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Saturday, Aug. 20, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Lessons learned over the rainbow


Late August marks the anniversary of my arrival in Japan, this time totaling 28 years. So the question would seem to be, "What have you learned, Dorothy, in your long stay over the rainbow?"

Of course, I lack the youthful innocence of Dorothy Gale (not to mention her plumbing), and rather than Glinda the Good Witch of the North, the question-asker would appear to be none other than the Wizard of Odd himself, yours truly.

Meaning I must answer my very own poser. Not hard. For I have learned a lot. Ranging from the mundane to the sublime.

How to walk: This is the mundane part. Back home in my version of Kansas, people drive cars. For example, when you need to hop to the neighborhood store to get some diet soda to go with your triple-cheese lasagna, you drive. Or when you want to visit your Weight Watchers circle on the next block, you drive. Walking is an indoor thing. When outside, you drive.

Yet Japan is largely a foot-first nation. True, the streets are often choked with cars, but most Japanese hoof or bike local distances with no hesitation, and through the years I have absorbed this propensity smoothly enough. Only 15 minutes away? No problem. I'll walk it.

In the States when I suggest walking outdoors for even one minute, folks paint me with a "You must be nuts!" look. Fortunately, it doesn't take that much paint, as I am a lot thinner than most Americans.

How to be ambiguous: In this harmony-craving nation, where words are painstakingly weighed and conflict cautiously avoided, I have come to appreciate the convenience of never quite saying what I mean. Or maybe never quite meaning what I say.

Sort of, anyhow, in a roundabout kind of way. Depending on the situation and what other people think. After first considering all my options and explaining that I am firm on what I believe, though nothing is ever set.

However, if you should disagree, I might not be ambiguous and indecisive at all. It might only seem that way. If you know what I mean.

How to divide trash: When in the States, I am often befuddled by soft drink cans.

"Where do I put this?" I ask a hotel clerk.

"Why not try the trash?"

"But there's wastepaper in there."

"Yes, that's why we call it trash."

After almost three decades in this land, I have come to readily separate burnable and nonburnable trash.

"Rubbish," says my wife. "If I had 10 yen for every time you mixed up plastic and paper, I'd have enough coin to buy my own landfill -- and then fill it too!"

Perhaps she would even have enough space for leftover hyperbole.

"Rubbish," I too pronounce, and then suggest that the environment might be better off if Americans separated burnables and nonburnables.

She paints my skinnier frame with a nonburnable look and I retort with, "I mean maybe, sort of, kind of, more or less!" Ambiguity, you see, can be borderless.

How to be self-aware: Ever had the sensation you were being eyeballed? Well, I've lived with that feeling now for 28 years.

"It's your hair," says my wife. "Most men go bald in spots, not streaks."

Other times she suggests it's my fashion. Or lack of it. Or the nonambiguous way I walk. Yet I think it might be because I'm a foreigner.

I admit I felt this more often in the old days when I lived in rural Kyushu. Here in the crunch of Tokyo, there are far too many foreigners for anyone to take special note. But it's too late. My "gaijin" senses are finely developed and they tingle in any situation in which I find myself conspicuous as an outsider. Which is . . . well . . . anytime.

Sometimes this attention works to my advantage, as Japanese can be very kind to guests. Other times it works to my disadvantage, as some people don't like guests. And either way it works to my frustration, for -- frankly -- after 28 years I am tired of being a guest. Or maybe just tired of being aware that I am a guest.

There is no place like home: Dorothy's words ring just as true in Tokyo as in the Emerald City of Oz. Yet after 28 years, I find I have trouble focusing on exactly where home is.

I grew up in a corn-fed Midwestern town where many of the familiar faces and landmarks are still the same. Except I don't quite fit in the way I used to.

I have a comfortable life in Japan and roll through my days without many worries. However . . . those gaijin senses are always tingling. In the end I often wonder into which container I should separate myself.

"You have," my wife says, "raised your ambiguity to new heights."

At times it seems our only real home is the one that we have created, our personal melding of East and West. For years now we have been fused -- and confused -- together. It is that one word -- "together" -- that provides life's anchor.

How to see the little picture: Much of the beauty of America lies in the grandeur of its size and scope, a beauty of both land and spirit. Japan's attraction, meanwhile, rests in its intricacy, its nuances, its poses, its precision, its obsession with details, its enduring love of the "little."

There are moments when such a world seems overcrafted and too refined. Still, 28 years ago, I'm not quite sure I even noticed the artistry of life around me.

"You're being ambiguous and vague again," notes my little woman.

To make things clear I say: "I'm just glad I came. No regrets whatsoever."

She paints me with a slow smile and then tells me to take out the rubbish.

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


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