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Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Sixteen square feet of ignorance, and other trivia


"Tell me something I don't know," said my first son.

So I did.

The average woman has 16 sq. feet of skin. A cockroach can run at 3.4 mph. Buffalo, N.Y., lies south of the French Riviera. The last surviving passenger pigeon, before they all became extinct, was named Martha.

You see, he and I had been engaged in one of those forums that the outside world deems "quarrels" and we families call "discussions." We had been "discussing" contemporary Japanese society and I was trying to tell him about group dynamics, peer pressure and hierarchical relationships. He squinted at me like I was a bull casually waltzing through a china shop and reminded me that this was his culture, not mine. He had been raised here, gone to school here and was now fleshing out a master's degree on these very topics.

Oh.

. . . But did he know that the paper clip was invented in Norway? That Frank Dickens, son of novelist Charles Dickens, once worked as a Royal Canadian Mountie? That the youngest hole-in-one ever was by a 3-year-old on a 65-yard par three?

His point, however, was painfully well taken. After almost three decades in this land, I kind of know the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the "pi's and ku's" of Japanese culture. But at the same time I kind of don't. My feet are splashing in the water, but I cannot truly swim.

The nasty flip side is this: After almost three decades away from my home culture, I'm not sure if I know that anymore either. America has become somewhat of a foreign land in which I am often a Google-eyed outsider, dependent on the Internet for input.

I have become adrift between countries, hoping to know two, but not fully understanding either. My total knowledge often boils down to a sticky scum of dusty facts, textbook answers and nutritionless trivia.

Like . . . sexual intercourse burns off 360 calories per hour. The electric toaster was developed before presliced bread. Twenty-five percent of the world's cows live in India. Blondes have more hair -- not fun -- than either brunettes or redheads.

In America often even the trivia lets me down.

"Who played Drew Carey on 'The Drew Carey Show'?"

"Um . . ." I search the ceiling for answers. "Kevin Bacon?"

"No. What is Angelina Jolie's connection with Lara Croft?"

"Um . . . they both starred in movies with Kevin Bacon?"

"No. What was the title of Britney Spear's first album?"

"Um . . . I have to say Kevin Bacon one more time."

And then the quizzing relative will shake his or her head and pin me with a comment like: "Uncle Tom! You don't know anything, do you?"

For a while I try arguing back. I argue that I know Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. That I know how many Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears. That I know what year the Vietnam War ended. That I know al-Qaeda has not been linked to prewar Iraq.

"Yeah, but you don't know anything important!"

I might argue more, but at that point the "discussion" is happily diverted as I am rescued by another relative who says: "Now, now, don't be too hard on him. Uncle Tom's been away. I'm sure he knows Japan real well."

Wanna bet?

My knowledge of Japan has been stunted by my difficulties with the language -- an excellent excuse, thank you, fortified by the fact that there are 2,166 total pages of Japanese lexical items in my notebook-size Kenkyusha dictionary, not to mention 1,945 government-designated Chinese characters. Add in two millennia of Japanese history and diversity in commerce, agriculture, industry and arts, and I think it's a wonder anyone can tell you anything about this culture. Even though I do know that . . .

Tokyo has 37,000 crows. Mount Fuji last erupted in 1708. Plastic food displays were invented by a man from Gifu. The Ueno Zoo monorail is 300 meters long.

"How can this have happened?" I ask my wife. "Wasn't our marriage supposed to bridge two lands? How did we wind up knowing so little?"

"We do bridge two lands," she says. "Only we do it collectively, not one-by-one. You are the support on the American end, I am at the Japanese end and our kids are the posts in-between. Together we have it covered."

"What about the bridge surface? And the cables?"

Her eyes shift right and left. "You mean you want more kids?"

I wish to avoid this "discussion," so I tell her, no, I just want a better analogy. One that I can agree with. Either that or our collective bridge is overdue for a knowledge repair, especially at the ends. For example, after all these years of marriage to an American, I ask her what she really knows about my country.

"Let's see . . . George Washington chopped down a cherry tree with his big blue ox, Babe Ruth. This was followed by several wars, the invention of apple pie, and then the birth of Elvis Presley. Or something like that."

I suppose we are never too old to learn more. After all, Benjamin Franklin "discovered" the nature of lightning at age 46. Umberto Eco wrote his first novel at age 48. And Joseph Guillotin invented his shaving device at age 51.

"Yes, but don't we deserve a bit more credit for where we've come? OK, so we splash about. Yet treading water means staying afloat, right? There are jobs to do, bills to pay, life to live. Maybe we don't know as much as we could or should," says my wife. "But we know enough and that counts. We get by -- and far better than the average person, too."

Hmm. The average person -- I have heard -- passes a full pint of gas every single day.

So maybe, just maybe, she's right.

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


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