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Saturday, July 8, 2006


On the train, the English teacher is 'out'

I often hear foreigners complain that Japanese people will not sit next to them on the train. The perception is that this is some form of discrimination, or perhaps more simply, that we just plain smell bad. Or maybe foreigners feel this is a form of ostracizing, leaving them feel all alone.

News photo
Amy Chavez tries a change of dress to discourage strangers from striking up conversations with her. PAUL HOOGLAND PHOTO

I wonder it it's not our own insecurity that provokes these feelings. Perhaps deep down inside, we fear that we really are what the Japanese think we are: "wa"-less gaijin! After all, few gaijin are ready to give up their individuality to join the Japanese way, a life based on harmony through sacrifice and compromise.

Besides, with all the congested trains in Japan, is someone not sitting next to us really something to complain about? I think not. Especially because my problem seems to be the opposite.

Someone always sits down next to me, even if the entire train car is empty. I used to think train rides were nice long periods of solace and peace winding through the bucolic countryside, a conceivable misperception that comes from watching too many NHK specials about Japanese trains. Well, I can tell you that country trains are not like that. The reality is that as soon as I sit down, someone will seek me out.

It all starts when someone boards the train and gives a cursory look around at all the empty seats. Suddenly, his eyes widen with delight as he fixes his gaze on the foreigner sitting by the window.

His evil smile accompanies his dart for the seat next to me. I look out the window and ignore him, but alas, within seconds, he sits down and says, "Haro, my naimu izu Masahiro, pureezu kauru me Masa!"

I think I'm going to start carrying a little sign with me, like Lucy on Peanuts, that reads, "The English teacher is out."

Other times the person who sits next to me happens to be someone I know. So what if I can't remember exactly where I know them from.

I suppose when you live in one place long enough you're bound to have seen, sat next to, or been pressed up against almost everyone on the local train at some point.

Just the other day I found myself on a standing room only rush-hour train. In the last few seconds before the train left, as more and more people squeezed onto the train, and just when the last few shrills from the platform speaker indicated the train doors were going to close, 10 high school students pushed their way on.

Now my arms were pinned to my sides, my feet were somewhere in back of me, and I was leaning into the guy in front of me, my breasts were crushed into his back. Suddenly the guy looked around and said, "Amy-san!" "Oh, sorry!" I said to my friend's husband.

Of all the people who sit next to me on the train, half of them I know, half of them I don't, and the other half just want to practice their English. That means that 150 percent of my time is occupied by talking to people on the train.

I've been known to bolt from my seat and accost the next o-baa-chan who gets on the train, "Dozo, okake ni natte kudasai" (Please, have this seat!). But even this doesn't always work, because if you know Japanese o-baa-chans, they usually don't accept seats given up ostensibly in their honor.

"I couldn't possibly take your seat," she'll say, with a twinkle in her eye that says, "I know you're a run-down English teacher who has been battered and assaulted by the English language and suffered "kancho" by little kids all day long and you really need a rest!"

"But, but, but," you wish you could explain, "this guy is going to inflict more language pain on me, and look, he has bad teeth, and probably bad breath. He may even be one of those 40-year-old virgins you hear about! I beg you to take my seat!"

But of course, you can't say this. She just looks at you and smiles as if what she really wants to say is, "Well dear, if you don't want to sit next to that guy, what makes you think I do?"

But instead, she says what all o-baa-chans say to foreigners: "Nihongo o-jouzu desu ne!" (Your Japanese is so good!) And this too, is just a tactic to start up a conversation in Japanese with you.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a curious Japanese person and a private detective.

One time a woman sat down next to me and started asking me all kinds of personal questions in Japanese. When I expressed a little irritation by saying "Mo ii desu!" (Enough!) she changed the subject to the guy sitting next to me, and wanted to know everything about him instead.

Forget the "English Teacher is Out" sign, I'm going to start selling that train seat next to me!

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