Posts Tagged ‘nanpa

07
Feb
09

One other thing I just LOVE about Japan: Speaking Nihongo part 2

…So, with Nanpa eliminated as a motivating force for study I moved  on to the motivation that has given me the lowest level of gratification. Nevertheless, the hope of doing it effectively someday still springs eternal: Retaliation!

In English, I have a whole arsenal of expletives at my disposal for use in those situations where I need to let some jerk know verbally that they’ve trespassed upon my good nature and crossed some line I’ve drawn that represents the boundary of what is acceptable and what isn’t. It happens from time to time here, to put it mildly. I mean, I’ve moved the line here several times to compensate for Japanese ignorance, but some transgressions I feel are, or should be, universal and thus unforgivable regardless of cultural differences. Like if a parent grabs their child and pulls them away from me shrieking “Abunai” (dangerous). Or if some asshole in an effort to push me without actually coming in contact with me uses his briefcase as a buffer, etc, etc, etc.

The Japanese version of profanity is often formed  by simply dropping the politeness, using the informal version of words, and maybe dragging out some of the tones and rolling the “R”s a bit. “Baka yarou” means stupid or fool. “Baaaka Yarrrrrou!” means something akin to “You stupid motherfucker!” “Urusai” means “Noisy.” Uruse!” means “Shut the fuck up!” That “ai” to “e” transition to strengthen the potency of words is used a lot. “Yabai” which means something like dangerous or inconvenient or damnbecomes “yabe” which can either mean great or super cool or seriously fucked updepending on the situation! “Osanaide kudasai!” means “please don’t push me.” “Osu na!” means “Push me again motherfucker and I’m liable to break my foot off in your ass!”

There are a shitload of bad words, of course. But, I’ve found they are not nearly as effective as the dropping of politeness! If you use the bad words, the assumption on the part of the listener is that you are a stupid foreigner, incapable of managing the subtleness of the Japanese language and only capable of being as rude as you were back home. But, if you show the listener that you are well aware of polite and formal Japanese as well as colloquial and informal ways of speaking, that you understand that the formality or informality of your words is the key to truly making insults that will linger, then you can cuss effectively here.

Even something as simple as the way you say “you” can be more potent than saying fuck. “Anata” is the formal way of saying you. More commonly the person’s actual name is used. which westerners will probably find extremely weird and it took me quite a while to start doing. “Ohashi san wa genki desuka?” “Genki desu, okage sama de.” “Is Ms. Ohashi feeling Well ?” Yes, I am, thanks to you and the powers that be!” But, if you substitute “Omae” which also means you, usually reserved for friends, then it’s a spat in the face to a stranger, totally disrespectful. Yep, profanity can be just that simple in japan. The downside is if you are unaware of such things, and most foreigners are, then there’s a potential of your being profane every time you open your mouth and Japanese are being tolerant because of your ignorance. Like Eddie Murphy said about foreigners in America, that only learn how to curse:

But, like I said, this is the least gratifying. I rarely use it. I don’t even cuss people out in NY that often unless they’re friends or family.

But, the ultimate motivation and feeling of gratification comes from using Japanese to accomplish everyday task I had no dream of accomplishing a year or so ago. From giving directions to a taxi driver, to ordering a pizza on the phone,  to joining a health club, to conversing with my co-workers about something other than the weather: The hits just keep coming and they’re music to my ears! For all you uni-lingual people out there…bilingualism is a friggin’ high that keeps on keeping on (so far anyway) I remember when i was a kid and most of my friends were bi-lingual. I was so friggin’ envious of them. Mostly Spanish, but there was also French and Jamaican Patois, and that Trini language, and other kinds of unintelligible broken Englishes. I even envied them.

Now, I’m practically one of them. (-:

Loco

08
Dec
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #5: Make Japanese friends!

Making Japanese friends is important, and can have the added benefit of helping you maintain your sanity. Here are my top four reasons why:

1- If  you’re studying Japanese, they are an invaluable resource for natural nihongo.

