Posts Tagged ‘teaching english


Black and White in Japan pt.6

I was not prepared for the level of verve I would have for the girls here in Japan. And, I don’t think any man can really prepare himself  for the onslaught of attention Japanese girls eagerly endow foreign men here. If a guy had had the same ratio of beautiful girls coming on to him or finding his charms irresistable back home then maybe he’d have developed the ability to manage his libido…I’m sure celebrities can identify. I certainly couldn’t.

Thus, I was like the proverbial fat rat in the cheese factory those first couple of years.

Joe and Greg witnessed this first hand. The parade of girls I’d march by them into my bedroom, while they sat in the livingroom watching movies or playing guitar. And each girl would give them that same look of utter embarrassment, looking like they wished they could just disappear or die, for she knew, like I knew, like my room mates knew, what was going to be happening in due course on the other side of that thin wall:

As Chic sang, Good times.

I didn’t understand why they weren’t doing the same and eventually chalked it up to they were too busy getting loaded to enjoy the fruits of their notoriety. They were both fairly handsome guys. Joe was even cool, in a bohemian way, young, smart, blond, blue-eyed, a Japanese girl’s wet dream come true. And Greg had this rough outback Malboro-Man thing going, (or maybe that was just my image of him) and he could play the six-string guitar like nobody’s business. I mean, when I say he played the guitar as a complaint, it’s only because he’d do it loud enough to disturb the neighbors and at all hours of the night. My qualms had NOTHING to do with his ability. He was truly gifted and a joy to listen to and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see his CD  and photos splashed all over some Tower Records store window display one day.

But, they just were not into the girls like I was. They’d eventually spread the word and I became known as the Machine among the Aussie community in Saitama. They’d come over to our apartment, loaded down with beers and snacks, and toast “to the Machine.”

But, I couldn’t be the source of the noise that was generating  ill will among our neighbors. It had to be the foreign sounds, I thought. Hell, everybody has sex, even Japanese (maybe not babies, though). I hear them occasionally, the thin walls do go both ways. But, I rarely hear televisions or radios or loud talking, even on weekends. Not at night, anyway.

And I told my room mates just that.

“Come on, now, Machine,” Joe said with a smirk. “That noise coming out of your room is not usual.”

“Yeah, man, it sounds like you’re slaying them with your big, black pocket monster,” Greg added. “I know all you guys are packing heavy!”

“Whoa!” I snapped. “Ok…”

“What?” Greg snapped back. “You trying to tell me that you’re not as big as a…?”

“I said WHOA motherfucker!” I snapped again. “Whoa means chill the fuck out with that shit!”

“What’s your problem?” he asked genuinely alarmed by my reaction to what he probably thought was a compliment.

My problem?” I cried looking at Greg then turned to Joe. “My problem?” I repeated.

They both sat there looking at me, stunned into silence at my outburst. I still hadn’t found the words to address this issue, though. I had actually planned to postpone any discussion of it until I had. Going into it half-cocked didn’t seem wise, considering the harmony of our living arrangement hang in the balance. And they were actually really cool guys and I’d heard Nova room-mate horror stories (kleptomania, assaults, property damage, etc…) so I knew I could easily be doing worse…much worse!

But, I felt things had come to a head.

“Listen fellas,” I said. “I don’t know how things are in Australia and New Zealand, or even in Japan for that matter, but I know how…how I’d like things to be in this apartment, in our home.”

They were still watching me, a little on guard. Greg more so than Joe. My outburst had put him on edge, and I could tell he was a fighter. I pictured him, through my Crocodile Dundee-tinted lenses, as one of those guys who punched people in the jaw as a greeting back home, where bar brawls were probably par for the course.  While Joe looked serene, sharp but pensive.

“I’m a little sensitive when it comes to racial…um…let’s say racial identification,” I began, and I knew I had stepped on a slippery slope. Especially when their eyes started bulging. “For example, the words Nigger, and Colored, even Negro…they just don’t sit well with me. You follow me?”

