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Saturday, May 26, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

In the darkness of our times


One night after visiting friends, I hopped on the local bus for a ride home. At the very first stop, the other passengers — a cane-clutching obaasan and a mother with her pre-schooler — stepped off, leaving me all alone as the bus barreled through the dark.

Alone, that is, except for the driver, who sat far ahead of me in green-uniformed silence, now my personal chauffeur into the maze of west Tokyo. A recorded female voice announced place names at which we never stopped, for there was never anyone waiting to climb on board. Up front, the same names scrolled by on the announcement panel as the bus pushed onward into the night.

Me, my driver and darkness. In stretches I didn't even need to close my eyes to imagine I was not in Japan. The road curved and wound up and down tree-lined hills where, beyond the streetlights and a warm glow of houses below, the only thing observable was black night.

It could have been the Illinois of my youth or anywhere else in the whole wide world. The night draped us with a seclusion that I have found rare in my years in Japan.

The driver probably thought nothing of it, no doubt unaware that his sole passenger was a foreigner, as out of water in this setting perhaps as a salmon flopping down a city street.

But me, the passenger, I thought many things — I thought that instead of stepping from the bus to find my wife preparing a Japanese supper of steaming rice and salted fish, I might be soon getting off at my mother's house and in a moment see her rise from her easy chair and hear her dog yapping out a welcome.

I thought that maybe my lonesome driver and I might banter out a conversation — in my language, not his — as if we were rolling down some street in some other existence, not in Tokyo. Not a profound conversation, mind you. Instead something familiar and mundane and thus comforting.

"Nice night, huh? Hope it won't rain tomorrow."

"Yeah, but we could use it. Be good for the corn."

And I thought maybe I had never come to Japan. That maybe I was riding in some twilight crease in the universe where one world was true and the other but an eye-blink of my imagination, and not long decades of life in a culture far from my home.

Yet, a new announcement soon popped my whimsy and yanked me back from clouds of dream to the black of reality.

In Japanese, the female voice said:

"The bus company is ever vigilant in efforts to prevent terrorism. Please report any suspicious person or package to the driver at once."

Of course, I had no one to report, other than myself, and I seemed not so sinister — at least from my eyes. So I sat bemused by the insanity of that announcement here, on this little-used bus line on Tokyo's suburban fringe, where most passengers were elderly residents who didn't drive — an announcement the bus company surely repeated hundreds of times each day.

As if terrorists considered this sputtering bus an attractive button in the game of world politics. As if somewhere in the night an evil network was conniving to forsake all other strikes and blow me and my driver into that great depot in the sky.

Any random glance at the news tells me I should never make fun of terrorists. But the frequency of such safety announcements here in Nowheresville often makes me think that terrorists are making fun of us — in that we devote too much energy to areas that do not need such devotion.

I swallowed a sigh, realizing that, while but a moment before I had been lost in a fantasy voyage that could have been anywhere, what had pulled me back to here and now was a stabbing reminder that our world of multi-cultures is indeed united by darkness. Not by friendship, good will or shared humanity, but by the darkness of our times.

The female voice announced my stop and I pushed the buzzer. In a moment, the driver had shifted gears and the bus had hissed to a halt.

I staggered forward with the momentum of the brakes and fished out coins for my ride. The driver, in a peaked hat, murmured thanks without looking my way.

That is, until I told him, "Don't worry. Your bus is safe. I found nothing suspicious on board."

Which made him pick up his head and look me straight in the eye. He paused — a scrawny Japanese gentlemen and me a scrawnier American guy — and then he smiled, perhaps for a moment crossing cultures and joining me in my humanity.

Or perhaps just pleased to see me leave.

The bus then motored away and I stepped briskly through the remaining darkness for the protecting lights of my home.



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