2– They can help you with the array of things you have to do to maintain your life in Japan

3– If  you want to experience Japan away from the typical Gaijin friendly places

4– Being with a Japanese person relaxes the other Japanese around you.

1-Studying Japanese will help you preserve your sanity, as I mentioned in #3 Learn that Japanese. What I neglected to mention is how Japanese friends can help. They are native speakers, so obviously they can speak fluently, duh! But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can teach it. I’m an inquisitive mofo so anytime something doesn’t make sense I always ask the magic question: why? Why is a question only a teacher or someone who understands the language, culture and history very well can answer. Most Japanese cannot answer why about anything having to do with their language, I’ve found. So, I did what any inquisitive mofo would do: I read books and searched the net for answers. Now, sometimes, I feel like I know more about their language than they do.

To be fair, the reverse is true too sometimes. Have you ever tried to take the TOEIC Test? If you have an ego about your English proficiency or grammar knowledge, do yourself a favor and don’t. It’s like something most of us native speakers have never seen. I have so much respect for my students who scored high on that test. Or, if you ask anyone who isn’t a wordsmith with a thorough knowledge of etymology to explain why, for example, in the word photograph the first syllable is stressed while in the word photography the second is stressed,  I’m sure they’d look at you and say, “Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? How the fuck should I know?” These were the kind of why questions i was asking them.

As I mentioned before, one of my initial reasons for pounding the Japanese books was so that I could do some nanpa. Nanpa is basically flirting or picking up girls and frowned upon by Japanese, but as you know I’m not one of them. My first male Japanese friend was

Fuyuto

Fuyuto

Fuyuto. We met through an American friend of mine. He could speak English a bit and was kind of cool. He was a Salaryman, but a rock star in his dreams, so he moonlighted as lead singer and guitarist in a punk rock band. Life as a salaryman was plan B so he had tattoos on his fingers that he had to hide everyday by wrapping them with bandages. He was in love with white girls, any white girl. He fancied some bleached blond from Alabama he’d met on the internet and took to obsessing over her til I couldn’t stand him anymore.

He taught me my first nanpa. I can hardly remember it now. Something about Ocha shimasenka (Shall we have tea?) which was supposed to be code language for let’s get to know each other better right now, and kimi wa ichiban kawaii nanto ka nanto ka (You are the cutest girl…and something or other) Before Fuyuto  the only Japanese I knew I’d learned from books like Japanese for busy people series (which are pretty good actually) and the likes. But, were useless when it came to my new goal: getting my hands on some of this Kawaii-ness running around half-naked all around me.

I should’ve known Fuyuto was useless in this regard. While I was breaking my neck with every step at the over abundant eye-candy, he hardly noticed. He had about as much interest in Japanese girls as I had in Japanese guys. Having watched this movie I was watching for the first time for his entire life, perhaps it was difficult for him to get excited about it. What was exotic to me was totally commonplace to him. We started drifting apart. I needed someone on the same track as me, and so far that had only been my fellow gaijin.

Before we went our separate ways though he did school me about a few things. I’d been seeing a girl at the time and she’d taken to helping me with my Japanese as I helped her with her English (surprise surprise, eh). I’d listen to how she spoke and I mimicked her sentence structure and what not. She’d say things like: Oohhh! You sound like a Japanese! I’d smile ear to ear. (I’d later learn it was Oseji –apple-polishing flattery) When I got with Fuyuto I’d use some of that Japanese sounding Japanese I’d learned.

“Samui yo!” It’s cold!

Fuyuto smiled. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

“Fuck you smiling at?”

“You sound like a girl!”

“Really?” I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. “My voice?”

“No, your words. Don’t use Yo like that. Girls talk like that.”

That fucked me up. In Japan, you hear “Yo” and “Ne” all the damn time. Back in NY we use Yo for everything, too, so I thought I had found something that I was already comfortable with using. The text book says that “Yo” places a stronger emphasis on the preceding words so I thought “Samui yo meant something to the effect of  “it’s fucking cold!” But, according to Fuyuto it did just the opposite the way I’d used it. It made it softer. I sounded gay, he said, and finally released the laughter he could no longer contain.

