Just relax and ignore it, I’ve told myself umpteen hundred times since my arrival here and today was no different. It was just too blatant! The empty seat beside me, on the crowded train, exclaimed what the people and the culture would find unseemly to say verbally: we don’t trust you, we don’t like you and we don’t want you here.
I thought of ways to avenge myself, to appease my fury…a gesture both satisfying and effective. I thought hard. Many wicked thoughts went through my mind. Thoughts so venomous and downright malicious that even contemplating them should’ve brought the Thought Police crashing into that train car brandishing weapons with orders to shoot to kill. Just thinking such thoughts made me feel a whole lot better. You might ask, why the hell am I so angry? Well, I’ll get to that later, if it’s necessary. I mean, I’ve always had anger issues, ask anyone who knows me well. But, these people had no idea what kind of explosive they were tampering with. I almost warrant their fear, epitomize their stereotypical image of my kind. Only a couple of obstacles stood between me and really anti-social acts, almost sociopathic behavior: My wickedness was held in check by an awkward mixture of curiosity as to what makes this system work, envy of a people who managed to maintain their culture, somewhat, against incredible adversity, fear of the consequences of following through on these thoughts (not only to my person, but to my soul as well) and, ironically, a little shyness.
The train pulled into a station and many people got off as many others filed in. Some seats had opened up and, with a maniacal surge were snatched up. It’s like an aggressive game of musical chairs (only imagine the game if there were dozens of contestants, one chair, and they were not allowed to touch one another). Two businessmen and an Office Lady were on a beeline for the empty seat beside me…all were both focused on the seat. The woman was in trouble: chivalry hasn’t passed away here…it has never lived here. In fact, the opposite of chivalry has been the order of the day since time immemorial. She noticed the two guys and stopped short. Then, one of the Salarymen looked up, at me, and rather startlingly by-passed the seat in favor of a pole a good distance away-from me. The other rushing Salaryman noticed the first’s behavior, and then, peeping at the cause of it- me- briefly showed his true feelings on the matter, with just the barest momentary eye contact with me. I’m not great at reading the emotions of these people…or any people for that matter, but I’m pretty sure I saw shame. What he felt ashamed of is a mystery, but I’m not above speculation. Maybe it was the flagrant rudeness and/or bigotry of his countryman…but that would just be wishful thinking on my part. It was more likely that he was ashamed of his countryman’s fear. His body language all but hollered, “I am not afraid of you (even though I should be as everyone else clearly is)…not even a little bit! I saw that footage of flood-ridden New Orleans and the behavior of those “people” in a time of crisis. I’ve seen you coaxing my fellow Salarymen into those Yakuza hostess bars. I’ve seen what your people have done to one another in Nigeria and in Los Angeles, on TV. Hell, everything I’ve seen and heard about you reeks of un-civilization and danger, or at the very least unpredictability, which is almost as bad. Yes, I know you and yet I refuse to be afraid of you- Not here; not in my fine country, arguably the safest country in the world until we started allowing your kind in.” And, with swollen chest, and masculine care-free gesticulations, with chin thrust forward and with a violent plop, he landed in the seat beside me.
People were aghast, and by aghast, in the “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil,” or more appropriately “the outstanding nail that gets hammered down” cultural context of the people here, I mean he drew attention to himself! At least the people whose glances I managed to catch looked aghast. But, every time I tried to gauge the other passenger’s reactions, the eyes of the quicker people, those who’ve become quite skilled at avoiding eye contact through a creepy intuitive anticipation of movement, suddenly seemed to find the ubiquitous cell phone, Manga comic book, appointment book or make-up mirror of immense interest, and the slower folks awkwardly found things in the vicinity of my person of immense interest…like the advertisements just above my head, or the window behind me- the one with the shade pulled down to ward off the sun’s glare, or the pattern on the tiles of the floor near but not quite beneath the tips of my shoes, or the hand of the man standing nearest to the standing room in front of me that noticeably remained vacant, or hell the atomic particles in the space between us, the vacuum of air that encircled their heads, eyes glazed in a Zen-like state. It’s really something to see.
