peak being those cute J-Phone commercials. Not to mention, "Can you Chu-hi?"

Larry returns just as the waitress brings our food. The mystery dish does indeed resemble millipedes playing Twister . . . under Jello.

We swallow in unison and glance away. "Ah yes," Larry clears his throat. "Exactly as I remember."

"Remember?" says the waitress. "But no one's ever ordered this before. You guys are the first."

"Um, I had it elsewhere."

"But it's the cook's invention."

"I mean, I had something similar."

"Whatever," she goes on. "Just tell me how it tastes. We all want to know."

She leaves and Moe and I shove the dish to Larry. He mops sweat beads from his face, cracks apart his chopsticks and dives in.

"Mmm. Better than I remember! Try it!"

Moe cannot be outdone. He wolfs down an even larger portion. "Yeah, it's . . . just . . . heavenly."

Then they both bolt for the toilet . . . and I am left alone.

I summon the waitress -- with my hand.

"Could you take this away? The smell is burning my eyes."

"Won't your friends miss it?" At which point, she and I enter a small agreement.

When Larry and Moe stagger back, I pat my stomach.

"How yummy! Too bad I finished it!"

They exhale and Moe says, "I'd order more, but I had a big lunch."

"Me too," adds Larry. Then he scrubs the inside of his mouth with his towel.

At last, we clink our cups and raise them high in a toast.

"To the Japan we know so well!"

If only in our dreams. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

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


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