Great. Him, with his perfect hair he spent half a day in the hair salon getting done, calls me gay. But, he had explained why I had been getting giggled at by my students and being called Kawaii by all the girls I’d spoken to before gleaning this info from Fuyuto. Most Japanese won’t tell you if you’re making an ass of yourself because you’re a foreigner and the expectations are very low for foreigners here anyway. And, this illustrates my point about the value of Japanese friends: They can give you the inside dope that those textbook writers may not be privy to or overlooked. Thanks Fuyuto-san!

2- When I first came to Japan, I came under the aegis of NOVA. They were totally responsible for me. And, as a benefit I totally took for granted at the time, they took care of everything from getting me an apartment to arranging my healthcare benefits. They even got me my first Japanese cellphone. Very convenient. Of course NOVA had relationships with these Japanese companies which gave them an unfair advantage over the competition, but that’s  how it goes. It also cost us instructors a little more for we could have gotten these services for less money in some cases if we could speak Japanese and had shopped around…or if we had friends who spoke Japanese. But few did. So, the headache / expense ratio was acceptable at the time.

After I met my first true friend in Japan, Aiko, I learned most of this. I told her about my cellphone and how much I had paid. she laughed and took me to a another company where I got a better deal and a better phone. She handled all of the conversing and I signed  all the contracts. I told her about how much I paid for rent and she laughed and took me to a neighborhood realtor so I could learn that my Japanese neighbors were paying in most cases a third less.

Mamachari

One day, I had taken a nasty spill off of my Mamichari and had to go to the hospital. Aiko was right there beside me explaining everything to the doctor and to me like my handy translator. Another time I threw my back out. If you’ve read “ducking and Bobbing” you know my drama with my back. Aiko’s mother also used to have back problems. Until she found this Chiropractor / miracle worker out in Saitama. Aiko brought me there and he, using a combination of Western & Eastern techniques he’d learned in China, sent me home feeling like a new man.

I was a very independent person in New York. As a bachelor, I did everything myself for many years. Whatever I didn’t know how to do I could learn how to do or hire someone to do for me. But, in Japan, I felt like an invalid. A man stripped of his ability to see, hear and speak. A friend like Aiko took the sting out of this feeling so much. I wish I could have done half as much for her as she did for me but she was a totally self-sufficient person.aiko-chan1

Now, that I can speak a little I can handle some of the above tasks. I still can’t handle a good number of the tasks required for a full life here, but I haven’t given up. I’m still studying and practicing whenever I can.

Thanks for all your help, Aiko-chan! You were the best!

3- I used to ask my students of a certain age for recommendations of cool places to hangout in Japan.

“You should go to Roppongi,” the majority of them would tell me. I’d already been to Roppongi of course. Not a foreigner in the Tokyo area hasn’t. But, I wasn’t keen on the place, for a number of reasons. It’s a dodgy place, first off. It’s the Tokyo version of Bangkok, only much more expensive and you get less for your money. Secondly, it’s full of foreigners and the Japanese girls who prey on them-usually pretty skanky. If I wanted to hang out with Americans and skanky girls I wouldn’t have come to Japan to do it. There’s plenty in NY.

“Why Roppongi? Do you like Roppongi?” I’d ask them. “How often do you go there?”

“No,” they’d inevitably say. “I  don’t go there.” Of course they didn’t. Only skanky hostesses and future skanky hostesses or girls that had been dragged there by their skanky hostess friends, or Japanese guys who like skanky hostesses and are willing to confess that to me go there.

“Why?”

“It’s so crowded!”

“Oh, I see.”

“Abunai, deshou?” Dangerous isn’t it?

“Why would you recommend that I  go to a place you don’t like and you don’t go to?”

“You are foreigner, deshou? Many foreigners go there. Foreigners like Roppongi! And many beautiful girls go there to meet foreigners dakara.”

