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Saturday, July 15, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Me and me: those extraordinary twins


On his deathbed in 1910, Mark Twain supposedly mumbled about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Makes sense. Mark Twain/Sam Clemens: America's backwoods humorist turned classy novelist displayed a personality split as wide as anyone's.

Anyone, that is, not torn by two cultures.

Several months ago in this column, I tossed around a salad of an idea on how second language acquisition plays with personality change. But perhaps the change cuts much deeper than linguistics. Perhaps the poles of conflicting culture tug at us all. Perhaps each person with a foot in two lands has a split personality, a personality that pivots wildly about, depending on the setting. Perhaps we are all just a little bit . . . loony.

"Says here you're a serial killer."

The speaker is my wife. She has plugged my name into a Google search and learned that Thomas Dillon shot down five people in Ohio in the late 1980s and early '90s.

"That wasn't me," I tell her.

"How do you know?" she asks.

"Because I was in Japan at the time."

"You mean you have an alibi? With witnesses?"

I explain that I spent those years with a Japanese woman. To be more exact, I spent them with her.

And she says, "How do you know it was me?"

For a different Google search discovers that my wife -- or someone with her name -- is also a well-known marimba player.

"You could have been with that marimba woman instead. The two of you could have committed those crimes together, for all I know."

Rather than tell her she's nuts, I suddenly recall a night from my college days. I had returned home on break and rose to answer the telephone. Somehow the ringing had cut through the snores of both my parents to wake me up. On the other end was my grandmother. She was hysterical.

"Tom's dead!" she screamed.

"What?"

"Tom's dead! I saw it on the news! He crashed his car into a tree!"

"Grandma . . . listen. This is me. I am not dead."

The line went silent for several seconds before she asked . . . "How do you know?"

"See," says my wife. "My point precisely. How do you know that you didn't die and I didn't marry that other Tom Dillon?"

"The serial killer?"

"No, the one who hit the tree."

"But he's dead."

"No. One of you are dead. It could be you and it could be him."

"If I were dead, don't you think I'd know it?"

"Maybe not. Maybe this would seem like a dream to you. You come to Japan, fall in with a marimba player and then go about shooting people in Ohio. It even sounds like a dream."

"Well, if I were dead, then wouldn't you know it?"

"Sometimes when I wash your socks, I wonder."

I decide not to pursue her meaning on that. Instead, I push through the confusion at hand to reach a finer confusion beyond. There do indeed seem to be two of me, not including those shadowy figures who share my rather common name.

There is the corn-fed American half who grew up in a Midwestern town: the half who as a boy used to stretch out before the TV with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and giggle at the antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; the one who later wheeled around town in a beat-up Chevrolet with my best friend, cruising the "loop" -- from McDonald's to the A&W and back -- and searching the night for meaning, or if none could be found, girls; the one with a droopy mustache and shoulder-length hair who lip-synched to Bob Dylan, pitched slo-pitch softball and ran a cement mixer through college summers; the one later working in a necktie up at a blackboard, chalk in one hand and a dangling modifier in the other.

Is that me?

Or am I the half snarfing sushi under a blossoming cherry tree? The half edging nervously under a "kotatsu" as a family and their daughter share with me the delights of a Japanese hearth; the one then facing off against that daughter in a box-size apartment, matching her yell for yell, English for Japanese, over the rights, wrongs, ups and downs of our respective cultures; the one later marveling at how well tatami sops up even the worst of spills; the one dragging himself home after a long day's work and a mangling ride in a hot train to teach our children English at our kitchen table; the one reading a Japanese newspaper with bifocals sliding down his nose; the one still working at a blackboard, chalk in one hand and a loss of words in the other.

Or the one who keeps hopping back and forth between lands, ballyhooing and bashing both places, depending on the need.

"Which is me?" I ask.

"How should I know?" says my wife. "I'm too busy trying to make some sense of myself. Am I a Japanese girl from the rice paddies? Or a woman of the world, now married to a bald foreigner in a seed cap? Or am I that marimba player, with a concert schedule to fulfill and a serial killer on my trail?"

It's almost the plot of a novel. Or perhaps several novels. But, in a broader sense, aren't we are all lost twins? Doesn't each person everywhere have his or her own schisms to face, those shady gaps between the dreamed-up self and the half who does the dreaming? Yet at least other people have the luxury of doing this in one language and one culture.

"And," my wife notes, "while living with a partner of similar mind."

After over 25 year of marriage, I tell her, she and I have fairly similar minds.

"Be quiet." She raises a hand. "I do not converse with the dead. It's my policy."

I get a grip on both my selves and begin to mumble about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Meanwhile my wife pretends to play the marimba.

"It's not as hard as it looks," she says.

No, I tell her, I bet it's not.



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