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Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

An encounter of the old timer and the kid


I don't notice much during my hours of commuting across the Kanto Plain and at the same time I notice everything. For it's mostly all the same . . .

The same accordion crunch of passengers . . . The same draped adds for tattle-tale tabloids, over-priced condos, and last-chance lotteries . . . And the same blur of suburban scenery, house after house after house, veined by narrow asphalt streets.

But when this foreigner with freckles and a cornfield grin bumped in alongside, suddenly things were not the same. And, of course, I noticed.

"Well, hey," he said. "How you doing?"

I had never seen the guy before in my life. Yet, life is short and my train rides are long. Plus, I enjoy playing the friendly game as well as anyone. So I dog-eared my copy of "Ulysses" and offered a "Hey" back at him.

Our conversation soon matched the sway of the train car. His words rolled in and mine rolled back. And in between came things I couldn't say.

"How long you been here?" he asked. And when we next learned I had arrived five years before he was born, he said . . .

"Man, that's forever. I could never stay here that long."

But forever, I yearned to say, passes rather quickly. Even the arrow metaphor doesn't have the proper zip. Time is more like a page. You're young, you turn the page and you're old, just like that. Forever? Why, it's no longer than a ride on a train. I was leaning on a strap in a Japanese train three decades past and I'm still doing the same today.

"Just like you now," I felt like telling him. "So look out."

"You must be fluent in Japanese then, right? How's your kanji?"

Per cue, I played down any ability in language. Yet my practiced humility must have seemed insincere, for my new friend assumed I was camouflaging talent. The truth, however, lay in the other direction. Considering my 30 years of residence, my Japanese stinks. Still, he tested me:

"OK, so like . . . What's that sign say, there?"

"That? It's an ad for diarrhea. I mean . . . the medicine."

"Wow! You're good!"

Of course, I could have told him it was an ad for hair spray, or for foot powder, or for seltzer. Or for anything. How would he have known? I could have said it was a recent regulation making illiteracy a crime. If it weren't for the drawing of a stomach.

"I'm studying too . . . A little." He then thumped my copy of Ulysses and in Japanese told me it was a book. He found that amusing and laughed.

I recalled my own initial clumsiness with the language. Which has never gone away really. When did it flip over? From an amusement to an embarrassment? A switch too far back to remember.

"So," he said. "You married?" And in a brief exchange we established I was.

"I wouldn't mind having a Japanese wife," he said. "Or at least a girlfriend. I hear they're nice."

I smiled, hoping he'd stop there.

"I hear they'll do anything to oblige. You just have to ask."

A line that stuck up like the proverbial nail — shiny and demanding. Should I tap it down gently? Or sledgehammer it to smithereens?

For a moment I worked at arranging words to explain that every marriage is cross-cultural — with Japanese wives delivering culture shock with the best of them.

Yet in the end I settled on just a silly grin, hopefully somewhat sly.

"But I don't got any girlfriend so far. Not in six weeks."

I glanced about, certain he had intended this for someone nearby. But the train girls that day were more interested in cell phones than men.

"What are you? Like, a teacher?"

"Like one, yes."

"Me too. I just got my first full-time job. The students are cute but quiet. Are they like that always?"

I told him, I thought so. But I could only speak for the last 30 years.

"Oh," he said, and then delivered a sharp profanity, drawn by the sudden awareness that we were at his stop. He shouldered through crowd and out the door, leaving me with only a quick . . .

"See you."

My book grew heavy in my hand as the train gained new momentum. For I felt certain I'd never see him again. And that sorrowed me.

Because in many ways I wasn't talking to some raw young visitor to Japan. I was conversing with myself three decades past. And that person is gone.

Naive. Ignorant. Misguided. But with just enough energy and goodwill to balance it out.

A person stepping to adventure and not even aware when he was stumbling.

Gone out the door forever. Not to come back.

Oh how I envied that young man. For his indeed were the good old days.



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