I’d let it go…sometimes. These conversations were my first insight into the Japanese mind, especially when it comes to foreigners. The fact that the person didn’t see any problems with what they’d just confessed about themselves and about their culture spoke volumes to me.

Sometimes I didn’t let it go.

“So, you recommend I go to a place you think is dangerous? Do you think I like dangerous places?”

“Eeetooo.” Well…..

“Oh, wait! I understand now. Because there are other foreigners there, and beautiful girls, I won’t mind a little danger…is that what you mean?”

“Eeetoooo” Well….

I refrain from confronting Japanese about their bullshit nowadays, because maintaining a smile while discussing something like this is still a struggle. Some kind of emotion peeks from behind the smile and spits at them. I wind up unintentionally showing some kind of feeling and then they get all uncomfortable and shit goes downhill from there. But, back in the days, I used to get a thrill out of it. it was like getting revenge on them for the ignorance and offenses they had no problem flagrantly displaying before me.

But, if you make a friend, then you can get some solid recommendations.

They’ll hip you to some places that’ll bend your ears back. Every onsen I’ve ever been to was recommended by a friend (who usually accompanied me). Every cool bar or club, not located in a gaijin-friendly zone, I was directed to by a friend (often accompanying me.)

Satoshi: Coolest Mofo you ever want to meet. I was looking for a cool ass nihonjin- male for a change– that I could hangout with and could hip me to some cool places to hang out (I’d had it up to here with Roppongi and Shibuya and the other gaijin-friendly places.)

There was a beauty salon next door to my job. Sometimes when I’d go out to the smoke area there’d be this guy who worked at the salon out there puffing his Seven Stars. seven-starHe had perfect bleached dirty-blond hair, a big smile and a goatee. One of them cool guys I’d see around Tokyo who’d whisper to each other like girls whenever I pass by them. When I’d see him through the salon’s main window, massaging conditioner into some cutie’s hair, I’d say to myself, “Now there’s a job that’ll- if he isn’t gay- turn any man misogynistic after a couple of years. Chances are he’ll have an edge.” I like people with an edge. Most New Yorkers are edgy in every sense of the word.

It wasn’t long before we bumped heads in the smoke area and he said what’s up. And, over a smoke, he asked all those typical When nihonjin met gaijin… questions, or rather, When Nihonjin met kokujin… (When a Japanese met a black man) cause he seemed to zero in on what seemed to be race-related inquiries. I’d gotten used to it. It’s my selling and repelling point in Japan. He couldn’t speak a lick of English, though, which was good.

I’ve found that most of the Japanese people who can speak English tend to be overly arrogant. Like their English speaking ability makes them special (which, unfortunately, it does in Japan) and that having been exposed to the West (which is, I’ve found, the only way a Japanese person can learn English to any significant degree) they feel obligated to show you in an overt way that you don’t intimidate them at all. Perhaps to compensate for all the years they’d felt intimidated by English speakers before they’d gone bilingual.  And, God forbid, their exposure to the West was in England. FORGET IT! You want to throw them thru a fucking window, they’re so goddamn arrogant! (No offense to my British readers…gomen ne!)

“You like Hip Hop?” He asked, while I grimaced inside.

“I guess so. You?”

“Of course.”

“Who do you like?” I asked, bracing myself to hear Emenim or Snoop Dog. At that time, I’d spoken to several Japanese Hip Hop heads who knew Eminem very well but couldn’t tell me who Slick Rick was if I’d shoved my I-Pod up their asses.

“Rhymester. Do you know them?”

“Rhymester? Nah, never heard of them…”

He whipped out his handy I-Pod and plugged me in. It was Japanese, with a lot of English mixed in, and the shit sounded tight, like old school Hip Hop. I started having visions of myself rapping in Japanese. he obviously had decent taste in Hip Hop but I had one question I asked of any Hip Hop head:

“Who do you think is the best Hip Hop artist of all time?”

I told myself, even if he says Tupac, which I would whole-heartedly disagree with, I’d give him a pass.

“Nas,” he said without hesitation. My jaw dropped. We were going to be friends.