“What about black?” Joe asked. “Is black okay?”

Thrilled that I’d reached one of them I said almost excitedly, “Yeah! Black is, how do you say it, Sweet as!”

“Sweet as…” Joe said, smiling. Everything was Sweet as with him. It was his favorite phrase.

“What’s wrong with colored?” Greg asserted. “That’s what we call our color…black guys back home. They don’t seem to mind.”

“What can I tell you, man? I ain’t Australian,” I said as calmly as I could, for I could see Greg was still tense. “I’m from a place where calling a black man Colored, especially if it’s a young white guy like you doing it, is like saying, ‘I need someone to whip my ass. Are you busy?'”

They both fell out laughing. I joined in.

“I got you,” Greg said after a couple of minutes.

“I got a question, though,” Joe said through his laughter. “You know I like Hip Hop, so…”

“So you want to know why do a lot of the Hip Hop artist say Nigga all the time?” I said, anticipating where he was going. “That’s a difficult question. And I’m afraid I can’t even answer it. I mean, maybe they like to embrace the horror. Or maybe they think by overusing it they’re defusing it. Trying to render it harmless. Or maybe they are so young that they have no idea how hurtful the word used to be in their grandparents’ time. Maybe they’re just ignorant.  Talented, rich, influential, but ignorant. I really can’t answer that question.”

“Oh…” Joe sighed, looking bummed out. “That’s kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna sit here feeling sorry for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy…I think not,” I laughed. “Let’s go get some brews and wake up the neighbors. We can finish this meeting next time…”

“Now you’re talking!” Greg said.

And we lived happily ever after…

the end


PS: Happy Black History Month to you Americans out there!


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. (-:



Conversation (12/10/08)

Loco: How are you doing today?
Private Student: …I’m…I’m chotto, wakannai…
Loco: Are you ok? You seem troubled. How was work? Tough day, ne. Otsukaresama desu.
PS: No, I was not busy. It was quiet day.
Loco: That’s good, ne.
PS: Demo, saa…this morning on the train…
Loco: Ohhh no! Mata? Another chikan?
PS: Oh no no no! Chigau chigau…
Loko: What happened? Another suicide?
PS: No, not suicide. Chotto matteite. I want to say story in English.
Loco: Ok, ganbatte!
PS: On the train, it was crowded. And there was a black guy.
Loco: Uh huh.
PS: He was sitting anoo muko…across to where I was sitting?
Loco: Across from where you were sitting…
PS: Yes…across from me. Nobody sit next to him.
Loco: Sou da ne. So, what happened?
PS: That’s all. That happened.
Loco: Oh. Oh? Did it upset you?
PS: Hai! Yes it upset me very much. You have told me this happen to you but…eetooo…
Loco: But what? You didn’t believe me?
PS: I believe you. I just didn’t want to believe.            



10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #3: Learn that Japanese!

This should go without saying but I’m gonna say it anyway: #3 Learn that Japanese!

I studied French for 2 years in JHS, 4 years in HS and 2 years in University, and if you asked me right now how to say anything in French except “Would you like to do the nasty with me tonight?” I’d be hardpressed to answer you. Btw, it’s: voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Thanks for the French lesson Patti LaBelle (-;

Demo, Go-nen ni Nihon ni sunde ite mada perapera jyanakute mo kekkou syaberemasuyo. (But, I’ve been living in Japan for five years and even though I’m not fluent yet, I’m pretty good.) Listening is still difficult, my vocabulary is still embarrassingly low and the improper pronunciation of certain sounds persists despite my efforts (つ and す are my nemeses,) but I can get by until i can get there.

And, at the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s very useful, not to mention good manners, to at least try to speak the language of the people in the country where you live. Unfortunately, there are some people in the world who don’t agree.

“Why are you studying English?” I always ask potential students when I first meet them.

