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Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Talking (and talking) about talking


"Did I ever tell you about the time I was kidnapped by Gypsies?"

I am leaning at a bar with a foreign friend, both of us beer-breathed and shit-faced. He has interrupted an epic monologue on his daily life -- complete with meticulous details about his latest dream (He dreamt he had purchased apples, but when he got home, they were oranges. What could it mean?) to tell an anecdote from his past.

"Yes, I believe you have."

"Really? I don't tell that story often. When did you hear it?"

"I dunno. Maybe the first time we went drinking."

"Oh, but that was years ago. You gotta let me tell it again."

"And then I heard it the second time we went drinking. And then the third. And then once every time in between, except for last month, when you told it twice."

He sips beer and says, "Nah. You must have me confused with someone else. MY story goes like this . . . I was out buying apples . . . or maybe it was oranges -- I can't recall -- in Paris one day. Or wait . . . It could've been Marseilles. But at least it was in France. Or maybe Belgium. Anyway, somewhere in Europe . . ."

So he tells me his story AGAIN. I feel like I am caught in Mark Twain's tale of the old ram, where the teller of the yarn spins dizzily out of control, very soon forgetting his topic, his audience and all physical laws of time.

My friend -- I have diagnosed -- has a serious case of Wildmouth Fever, which is an ailment peculiar to veteran foreign residents of Japan. Many such people tend to be talkative, and then to forget what they have just said and hence say everything all over again, word for word. And then again. Get the picture?

I have always felt this is due to having been isolated from other native speakers for lengthy periods of time, as if the English were building up inside -- like pressure in a nuclear reactor -- so when the first foreign face drifts by, the language explodes in megatons of oft-repeated content. I recently asked another friend -- one with several decades in Japan -- if he had ever noticed the same phenomenon.

"Yeah, I have. It's a fact that many foreigners here will just yak and yak and yak. Thank goodness I have never been so afflicted. You know how it goes; they jaw about their families, their jobs, their hometowns and every teensy detail of their lackluster lives. Now, me, I'm from Dayton, which boasts the Wright Air Force base. Isn't that something! Then did you know Hall of Fame ballplayer Mike Schmidt is from Dayton? Mike Schmidt! Who hit 548 home runs! I saw him once at a restaurant. At least I think it was him. Anyway, when he was about to go, I stood up and yelled, 'Hi, Mike!' I did it like this! (He springs up and waves.) 'Hi, Mike!' And he actually nodded at me! Honest to God! I'm not kidding! Mike Schmidt nodded at me!"

Two hours later when I escape to catch the last train, he is still demonstrating -- for all who will listen -- his dramatic meeting with the man who might have been Mike Schmidt. He also expressed regrets at never having met Erma Bombeck, another Dayton native, to whom he told us (32 times) he would have instead blown a kiss and squeaked, "Hi, Erma!"

"What's your thought?" I ask my wife. "Why is it that so many foreigners here have mouths like the Mississippi delta? The silt just keeps on flowing, and often the exact same silt as a minute before."

"Aren't you forgetting the aging factor? People turn more talkative -- and repeat themselves -- as they get older. It's a sure sign that our friends are getting up there."

"So how come it hasn't happened to us, huh? How come we haven't become broken records too?"

"Aren't you forgetting the aging factor? People turn more talkative -- and repeat themselves -- as they get older. It's a sure sign that our friends are getting up there."

I tiptoe out before she can spin some tale of the time she met Mike Schmidt as he was about to be kidnapped by Gypsies.

"Most foreigners live in passive situations," says still another friend, this one younger but with similar observations to mine. "They cannot express themselves well in Japanese, so they hold their tongues and sit quietly more often than they'd like. Thus when they get the chance, their English blasts into orbit."

"Maybe, but you would think that they would also develop respectful listening skil --"

"Wait, wait! I'm not done! Haven't you ever noticed that foreigners who become talented in Japanese were often talkative in their own language first? Before they ever arrived? It's we quiet types who always struggle with the language and become introverted to the point that there comes a time when we can't prevent our English from erupting."

"Perhaps, but not at the expense of common court --"

"CAN'T YOU WAIT! I was pausing for dramatic effect, that's all! I'm not done, dammit! You just sit there and bob your head in worshipful agreement until they close the shop, OK?"

"But when do I --"

"GEEZ! Will you shuttup! I can hardly get a word in edgewise. I haven't even had a chance to talk about my day yet. It began with this dream I had where I had to shave my face with nothing but tweezers. The first hair cut rather easily, but the second was tougher, and then the third . . ."

So in the end I guess I too am one of those frustrated foreigners who sits in numb desperation for any opportunity to express myself in my lonesome native tongue.

Until, heh heh, I can catch myself a column reader, like you.

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


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