“No, make that Rakim!” he said. Make that Best Friends, I thought.

The next weekend he invited me over to his crib. His roommate, Takuto, from Hokkaido, is a DJ, and they had cartons of albums, two turntables, a  mixer with a chalice on top.

Satoshi & Takuto

Make that REALLLLLLY good friends I decided then and there.

dsc04591

We got lifted listening to some 80’s Dancehall reggae I’d hipped them to. Just like I used to do with my friends back in NY. Sometimes they come over to my crib and we just hangout, bungle communication and laugh. I love these guys!

At a time when I was coming to think that Japan just didn’t have any cool people (just nice people) cool places (that would let me in the door) or anything worth listening to, I meet Satoshi and Takuto and they prove me wrong. If you hang around long enough, Japan will surprise the hell out of you. Big shout out to my boys, Toshi-kun and Tak-kun!!!

4- I was kicking it with Satoshi one day on the train to his apartment. He was standing against the door. A women beside him was writing a text message. A TV above his head was showing this commercial:

A man beside me on my right was not flinching. A woman on my left was standing against me and not looking freaked out about it.  He noticed me looking around and nodding my head and asked me what was I thinking about.

“My life in Japan,” I said.

He asked me, for the first time, what did I think about Japan, so I told him quite directly since he was my friend, “Japan would be great if it wasn’t for Japanese people.”

He laughed. The woman besides him smiled, too, revealing that she was listening to our convo though she appeared to be engrossed in her cellphone. Satoshi likes my sense of humor and he’s getting to know me well enough to know when I’m fucking around and when I’m serious. He knew my answer was half both.

“What’s wrong with Japanese people?” he asked.

I didn’t know how to say, “nothing a little waterboarding couldn’t fix” in Japanese so I said “Nothing right now, because you’re here.”

“Eeeeee!”

Something was happening at that very moment that he couldn’t notice because it was way below his radar. But my antennae are always up and alert like a cockroach’s. Anyone who’s read my previous posts knows what the trains are usually like for me, but to sum it up: daily hell. But, the difference between my daily experience on the trains every morning and that moment right then was I was with a Japanese person.

When you’re with a Japanese person Japanese people react differently to you. Mind you, it’s no less offensive because of the contrast with how they behave when you’re sans nihonjin. It’s like by virtue of your being with a Japanese person, it suggests to the Japanese in your vicinity that you’ve been vetted, appraised by a trustworthy authenticator (one of their own) and found true.  Actually, I’m trying to be nice. It actually feels more like you’re some type of animal that if allowed to roam free is dangerous but in the hands of a master trainer (one of their own) you’re safe to approach and in some cases even pet. I’ve noticed this phenomenon hundreds of times over the past five years so trust me this one is a sure bet. If you can forget the statement this change in behavior makes and just luxuriate in these moments of normality, it will do wonders for your sanity.

I couldn’t express any of this well enough in Japanese, either so I just told my friend, “You’re so ugly you make me look good.” (-:

Loco

Up next: #6 : Avoid Gaijin,  Gaijin Bars, Gaijin friendly areas and the Japanese girls who dwell there

26
Oct
08

How I learned to bow

I was on the way to work my first week in Japan, when I saw this gorgeous girl giving me the eye. I mean really beautiful. In America she wouldn’t need a stick to beat them off, she’d need Chuck Norris.

I was reading a Japanese textbook…ok, I’m lying. I was reading a book on pick up lines to use on Japanese girls, Nanpa it’s called, and when I looked up, she was across the car from me ogling me. I gave her a little smile of acknowledgment, kept my cool, though my heart and brain were racing. I scanned the book quickly, trying to find just the right phrase, but the book must have been written by some corny-ass, no pussy-getting-ass Canadian or something cuz the closest phrase I could get to what I had in mind to say was, my, what a beautiful handbag. I like your style, when what I really wanted to say was more in the spirit of “players wanna play, ballers wanna ball, rollers wanna roll…” Maybe I should write one of these books. Once I learned the language I’d certainly think about it.

