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Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The new foreigner in my 'hood


The new foreigner in my neighborhood is . . . me.

I am new. At least from the chin up.

Not so long ago I wrote a column about losing my hair. Well, now I have found it. On my face. I took the suggestion of one of my sons and grew a beard.

A full beard. I now look like Yosemite Sam. I even have the beady eyes.

How this came about is not nearly as interesting as the effect it has had. After over 30 years here, I have been reborn as a foreign resident.

In recent years I had become part of the wallpaper, that colorless foreign dude down the street. Now I have leapt to the forefront.

I am like that object hidden in the patterns of an optical illusion. You didn't see me; now you do.

But first, the "why." My answer: Why not?

The holiday season had arrived and I was bored. And growing hair was more entertaining than watching NHK.

It was not my first such foray. Back in the '70s, I was the proud owner of a droopy mustache. My future wife didn't mind; my future mother-in-law did. So I shaved.

In the decades that followed, I sometimes flirted with facial hair. But the growth never progressed past my wife's initial critiques. Five-day growth: "Eeeeuw." Ten-day growth: "Eeeeeeeeuw." And so on.

But this time the gap on top offset the fuzz below. I overcame the early "eeeuws" and — viola! — I became reborn.

And now I am noticed. People do double takes. Triple takes. I hear necks snap.

Who knows what they're thinking? Maybe . . .

"First I figured it was that goofy looking foreign guy. Then I thought it was some goofy looking bear. And then I realized it WAS that goofy looking foreign guy, only now he appears to be homeless."

Old friends have been startled as well. One even blurted a different name, confusing me, it seemed, with a Biblical figure.

"No, no," I had to explain. "It's me — Tom Dillon. Not him."

But the biggest change is that I sense people are somehow kinder to my hairier operating system.

Store clerks used to look away and start to hum. Now they hop right up and ask what they can do. People to whom I ask directions now show more awareness for my clunky Japanese. They seem to listen harder and smile wider. Almost as if they enjoyed helping me.

My analysis of this is that, rather than a character from the Bible, I better resemble someone from a cartoon. A reject from the drawing board of Disney. A sort of cross between Jiminy Cricket and a Wookie.

And we all know how much Japanese adore cartoons.

It is a mistake to think this country fuels itself on rice, soy sauce and raw fish. The nation's much more serious craving is for "cuteness." Mickey, Hello Kitty, AKB48 and on and on — Japan just can't get enough.

And now Japan has me as well. My new cartoon face provides an instant fix for cute addiction. I have become a hairy magnet for all such junkies.

My wife's analysis is somewhat different.

"Japanese are simply kind to their elders. And that beard makes you look like Father Time. Or his granddad."

True, the beard is not golden brown. But neither is it autumn gray. It's more like . . . cotton ball white.

At least on the chin. And when I raise that chin, I may indeed be creating a "Gramps" effect.

I notice this most when on the trains. If I stand in front of the "silver seats," people will pop up like toasted bread. Even though I am not nearly silver seat age.

And I have found it doesn't have to be a silver seat. I can stand anywhere and the people sitting before me will begin to shudder with guilt. They soon beg me to take their place. And the harder I protest, the more they beg.

It's a sort of superpower. I have become Beardman, Lord of the Seats!

I told this all to a colleague, one with similar long years in Japan, a person who had also commented on how the limelight in Japan always seems to fall on new foreigners, not old-timers like us.

"So," I said, "if you want to stand out better, here's your solution — grow a beard! I guarantee success!"

My friend paused. And then said . . . "But I'm a woman."

Talk about not getting noticed. Still, I held to my argument: a beard would change her life.

Yet, her general idea was spot on: a beard is not for everyone.

In fact, I'm not sure it's for me. I am still somewhat stunned to see my face in the mirror and once or twice have even begged myself to take a seat.

So who knows. I could shave it all off.

And then be reborn again.



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