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Saturday, July 24, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A few ifs and thens, Kipling style


Have you ever given serious thought about what might have happened if Rudyard Kipling had lived in Japan instead of India?

Neither have I.

In fact, I haven't had a serious thought in years. But no matter where Kipling lived, I feel I can still add a few Japanese-style "thens" to his iconic poem, "If."

Which is about "manhood." With the cherry-picked portions below being more about "gaijin-hood" and workaday life in Japan.

"If," as the poem goes, "you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . ."

Then clearly you have misunderstood the Japanese. Some nuance has zipped past, leaving you unaware and calm, while all those around now want to boot you back across the ocean — literally.

For example, perhaps you have just addressed the company's top client with an inappropriate verb. Something better reserved for a yakuza hoodlum.

And then, when the man bit his tongue and — as Japanese will — gave you a nice compliment, you turned to the room and announced with a grin that your colleagues had taught you everything.

Of course, the opposite is also true . . .

If you have lost your head, when all about you are keeping cool but pegging you as a nutcase . . .

Then you have again misunderstood the Japanese.

Like, perhaps you thought the client was politely asking to fondle your bosom. When all he really wanted was to sit down.

What he said: "suwarasete." What you heard: "sawarasete." What you did: hauled back and slapped him.

It's something you'll laugh about later. Much later. At your next job.

More Kipling: "If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . ."

Then you have only been here a short while. Be patient. You will start to doubt yourself soon enough.

You need to acquire a certain level of knowledge first. Once you know how little you know, then the doubts will come.

Cultural depth can be a marvelous thing. But it's also like an abyss. It's when you realize you can't see the bottom that you first become leery of your footing.

Kipling: "If you can wait and not be tired with waiting . . ."

Then the chances are you've fallen asleep on the train. And will arrive two hours late for work.

Kipling: "If you can dream and not make dreams your master. . ."

Then you work for a Japanese company and know full well who your true master is.

Kipling: "If you can think and not make thoughts your aim . . ."

Then you can join in those mindless small talk games that grease most Japanese relationships. You can also write silly newspaper columns.

Kipling: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters as just the same . . ."

Then you've no doubt have a Japanese savings account. Where interest rates always play the tortoise, no matter if the economy is a hare or a dead horse.

Paced by this poke-along tortoise, it seems the disasters are never so grim and the triumphs never so glorious. And in either case, the bank usually gives free tissues. In case you want to cry, I suppose.

Kipling: "If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss . . ."

Then you probably play the Takara Lottery. And why not?

For while the odds that you'll hit it big are proverbial (slim or none), they still beat your chances of living forever. Which is what you'll need to do if you expect your bank interest to one day add up.

Kipling: "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone . . ."

Then you can work overtime just like everyone else. Notice there is no mention of "brain." That is because, with enough overtime, you grow numb from the neck up.

Kipling: "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue . . ."

Then you have no career in sales. Management either.

And forget the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up. If you can't tell a few white lies and learn to turn your head at appropriate moments, then you will start at the bottom and work your way down.

Kipling: "If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you . . ."

Then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

And you've escaped the fiery hell of what Japanese call ningen kankei. A hell that, in the words of Kipling's younger and Frencher fellow Nobel Prize winner, Jean Paul Sartre, is merely this: "other people."

Kipling: "If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run . . ."

Then you are as busy as the next guy. Welcome to Japan.

A greeting that Kipling himself heard at least twice, as he stopped in on short trips. And IF he had stayed longer . . .

Then — who knows — maybe we'd have no "If" at all.



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