When I looked up again, there were those eyes again.

They were heavily made up, like a porn star’s and they made me want her even more. I’d been a big fan of Japanese porn for as long as I could remember. I can attribute the broadness of my triceps to them. Her skin was tanned like Malibu Barbie. She smiled this time and her teeth, a little crooked and one seemed to protrude from her gum a little, but the smile took about 5 years off of her so that she looked about 13. Her blue jeans hugged her curves like latex and even seated I could tell she had a body. The Tim boots and the Yankee baseball cap on her head reminded me of how a girl back home might run out to the store on the spur of the moment to get some grits for breakfast on a bad hair day. Only her hair was unmistakably done, and her look was plainly on purpose. She was a Hip Hop chick, I realized…minus all the glam of the excessive make up and perfect hair and the cubic-zirconia studded crucifix dangling from a faux-platinum chain over her miniscule cleavage, she was trying to impersonate a black girl…even her fingernails were an attempt at ghetto glam. She looked like Lil’Mo in a music video.

Maybe she was trying to find herself a FabOlous.

It didn’t really matter though because if I knew me, and there are some things I know about me, I wasn’t going to say a word to her. My MO is to gas myself up then drive around aimlessly and hope to God I crash into something interesting. The book was just for entertainment purposes, mostly. So, as the train pulled into Yokohama Station, I shoved my little passport to Asian booty, replete with useless information and whack ass lines, and queued with everyone else to get off the train. I glanced at my cellphone and saw that I was about 20 minutes early for work. When I glanced up I noticed that she had worked her way to the space beside me. To look at her you would think it was purely coincidental. She was eying me peripherally with a knowing smile on her face. She just knew she was about to be hit on, and to me the smile meant Green Light. This time I inclined my head in a bow she returned it. Wow, this bowing shit works, I thought.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she replied a little too eagerly…she’d lost all of her coyness so abruptly that I didn’t know what to make of it.

“What’s your name?”

“Atashi?” She asked, pointing at her nose.

“Your name is Atashi…that’s pretty…” she looked unsettled. “Atashi,” I repeated because I didn’t want to forget it. She giggled for some reason. “My name is Kevin,” I said, pointing at myself.

“Ke-bean?” she asked, still giggling and blushing, all of her coyness returning just as suddenly as it had left. “Ke-bin! Ah, sou desuka. Nice to meet you, Ke-bean-san, Atashi wa Natsumi desu. Anooo…my-namu ee zu Natsumi.” And, she smiled some more, and brushed a couple of stray strands of hair from her the edge of her face to the side of her head with a stroke of a cluttered fingernail.

I’d learn in my class that the Japanese have trouble with the pronunciation of certain sounds like Vee so I wasn’t surprised by the distortion of my name. And, I didn’t care anyway because she was so fucking cute and had a banging ass and I didn’t care what I had to do, I was going to get me some of that…WHAM! My head versus the doorway! It lost! She turned to look, as did everyone, and guffawed, covering her mouth, as I stood there rubbing my head like a Aladdin’s lamp and going through the motions of “it’s not that bad…” for my ego’s sake when what I was really feeling was a needle-sharp agonizing stab of hurt. The ledge I’d walked into was metal and sharp and there was a strong chance there was going to be some bleeding, but my desire to make a move on her countermanded any idea I had about immediately seeking medical attention, she was that fine!

I could tell by the “how do I convey concern?” face she was making that she was English-free. She kind of pantomimed “are you ok?” and I nodded, feeling as far from ok as Marselis Wallace was in Pulp Fiction after getting raped by Zed. I checked my palm for blood, there was none, but, my god, there should have been. This much pain without the accompaniment of blood is almost an obscenity.