Well, with the seat beside me now taken, as well as the extra room I take for granted most of the time, distracted by my humiliation and rage, I’d had to unfold and close my legs. A child nearby was playing with his father’s hand. Oblivious to the annoyance of overcrowding, a glee that I presume was derived from the fact that his rarely seen father was on his annual summer holiday and foregoing the chaos of traveling abroad during this peak season, opted to spend this precious father-son time fairly locally at a water park or some such a place. He hadn’t noticed me yet, I knew. It was the rare child who could resist gawking at me…they are simply the most honest people in this as in any culture. He must have sensed my eyes, because he suddenly turned around and looked. His shock was open. If he had a heart condition, he would be a goner. If an octopus was climbing out of my nose, he couldn’t have looked any more frightened. He grabbed his father’s leg so suddenly and fiercely that it triggered a protective instinct in Dad. He turned, prepared to defend his child’s life against what obviously had to be a clear and present danger. When our eyes met, there was instant understanding, for I was nowhere near his son, and the alarm subsided a bit, and suddenly Dad, too, found the advertisement for a new breath-freshening chewing gum, the one just above my head, most mesmerizing. No more mesmerizing than his son continued to find me. Not hard-wired into the matrix of cultural do’s and don’ts, he stared unabashedly. I tried to extend a smile that as much as said, “I won’t bite you, I promise. I might look different than you, or than anyone you’ve ever encountered in your short life, but underneath this unusual exterior beats the heart of an Ambassador. I’m here in your neck of the woods on a humanitarian mission of sorts to introduce your culture to the outside world. And give you an opportunity to grow up in a country that doesn’t view difference or change as dangerous, but simply as natural. So, reward my efforts with a smile why don’t you? And show these grown-ups that the next generation won’t be half as xenophobic as they are…” But, maybe my gap-toothed, tobacco and coffee coated smile was a little too much for the tot, or maybe my subliminal message went over his head…I don’t know, because he didn’t smile. He seemed to get more comfortable staring, however, so maybe I had successfully transmitted my conflicted and contradictory message of Unity, Peace, and the dental hygienic consequences of caffeine and nicotine addiction.
I needed a distraction desperately. And, then I remembered my Kanji cards. Kanji is one of the three written languages, not including English, used here. It’s an ancient written language, used by the Chinese for centuries before it made its way across the sea separating these two historical foes some time ago. I find studying Kanji very gratifying. The only thing more aggravating than the shit I have to put up with on the train on a daily basis is the loss of my independence. Back home in New York, of course, I was very independent. And why shouldn’t I be? I could read, write, and speak fluently- three capabilities I’ve added to my long and growing list of things I’ve taken for granted that I’ve been keeping since I’ve been living here in the land of all that is cute and small. The truth is, that little boy who couldn’t stop staring at me if there was a gun to his head was more literate than I. I couldn’t even read that gum advertisement behind my head that everyone seemed to find so compelling every time I looked around. I’d stared at the various characters, the 3 written languages used to concoct a message oh-so-subtly associating sex with fresh breath, (if I was reading the message in the eyes and smile of the slightly suggestively dressed girl in the ad correctly,) and I couldn’t understand it for the life of me. So, I’ve undertaken the fairly insurmountable task of studying a foreign language, spoken and written, so completely different from the Romantic, Germanic, Greek and Roman based languages I was reared on and exposed to as a youth that I literally have to change my way of thinking, the goddamn polarity of my brain just to comprehend it. It’s a challenge, to say the least. But, I love a good challenge, sometimes.
So, I whipped them out.
