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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
A little bit of telephone talk
"I see," I say. And then I say, "I see." And a few more times as well.
"I see. I see. I see."
"You say, 'I see,' too much," says my wife, who has been eavesdropping as I spoke with my boss via telephone — a brief conversation spiced with multiple "I see"s, which is my translation of the Japanese expression, "naruhodo." As in:
The boss relayed the reasons for a change in my work schedule and I offered back: "Naruhodo." Or "I see."
The delivery of which woke up the Japanese language teacher in my wife. She teaches for a living, but in most cases prefers not to spend instruction on her husband. Otherwise she would have no respite from work.
Especially because I kick Japanese about like a schoolboy with a tin can. Who can guess where it will fly?
Besides, she works for money and she knows I have none. Rather, I would tend to pay her with words. Like . . .
"Oh shutt up. And what's for supper?"
"There's that," she says. "Plus my professional pride. If you were to announce that I was your teacher, I'd have no choice but to leap under a bus."
Yet, this time she cannot control her teacherly spirit.
"It's your boss on the phone. He's the one explaining to you. To say 'naruhodo' makes it seem you who are receiving an explanation from an underling. Instead, you should be saying, 'Ah so desu ka.' Which in this case might also mean, 'Oh I see,' but of a humbler, more subservient nature."
I look at her and she looks at me. We all know what's coming. I tell her:
"Oh I see," she says. "You're being funny. But who knows if your boss was amused. After all these years, don't you think you should be better attuned to cultural nuances?"
I seek clarification . . . "Nuances" or "nuisances"?
"I am," I explain, "trying to get by. I don't need to hit a homer; I just want to get the bat on the ball. That's all."
"Even if it ends up foul? At least in person your body language and facial expressions help you communicate. But on the phone you are swinging away blind. The speaker on the other end might not follow the line of your words whatsoever."
I almost say, "I see," for there is truth to what she says. In person, I grin and bow and leave no doubt that I am connecting with the other speaker. Yet, on the phone . . .
The grin and bow keep on going as if by reflex. I bob up and down like a juiced up Dippy Bird. An act I cannot stop until the other speaker finally — and mercifully — hangs up.
"Well," I tell my wife, "I am not so sure about nuances, but if you could help me hang up faster, that would be a plus."
She has long been aware of my struggles to break free from telephone talks. And she tells me the solution is simple.
"All you need do is say, 'Odenwa arigato gozaimashita' — 'Thank you for calling' — in a clear voice, and that will signal to the other speaker that you are ending the conversation. It's that easy."
She then insists we practice. She will call and I must answer, in a sort of skit.
"Go ahead," she says. "Pick up the phone."
"I can't without a ringing noise."
"Then make one."
"No, you make one."
"I am not going to make a ringing noise."
"No ringing noise, no phone call."
"So make it!"
"You want me to grin, bow AND make a ringing noise? That's too much. Where's your sense of compromise?"
Her lips bunch up and her brows crinkle. For a moment she shakes, like a volcanic mountain about to burst. And then . . .
". . . rrring."
I cup one ear. "What's that? I think I hear a phone. Maybe in Korea."
She squeezes close, sticks her face to my ear and says . . .
"RRRING!" And then again . . . "RRRING!"
I can't answer soon enough. I feign lifting a receiver. "Hello?" I say.
"Hi. It's me."
"Thank you for calling," I tell her. And hang up.
"Boy, you were right! That was the easiest hang up ever!"
To which her answer is . . . "RRRING!"
I pick up again. "Hello?"
"It's me and don't you dare hang up! I'll be coming home late."
She growls and says, "So take the fish out of the freezer and let it thaw."
"Pizza, you say? Order pizza?"
"I did not say, 'Order pizza!' "
"Order pizza. Got it. Thank you for calling."
"DON'T HANG UP!"
She speaks with such force, I feign fumbling the phone and dropping it on the floor.
"Gosh. I think it broke. Now how will we order pizza?"
"This is hopeless," she says. "You are destined to be a Dippy Bird."
"I see," I say. I see, I see, I see.
Delivered in English. Which — to me — is a lot less nuanced.