I couldn’t think, much less think in Japanese, so I just stood there. “Kimi no kabin ga totemo kawaii desune…” That Canadian’s words were the distraction I needed to clear my head. We had an awkward moment of silence while the train announcements said incomprehensible shit and thousands of people raced around and between and nearly over us. And then she looked around and her body language was like, well, it was nice almost meeting you, and sorry about your head but I gotta go… And I thought: hell maybe this happened for a reason. Maybe I should just let her go. Maybe this was the Creator’s way of telling me that she was a no-go. Maybe she’s a transvestite, or has herpes or AIDS or something, and the Creator is trying to look out for me.

One of the first things I learned to do was bow. You would think that learning the language would place prominently in the hierarchy of things to get out of the way, right? So did I. I tackled Japanese for 3 months before my departure; got all that Konnichiwa-ing and Sayonara-ing out of the way, and I was ready for the show…or so I thought. But, right out of the gate, bowing bogarted its way to the front of the queue like a gorilla on meth. I know what you must be thinking: Does Japan have some sort of roving Courtesy Patrol enforcing their customs? Up against the wall, punk! -Gut punch- Oh, now you know how to bow!

No, nothing like that.

It would be unnecessary anyway. From what I’ve seen so far, bowing is as instinctual here as it is for my boy, Darryl, back in NY, to critique every ass that passes by. Some people even bow when their talking on the phone. No, Japan has other ways of commanding your capitulation, and trust me you learn them right quick if you’re 6 ft tall or more. Now, 6 foot ain’t shit back in my neighborhood. It’s average. If you got a wicked crossover and hops like Spud Webb maybe you can make point guard on a junior varsity squad in high school. Don’t get me wrong; no one’s going to call me Shorty but I ain’t raising any roofs, either.

Saying I had to learn how to bow is a little facetious. Tongue in cheek aside, I had to learn how to not get a concussion on a daily basis. I had to pay careful attention to where I was going and what I was doing, at all times, even more so than when I was home in Brooklyn. Why? Because many of the things I took for granted back home- from complicated ideas like the general direction danger comes at you from (primarily from the left, check me if I’m wrong),  to simple ideas like the height of doorways- could not be taken for granted here. And so upon entering restaurants, trains, homes, anywhere with a doorway, I often have a Gandolf at Bilbo’s crib, Lord of the Rings type experience. Like most things in Tokyo, the price for not staying alert is high, and the scar tissue on my head can attest to that.

Even if a Japanese person is cursed with the height of a foreigner, by the time they’re adults they are so accustomed to bowing that low clearance is a non-issue. But, I’ve never bowed, except as a joke or in mock humility. I can see myself as a child performing before an imaginary audience, strumming, blowing or hammering the keys of some imaginary instrument, singing a song so heartfelt, so lovely that the crowd in my mind roars and applauds their gratitude. I’d bow low and thank them. “You’re too kind!” I’d say.

But, the doorways here in Japan are not kind, and too frequently I find myself on the losing side of a clash: the forehead of my 6 foot person versus a doorway an inch or two shy of my height. It is remarkable how deceptively adequate a 5’11 doorway looks. Your brain tells you, it’s a doorway, by God, designed for care-free entry and exit. And you trust your brain, don’t you? That 30-something year old bundle of pink and gray matter you’ve grown to trust and distrust, adore and despise, who, along with your heart, has conspired to bamboozle you into believing you are at the helm, and that you make of your life whatever you set your mind to and put your heart into. Equipped with this consummate hard drive of veins and nerves, slow to acclimate and accustomed to rooms that offer, at least, minimum clearance and virtually unfettered access to subway cars, you rush head long into a collision so painful that it’s all you can do not to scream murder.

A pain as merciless as sitting on a ripe boil on your ass that’s dying to be lanced, as ruthless as the scolding spray of your own shower if someone flushes the toilet depriving your perfect mixture of cold and hot water of the cold in a brownstone. It’s the kind of pain that clears your mind of everything, aside from the pain. First there’s a paralytic silence for an incalculably brief moment during which you try to will the synaptic responses of your nerves to take a coffee break- just this once, PLEEEEEZE- and not perform their sworn duty to alert your brain to any and all sensations…this moment is just long enough to wish you were Paul Maud’dib, the Kwisatz Haderach, with your hand in that box of pain, chanting the Bene Gesseritt litany against fear, opening your mind, expanding your consciousness, and sometimes, yes, sometimes, enabling your often disabled link to the Creator…yes, suddenly, your spiritual inbox has one unread message, you’ve got mail from the almighty himself: Call it what you will, a sign, a signal, an overactive imagination…