By the way…need I mention that everything I do, every move I make, every thought I think, every feeling I feel, what I wear, what I eat, where I live, how long I sleep, and in what position, what I do in my free time, what I did before I came here and most importantly why the hell did I come here in the first place, is in the forefront of nearly every mind in my vicinity? I do? Ok, consider it mentioned. I should also mention that in addition to speculation I’m not above exaggeration, either. Hell, I’ve always been a little on the dramatic side, and accused of thinking too much, so speculation and exaggeration suit me. However, I don’t believe I’ve exaggerated thus far and don’t intend to exaggerate moving forward, but I might. I know what they’re thinking because I’m asked these questions and many other similar questions so often that I’ve taken to playing with the answers, flirting with absurdity and even with brutal honesty depending on my mood, just to see the reaction:
“Well, I came here because I’m infatuated with your women…they’re so damn cute. Everyone back home wants one but they’re virtually inaccessible or completely Americanized, and who needs that shit? But, here, I can’t keep them off of me!” “I came here because you’re country is so friggin’ safe! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live in constant fear for my life back home in NY. Thank god for Guiliani! He really cleaned it up, but there’s still too much crime for me.” “I eat Macdonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner…sometimes I make Macdonald’s microwavable meals at home, when I’m feeling lazy, which is often as you all well know. By the way, how is the Mickey D Corporation doing in this market?” “Well, I like all Japanese food except two things: Natto and Goiya. Oh, you love Natto? You eat it everyday? It’s very healthy, is it? Well, as we say back home, if it smells like shit and taste like shit…” “On my days off I go to strip bars and pay inordinately large amounts of cash for pretty girls desiring Louis Vitton bags and cute doodads for their cell phones to drink and do karaoke with me, and treat me like a king after a day of long hard slave labor…and then I go home and whack off to mosaic-ized censured videos of these same girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms performing fellatio on farm animals. You, too? Stop lying!” “Actually, it’s about a foot long…sorry I don’t know metrics. Like a baby’s arm I suppose would be the best image…No, a Japanese baby’s arm, I’m afraid.” “Yes, I can speak a little Japanese and I’m studying Kanji. It is difficult, isn’t it? Yes, the English ABCs are much easier. And, I’m pushing my limited attention span and intellect to the limit just to be able to read at the average Japanese child’s level.”
Yes, like Natto, Kanji is one of those Asian things that is held up as virtually indigestible by western minds and taste buds, which I gotta tell you, motivates me all the more to tackle it. Whipping out the Kanji always causes a stir. I can only feel the tension around me, thick as molasses. I wish I could view it through a hidden camera. So powerful in fact that the businessman who’d so fearlessly claimed the seat besides mine felt compelled to take it further than anyone had in my 2+ years.
“You’re studying Kanji, aren’t you? How wonderful!!” he said in Japanese, presuming I must be able to speak it if I was endeavoring to read it.
I smiled and nodded, “yes, I am,” in Japanese. “But, I’m not very good.” Humility is the rule of the day I’ve long since learned. But, by using Japanese I’d made a mistake. Maybe I was in shock that someone had actually spoken to me, in Japanese. It was the rare occasion that a stranger spoke or even replied to me in any satisfactory fashion. But I’d forgotten my golden rule; a rule I’d set for myself, which should have made it all the more memorable: Always speak English in a confrontational situation. Language is power, and in Japanese I remain essentially powerless. But, in English, in this English-crazed society, lay my power base and I had stupidly forfeited it.
He proceeded to tear into me in Japanese, at natural speed. And though I could grasp the gist of his speech, and the soft reprimand in his tone, I certainly hadn’t comprehended enough to reply substantially. He was talking about how foreigners usually don’t try to do something, and how very few are able to do something, and how he used to do something, etc…You can probably tell where my weak area is in Japanese. It’s my vocabulary, especially nouns. Subjects and objects get entangled in a web of complex sentence structures, honorifics, and a whole host of particles with multiple meanings. Yeah, I was caught in a web and he knew it. He’d humbled me, I felt, though I doubt anyone else in listening range felt gratified aside from him. I’m sure my face said “I’m embarrassed that I don’t understand a goddamn thing you’re saying,” but my mouth said, “Yes, that’s right, isn’t it?” A typical non-confrontational response I’d picked up from listening to conversations on the train and what-not. And, in doing so, I’d broken my golden rule #2: If you don’t understand, by no means should you pretend to understand. And from his smile I could tell I’d given a totally inappropriate response to what he’d just said, illustrating my ignorance for all to see and hear, or that I had confirmed some stereotype about westerners he’d proclaimed in all ignorance.
