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Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
When the past catches up
"Ha ha! I can't believe it's you!"
The man extends his hand as if pointing a pistol. I spin around, just to check, but there is no mistaking. The target is me.
He wrenches my wrist. "How long has it been, I wonder? Years and years!"
I pump my arm to match his. "Oh yes! Decades! Centuries! Eons!"
"Ha ha!" he says again. And we stand there in the subway corridor, shaking hands and staring at each other. Until he adds: "You have no idea who I am, do you?"
"Ha ha!" I offer back. And then say . . . "No."
For I have never seen him before in my life. Yet, he stands a dead ringer for that Japanese Everyman that haunts the trains each day: the blue suit, the defeated hairline, the limp briefcase, along with the pudding waistline and squinty eyes of a man who spends too much time in front of a computer.
I know the look. Ten minutes ago I might have been elbow-to-elbow with him on the train.
"You taught me English in high school."
He tells me his name. He tells me my name. He tells me the name of classmates, the school, the years.
To which each time I answer: "Oh." For I remember none of it. Except my name.
And the name of the school. It was indeed eons ago. I have not taught high school since.
"Were you the boy," I say, "who placed the tack on my chair?"
"The one who punched the principal?"
"The one who dug up bodies and tried to reanimate the dead?"
". . . What?"
I try to smile him off. For if I can't remember, at least I can paint him with a thick coat of imagination.
"Actually," he says, "you don't know it, but you changed my life."
Uh oh. Suddenly I sense trouble. I have been in Japan a long time and have a sharpened sense of victimhood. When something goes wrong, it's always the foreigner's fault . . . isn't it?
"You must have the wrong guy. I've never change a life. Shoes, shorts, socks, even diapers, but never a life."
"No, it was you. You gave me advice that made all the difference."
I begin to wish I had taken the other subway. I might have been home by now.
"I loved English, but was too afraid to speak out. I was always worried about mixing 'R's and 'L's."
"You mean 'L's and 'R's?"
He pauses. "But you said to forget about making mistakes. And just speak. So I did."
The punch line? He hasn't stopped speaking since.
He tells me his life story. He went to college. He majored in English. He studied abroad. He came back. He got a job in a mid-sized company. As a clerk. And in only 20 years time he has risen to be a mid-level manager.
"I owe everything to you."
Wow. What an impact. Who knows? Without my advice, he might be trapped in some ordinary job.
"And I have two children."
I interrupt, fearing he might pin the kids on me too. Or his 30-year mortgage. For what else could be left? A family dog? High blood pressure? In-laws from hell?
"Well, it's been great seeing you . . ."
But now he asks about me.
"Me? Oh I'm still changing lives. One paycheck at a time."
"Are you still teaching students about 'L's and 'R's?"
I blink. "You mean 'R's and 'L's?"
He blinks back. "You know, about speaking out?"
"No. Not at all. Now I say if you can't get it right, why not try math? The math teachers all speak Japanese and math will lead to a better job."
"Ha ha! I see you haven't lost your sense of humor!"
No. All I've lost is my memory, I tell him. And my hair.
Even funnier is that I only cast back upon my life when I was young. True, at the time I didn't have much past to recall. Yet this relationship, that relationship, stateside events and various happenings and so on drew me like a magnet. The future — wide open and sparkling with opportunity — failed to command my attention.
"Now it's the opposite. The past is richly layered with experiences and people — both good and bad — but I don't dwell upon it much. And my future now has all the expectancy of a soap bubble. Yet it takes most of my focus."
He stands there and soaks that in. And I think . . . "Oh no. I've changed his life again."
He asks if I would like a drink.
"Only," I say, "if we drink to the future . . ." And if he buys.
But I don't say that. In fact, I insist on paying. If I couldn't correct his 'L's and 'R's, the least I could do is drown them.
"Don't you mean 'R's and 'L's?" he says.
To which I say . . . "Ha ha. Let's go."