And its timing is often impeccable. Don’t let me be planning to do something of dubious morality, or in the middle of doing something that my conscience had been pinging me about. For instance, like that booty-call I’d just made and succeeded in setting up, and while rushing around my bedroom getting dressed to go do the deed, wondering if I should do at all, knowing that my girlfriend would not approve at all, and this is just the kind of thing that has lead to the lost of most of my previous girlfriends, one of which attempted suicide as a result of my betrayal, and that’s when I would stub my corned pinky-toe on the razor-sharp wooden foot of my bed frame, or bang my knee-cap on the solid oak TV stand, the one with as much give as the IRS. Well, while I’m gritting my teeth and my eyes are popping out of my head, and I’m kneeling– prostrate in this temple of mind-numbing pain, searing, throbbing agony, tears threatening if not streaming, so alive, too alive, mind cleared of all delusions—at this, of all times, clarity makes a rare appearance, like a message from the Creator. Actually I shouldn’t say appear…I should say that’s when I tell myself that whatever dastardly deed I was about to embark on, or whatever mischief I was involved in was something I ought not to, for there’s no evidence whatsoever of any other intelligence involved. And, sometimes, depending on the severity of the pain, or the clarity that follows the pain, I would postpone or even refrain from the act I was about to commit.

Yes, my private little superstitious practice; to hell with black cats, broken mirrors and ladders. I couldn’t care less about them. Pain was my primary prognosticator.

This clarity had saved my ass on many an occasion so it’s infallibility and perhaps its divinity is rarely questioned.

That is, not until I moved to Japan. Now I question every goddamn thing.

Here in the land of all that is Meek and Humble, the kind of pain I attributed to clarity happens regularly, so my superstition has subsided some. It wasn’t easy, I tell you. I still connect that omniscient pain with future events, but just as often I connect it with the failure of my brain to adapt to the challenges of a new environment and remain alert at all times.

Case and point: my home, full of doorways and furniture and appliances which require a bit of stooping, kneeling and bending on my part which means, basically, that I have to genuflect before entering my apartment and any room within. Just a little bow for the toilet bowl, show some respect for the shower room, a little obeisance for the bedroom, a little curtsy for the contents of my closet; the kitchen sink is lower so I have to defer to the dishes; the table is about a foot from the floor so I have to be meek to eat, humbled by hamburgers, show humility before hanging light fixtures… I don’t have a problem with the cultural differences…well not a big problem and, I guess, what must be the worst kept secret is that I want to fit in here and be respectful, as well. I have this idea about other cultures: They are to be shown the same respect that you would expect your culture to be shown.

And I want to learn…Though all I’ve known throughout my life is the Eurocentric idea of civilization I’m not convinced that theirs is the best (and not for lack of their trying either.). In fact, knowing historically that my people were forced to adapt to these Eurocentric ideas, and that it’s unlikely I’ll ever learn my actual ancestor’s ideas, I’m extremely open to other ideas, if for no other reason then to spite the ideas that were forced on Great grandma and grandpa. I grew up in a household that held these ideas in contempt, as much as one can do so in a Eurocentric society. My mother was as African as an African American separated from the bosom of her ancestry hundreds of years ago, living in a Europeanized culture that equated Africa with primitive, savagery, barbarism, and cannibalism can be. We didn’t eat with our hands or anything but you better believe I was wearing Dashikis and speaking Swahili at home.

And, from her I learned not to judge to harshly another’s culture for that’s exactly what was done to ours. Yet and still, my relationship with my Creator or my superstition, was mine, and not easily discarded. So, with the pain in my head acting as my guide, I bowed good bye to Natsumi.

 




Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

Words I love…

Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round

Words by: Sly Stone

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