Now, I felt like shit, and was angry enough to eat glass. But, I held fast to golden rule #3, which is to smile at all times, which was a mistake as well, for after breaking rules 1 and 2, rule #3 became a moot point. Smiling was a way to alleviate the uneasiness Japanese have with communicating with foreigners. Our propensity to display emotions, especially anger, disgust, or confusion, went totally against the basics of Japanese communication methods. The smile is an essential communication tool. A Japanese person could be talking about anything from root canal to the recent death of a loved one after a 10 year painful battle with cancer, and smile through the entire story. And if they did have a lapse and exposed their true feelings on the matter, would apologize profusely for upsetting the listener. One of my students had brought this to my attention when I explained to her my frustrations with constantly being misunderstood when I tried to speak Japanese…she suggested it was because I was displaying too many emotions and should try to default to a smile at all times. Not a crazy shit-eating grin like some kind of puppet but just a look of pleasant interest, or unperturbed tranquility, or just plain good humor. But, this was not the time for any of the above. This asshole had just tried to humiliate me and I should have come at him with both barrels blazing…but I didn’t. Why? Because I really don’t know what he said…for all I knew, he’d said that he really admired me for undertaking the study of Kanji, something most foreigners would never attempt. Maybe my studying had changed his whole view of Westerners and from now on he’d be able to see foreigners as individuals rather than as a group. Maybe he’d spend the rest of the day re-evaluating all of the judgments he’d made about westerners, questioning the stereotypes he’d held up as truths, and actually share his thoughts and this experience with his co-workers or family. Maybe one day when his teenage daughter comes home talking about her new gaijin boyfriend he won’t kill her, only beat her senseless, then disown her…
And, that, I decided, was why I was angry. It was because, after 2.5 years here in the Kawaiiland, living among these cultists, I still don’t understand a goddamn thing! (Now, that’s an exaggeration…)
At the next stop, there was another mad revolution of passengers, incoming and outgoing, including the man who’d been sitting beside me. He bowed to me a bit on his way out, extending me a courtesy that I found to be both exhilarating and ironic. And, once again, the seat next to me was free. I waited to see who the next brave soul would be. It turned out to be a girl this time. She was tall, in heels, and mulatto tan, possibly from the beach the likely from the salon. She gave me “the glance-” a once-over where the dangers of coming near me are pondered. She stumbled a bit in her pumps in her hesitation, but, to her credit, at least she didn’t jump out of her skin (watch “Scooby-Doo meets the creature from the black lagoon” for an illustration of this) like most people do. She peeked around to see if there were any other seats available, and upon finding none, and with the body language equivalent of “Fuck it, I have a long ride and I want to sit down,” she gingerly planted her sweetness beside me. And I do mean sweetness. She could have been 16 or 32, there’s no way of knowing for sure…unless you’re Japanese. White silk ruffled mini-skirt riding high on her upper thighs, long, slim, hairless legs down to there (knees locked, to the point of buckling, which was the norm,) hanging from the crook of her arm- the ubiquitous Louis Vitton mini duffle handbag overstuffed with shit, mostly pink, mirror and cell phone jutting out of it, Pikachu or some weird cartoon character dangling from it, tiny pictures of her girlfriends posing, flashing the “peace” sign surrounded by tiny pink flowers and Kanji (I couldn’t fucking read) all over it, designer shopping bag from “Pinky Girls” in her other hand…super–padded wonder-bra enhanced cleavage peeking from beneath a barely-enough pink blouse that matched her pumps. Hell, she even smelled pink.
Her skirt rode up so high when she sat down that she had to place her bag in her lap to keep her panties from becoming part of the spectacle that she obviously wanted to be. At least in the NYC subway she could accurately be described as seeking attention. Hard to tell what the girls here have in mind, drawing attention generally speaking being such a cultural no-no. And this kind of style and dress- so prevalent here in Tokyo- for some reason, (as a full-blooded man, I can’t explain,) often goes ignored.
The flesh of her thigh was against mine, and lusty thoughts entered my mind. I peeked at her sideways. I could just barely see her eyeball peeking at me from the corner of her socket, for she was looking down, and when people look down here it often appears their eyes are shut. I always wonder why the Manga characters in the cartoons and comic books always look all big-eyed while the life-like characters on official stuff, like post discouraging public drunkenness, and request for courtesy for the elderly and pregnant, always had eyes that looked closed. The latter seemed more accurate while the former seemed to be the goal of the younger girls. She was digging through her LV bag pulling out little pouches of make-up and utensils to apply it, and then began doing so. She planted a mirror, that seemed too big to have fit in her bag, on top of her bag, and got to work. Teasing eye brows, attaching false eye-lashes, applying powder, and sprinkles, and lip stick and liner. All under the scrutiny of passengers displaying little or no emotion. She obviously didn’t care what people thought. This was the style of late. And she was definitely in-style. She could’ve been a spoiled rich girl or a hostess going to spend last night’s hard earned loot. Office lady or student seemed unlikely.
