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Saturday, May 30, 2009


A look at the outside and the in

"Honne and tatemae" are terms that many feel are linchpinned to the Japanese psyche.

The first — honne — refers to the intimate truth of the soul, one's uttermost honest feelings, the rough skin under all the powder and rouge.

The second — tatemae — is the face one shows to the world. That toothy grin that perhaps hides one's desire to bite. Analogous to the aluminum siding that helps the house gleam on the surface, while the inside bursts with termites.

One wrinkle to these terms is that many Japanese feel that theirs is the only culture to be so Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish.

Some Japanese can be goofy that way. Like those who believe Japan is the only land with four seasons. Or those that claim the Japanese language is so tough that not even Japanese can speak it well. A claim they always communicate in sparkling Japanese.

But every culture has honne and tatemae. It's as human as flatulence. Which could mean that some people are more human than others.

I, for example, have a lot of . . . honne and tatemae. It waltzes through my life like a New York debutant, smiling while her partner tromps upon her foot. Tatemae cancels out the honne. At least from the outside.

But oh if only someone could peek on the inside . . .

I stand picking at stale munchies as the only foreigner at the party, when I notice this troll of a fellow edging my way and fidgeting with his plate. I catch the body language at once. He's going to trap me in the corner and practice his English.

So I gaze the other way and pray for rescue. Or that perhaps some construction crane will topple in the wind and rip the building in half. Maybe if I focus my willpower, the wind will blow and a crane will fall and this man will be sucked into the chasm. Or I will. Anything to get away. Maybe . . .

Yes? Oh, how do you do? Nice to meet you. Why, yes, it's a splendid party. Just delightful. I agree. Have you tried the rice crackers? Superb, aren't they? Good napkins too. Oh, no, I don't mind. Not at all. And your English sounds quite fluent to me. As clear as crystal.

But if the letter "L" had life, you'd be wanted for murder. And are those vowels in your mouth? Or marbles? I've heard better sounds from forks jammed in the disposal. Yet I enjoy the way you spit when you speak. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine I am on a distant beach being sprayed by surf. And not caught in this corner.

My hometown? Chicago, kind of. Oh yes, that's right. Chicago was home to Al Capone. You know well. No, I never met him. Not once. Unfortunately. That's been a while ago. Oh? You have been to Vancouver? For 10 days? No wonder you speak English so well.

And it's a wonder the Canadians let you escape. They are sensitive people and don't care to see any language butchered, let alone one of their own. If you'd been there any longer, I am sure they would have fed you to the bears. Bears are not sensitive, you see. They will eat anyone. Even someone with a necktie as bright as yours.

Oh, you teach English. I should have guessed. At your home. To small children. It sounds fascinating. Well . . . I am busy. But sure. Sometime, if it worked out, I'd enjoy meeting your students. I bet they're cute. And, yes, I'd love to speak with them and let them practice.

Just about as much as I'd love to take a power drill to my knee. I can't believe people pay you money to teach. Are you sure the money's real? Maybe the entire neighborhood is playing you for a joke. I'd check if I were you.

What? You have to go? So soon? Oh, too bad! I'll just have to eat all this great food myself. Uh, sorry, I don't have a name card. But thanks for yours. I'll be sure to get in touch. I'm glad we met. It was nice talking to you.

What luck! I was just about to throw myself on my chopsticks. I'll just drop h is card on the table. Who knows? Maybe someone will eat it. It looks better than the crackers. Probably is too. Now, how to get out of here?

Oh, you're back! You misread your wristwatch! Ha, ha. Yes, I do that all the time. You have another hour? Wonderful. No, wait! I'll get you more crackers myself. You just stay here. No, no. It's my pleasure. Honest. . . .

Or as honest as my tatemae will allow.

My honne, on the other hand, hopes the only thing I have to kill is an hour.

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