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Saturday, June 17, 2006
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
Those were the good old days
The other day I spied a foreign couple across the room in a Japanese restaurant. They were so new to Japan they bore an aura of green. Bright green. So bright, I had to squint.
I watched them drag the waitress outside so they could order by pointing at the plastic food. I watched them fumble around and drop more noodles in their laps than in their mouths. I watched them gush with glee as the lady at the next table offered exaggerated compliments on their awful chopstick skills. And I heard their strained "Domo arigato," with pronunciation so high and squeaky that I am surprised it didn't shatter my beer mug.
I found I couldn't look away. Why? Because I was jealous, that's why.
Yeah, so now I'm an old Japan hand. I can read katakana backward in a mirror. I can eat fish eggs and I can eat horsemeat -- both raw. I can pick just the right phrases to make a Japanese person suck their cavities straight from their teeth. And so on and so on.
I am not the bungling, snicker-at-the-"benjo" novice foreigner that I once was.
And I miss it, dammit. For those were the good old days.
It's often said that Japanese put on a better face for newbie guests than for those foreigners who have built their lives here. Yet that is not what I mean, for I suppose that's a truth the world over, not just in Japan. I don't feel any major shift in how I am being treated now as opposed to way back then.
I mean that the Japan I found when I first arrived was exciting. I was as dumb as a board, but what I saw popped my eyes open -- from grannies in kimono to the street hawkers calling, "Irrashai!" to the fleshy crowds at the public bath to the sizzle of yakitori skewers to the waves of youngsters in school uniforms and more. I was a stumblebum Columbus in a brave new world, yet with no thoughts of plunder.
Instead, I was in love. And like all lovers, I stood at the complete mercy of my beloved.
It didn't matter that I had no idea what I was doing or that I fit here like a bowling shirt at a black-tie dinner. Every nuance of the culture was intoxicating, like each wink and pose of a flirtatious sweetheart. Each minute demanded my complete attention. And life had never been finer.
Even making mistakes was fun. Once I addressed the student body of a rural junior high school and wore pink toilet slippers on stage the entire time. Beautifully ridiculous. That was the happy wonder of those days.
Of course, this love affair was intensified by my involvement with a real live Japanese girl, now my wife. The entire setting was one of surf-crashing adventure, with my fiancee and I at the prow of the speeding vessel. Where it was headed we didn't know, but it sure was fun getting there.
Life is good. I come home from a busy day and sip tea at the table with my wife. We talk about our kids. We talk about what we had for lunch. We talk about the weather. It is comfortable and cozy in every respect.
But the Japan adventure boat is no longer skipping the waves. The waters are much calmer now. So much so that I do not look out my window anymore and see a brave new world. Instead I see a peaceful land of streets, houses, neighbors and responsibilities. I see my home.
That scene offers a different set of blessings for which I am duly grateful. Yet when I chance upon a Japan neophyte and hear them flounder about in fractured Japanese or watch them pour soy sauce across their rice, I cannot help but smile.
And I hear that old Bob Seger line: "I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." Soon I am overcome with envy. The memories of my own ineptitude rise to the top and I wish I could relive them all again.
"It was fun, wasn't it?" I tell my wife. "Back in the days when I was a moron."
She eyes me from over her cup as she finishes her tea.
"Do you remember the time I smeared my hot dog with Japanese 'karashi,' thinking it was yellow mustard? And then was too embarrassed to do anything but eat it?"
"Yes, I remember. Your eyes almost fell out."
"Wasn't that great! And do you remember the time out in the sticks when I checked into that love hotel, all worn out from hiking and not knowing what kind of a place it was? Just me . . . my buddy . . . and his wife. The three of us together."
"Yes, I've heard you mention it," she says. "About 200 times."
"Boy, the looks we got from the old lady at the gate! I bet she talks about us even now!"
"I doubt it. Odds are she's dead."
"And she probably sat up at her wake to yak about us one more time. Those decadent foreigners!"
My wife yawns. "Or perhaps she forgot all about it."
"And then there was the time I fell in that farm pit, up to my neck in hog manure." I erase my smile. "I almost drowned, you know."
"Maybe you did. And all this is but a dream."
"Nah," I sigh. "This is real. But it can't compare with the good old days. Compared with then, this is merely living."
"There, there." She pats my hand. "For what it's worth, you'll always be as dumb as a board to me."
And that makes me feel better . . . for a while.
Yet I soon squeeze on our toilet slippers and go stalk about the yard.
Hunting once again for the glory of the good old days.
To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to email@example.com