She reminded me of one of the two “Pinky Girls” I’d been able to pick-up since my arrival here. One, Tomomi, I had had an episode with last year. She wasn’t a hostess, but a spoiled, rich girl. She could speak English enough to understand and use some chosen erotica I’d taught her to use when we were together. I’ll never forget our first date. We went to dinner. She insisted on paying. Then we went to an internet café, with private booths, so that I could show her some pictures of my family and hometown, and wind up staying there all night- me, watching movies with headphones, drinking coffee and smoking Black & Milds, while she performed fellatio on me until I was drained several times. This girl could be a carbon copy my erection informed me. I tried to keep my lascivious thoughts at bay, and focus my mind on penetrating this written language, but the warmth of her thigh rubbing against mine and her periodic surreptitious glances at me through the reflection in her mirror were distracting me from my Kanji study.
Finally, I couldn’t hold back anymore and, driven by visions of another Tomomi moment in an internet café I turned and asked her could she help me out for a moment.
“This Kanji is so difficult,” I said, in formal Japanese.
“It is, isn’t it?” she replied, turning red and smiling, exposing what had to be the most busted set of choppers I’ve seen in this land of busted choppers. She had the triple threat: Egg-yolk yellow, crooked and those double layered numbers that are so common here.
I pressed on…I wasn’t going to let those choppers stop me. Shit, even Tomomi had the back-up choppers, but they didn’t affect her oral skills whatsoever.
“Can you speak English?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, but my English is terrible,” she said.
I couldn’t tell if she was being modest or trying to hold on to her power-base. The women here may be cute and shallow but what they lack in imagination, they more than make up for with- hell, I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s as effective as anything I’ve encountered in the US. There’s really no way to tell what they’re thinking…I wonder if it was the same in the US. I really can’t remember. But, one thing is for sure. Talking to a stranger on the train- especially a stranger from another planet- an uncivilized planet at that, where people carry guns and steal from one another, and have strange, deadly diseases, and openly show their emotions and have no shame whatsoever- was definitely not on her to-do list. Well, maybe definitely is too strong a word. Of course, the order of the day is politeness and tolerance of my flagrant rudeness so I just capitalize on that notion and sometimes it pays off. Politeness can lead all the way to the Internet café or a Love Hotel here, and has on several occasions.
“Really,” I said. “Well, my Nihon-go is terrible too.”
“You are really skillful at Japanese,” she said, exposing those choppers again. “How long have you lived here?” she asked, pressing on herself.
“About 2 years, but I still can’t speak.”
“You are mistaken, I wonder,” she said, I think. “And you are studying Kanji, too? That’s wonderful! I can’t read Kanji well.”
“It’s the truth.”
Everybody says the same thing when they learn I’m studying Kanji. I found out what it really means through my constant questioning. What that means is: I can only read and write the essential Kanji, roughly 2000 or 2500 or so. Or, it means, I don’t write Kanji very often because I’m always using a cell phone or the computer, and I’ve forgotten many because I seldom read books. Only magazines and newspapers which pretty much stick to the essential Kanji. In other words, it’s a bit of humbleness. Only being able to read 2500 Kanji is like a New Yorker saying I can only read anything you put in front of me but I may need a dictionary for some of the technical jargon or rarely used words.
“Well, do you know this one?” I asked.
She glanced at it and was about to tell me when a cell phone started playing a cute little J-Pop jingle. “Please excuse me for a moment.”
She answered the phone and started talking a mile a minute in muffled tones to a girlfriend about something I couldn’t quite catch. I did hear the words “foreigner” and “cool” several times, however. Abruptly, as we pulled into Shinjuku, she leapt up and begged my forgiveness. “I am very sorry, but I get off here. Do your best with the Kanji! Take care, see you again, maybe.” She gave me a little bow and made her way, heels clopping, knees knocking, to the exit, along with most of the people on the train. I was headed to Shibuya, so I didn’t get off, as tempted as I was to follow her and get her e-mail address.
I sat there a moment mourning yet another lost opportunity. And then I looked around at the many seats that had become available wondering whether someone from the next swarm of boarding passengers would throw caution to the wind and fill the seat beside me.