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Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Some cups of revisionist history


There's this guy I drink morning coffee with. Like me, he came to Japan as a young man and now wonders where the decades have flown. We sit at the window and watch the people rush past, so much like the years of our lives.

"I am thinking," he says, "of writing my memoirs."

Something — perhaps the way I spit out my coffee — tells him I'm surprised.

"What? You don't think I should?"

I put my shock into words. "You . . . can spell?"

"No, but that's why they made computers. And with my life, I'll fill an entire hard drive, I'm sure."

Shock part two: "You . . . had a life? I mean . . . one worth writing about?"

"Did I have a life!?" His words climb like a hot air balloon. "Did I have a life!?"

"Did you?"

"Did I!" And so he starts.

"When I first arrived, Westerners were so rare here we stood out like circus clowns. And soon every company and every school was eager to hire its very own clown. Anyone could get a job."

"Not like now," I comment.

"No, now people insist their clowns be trained. But back then Japan was a frontier. And we were all Daniel Boones."

"Daniel Boone circus clowns."

"That's right and I tell you . . ." He closes his eyes in a steamy remembrance. "I had to beat off the girls like flies."

I feel an urge to explain that Daniel Boone had that problem with bears, not girls. Instead, I offer . . .

"And we all know how flies like trash."

He opens his eyes. "Yes and I figure my girl stories alone will fill up two or three trashy chapters. Good for sales. And then I'll get into the real meat."

Which is?

"Before I arrived, Japan was a struggling nation, striving to rise from the ashes of war. And then I got here . . . and things got better."

I spit more coffee.

He blinks at me. "Well, it's true."

"Right. In my case, I arrived late at night, and a few hours later the sun came up. But — would you believe it? — not one person gave me credit."

"Now wait . . ." He leans my way. "Are you saying my presence here had no effect?"

I lean back at him and weigh my words carefully. Before saying . . .

"Duuh."

He waves me off.

"Think what you want, but I believe that if I had stayed in America, my life would have been just as pivotal. Who knows what might have happened? We might have put a man on Mars. Or figured out nuclear fission. Or cloned Linda Ronstadt. The possibilities are endless and I plan to write them all."

I nod. "Oh I get it. Your memoirs won't really be about you, per se. They'll be about you in an alternate universe."

He nods back, but then corrects me. "Alternate universes. But mostly I'll focus on my alternate life in Japan. How I mastered the language, how I fit perfectly into Japanese society, how I aged gracefully here without a care in the world."

I see his game and get into it. "So . . . aren't you that guy who can read and write kanji backwards in his sleep?"

"Yes, that's me. But only in my sleep."

"And aren't you that guy who completely retooled the Japanese bureaucracy? No more alien registrations, no more reentry permits, no more desk clerks ruling the world."

"Yes, that's me. I think. To be sure, you'll have to fill out this form in triplicate and check back next week. Be sure that you stamp it right."

"And aren't you the guy who plans to retire at a beach house and live the life of Riley on interest income from his Japanese savings?"

"Yes, that's me. Only it won't be a 'house.' It will be more like a 'box.' And it won't be at the beach. It'll be in a high-rise. And it won't be life. It will be subsistence."

"So when's this book coming out? I'll want to grab a copy before they're gone."

"Well," he says. "I suppose I have to write it first. And before that I have to finish my coffee."

He takes a half-sip and we gaze out the window at the Tokyoites hiking past on the sidewalk, all with the zombie faces of the commuter dead.

"One day," he says, "all these people are going to wonder where their lives went, just like us. But do you know the difference?"

He has teed it up and now he swings away.

"They won't have our rich alternate pasts, those visions of what might have happened had we never come."

"Not true. Every life has its what ifs. No matter where you start."

"But they haven't had the twists of a life abroad. Where every day is a rip-snorter, packed with thrilling action."

Or so he says.

As we lean on our elbows, yawn, and watch the world zoom by.



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