“I’m going to abroad so I want to communicate to foreigners.” (This is an exact translation of Japanese thinking. Notice that abroad is considered a place, meaning any place but Japan, and foreigners are people encountered in these places, meaning anyone not Japanese, no matter where they go the other people are foreigners, or rather outsiders.)

“Where are you going? I mean, which country?”


“Don’t you think you ought to study French?”

“France people speak English.”

I don’t push the issue. Last thing I want is ¥4000 yen an hour walking out of the door looking for Pierre or Jean to give their money to. And, he’s half right. I’m sure a good number of people in France can speak English. But, that doesn’t mean they want you to come there presuming they can speak English and totally disregarding their native language like it’s some kind of relic or outmoded or obsolete custom like slapping someone in the face with your gloves to indicate you want to have a duel (I’ll have satisfaction! swords or pistols? ah,the good ole days!) or wearing kimono on a daily basis. The statement you’re making: French is passe. English is the future! What country wants to hear that said about their national language?

Apparently, Japan does.

The Japanese, in general, do not care whether you study or speak Japanese or not, I’ve learned. I used to think it was because they considered their language a dead, dying or useless one. I later learned that, in fact, in most cases, the assumption is that we foreigners do not or cannot learn their language. Why? From what I could gather over the past 5 years they believe that our foreign brains are too limited to handle such a complexed language as theirs; accustomed, as our brains are, to the simplicity of (in the case of English speakers) a 26-letter alphabet and what not. So, of course we are forgiven well in advance for not even attempting to accomplish the virtually impossible. No offense taken. We understand. They’ll dish out offenses like these in heaping bowlfuls. And, I used to believe they were aware of how offensive this position is. It spurred me to study harder and prove them wrong, so i’m kind of glad I misunderstood.

But, you know what? They are oblivious….really…I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating or defending Japanese. To them, obviously Japanese is more complicated than English…I mean, look at Kanji compared to the alphabet. Those little stick figures we use to make words as opposed to those perplexing pictograms they use. And, obviously that means that Japanese brains are more complexed than Foreigners’. Obviously moisture collects in the atmosphere and falls to the earth in the form of rain or snow. And obviously E equals MC squared.

And, obviously, other country’s people speak English and we speak Japanese.

This problem is not solely a Japanese one, of course. Americans are perhaps more guilty of it. They really expect everyone to speak English.

In New York, English is useful but not mandatory nor essential. Many Haitians, Latinos, Middle Eastern, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and other Asians can’t speak it a lick, but they survive, and even thrive in some cases. It can get a little annoying sometimes, like when you get a cab driver who can’t understand the words coming outta yo mouth, but usually it doesn’t cause any unresolvable problems. But, in other areas of the country, they get really uptight about foreigners living in their country and not deigning to learn their language.

I would not be party to that so I studied Japanese for a few weeks before I came to Japan. Got myself a little head start. Then, once I arrived here I continued studying. I nailed all the basics. I could kore sore are dare, kono sono ano dono, koko soko asoko doko, etc…greetings and salutations were mastered. I used to go shopping just to practice…

Sore wa nan desu ka? Ikura desu ka? Ah, so desu ka. Ja, kore wo kudasai. Arigatou gozaimasu.

Shopping is a great place to practice. The staff at most shops are always polite. If you make a mistake, mispronounce a word or two, no problem. They’ll praise your Japanese ability profusely, regardless. In fact, all Japanese will praise you the same way.

“Ohayou Gozaimasu,” you say to anyone.

“Oooooo! Sugoi desu ne. Nihongo ga umai desu ne!” WOW! That’s wonderful! Your Japanese is great!

Yes, the Japanese will applaud the tenor for clearing his throat. It’s their way. Flattery is like a cultural icebreaker. Ignore your feelings about this mannerism. It means nothing, You must learn to accept it and not let it distract you from your study.

Also, there isn’t much room for error in Japanese. Nihongo is fraught with subtlety so it’s a very delicate and inflexible language…especially for foreigners. All Japanese are linked almost symbiotically so instinctively they know one another’s thoughts and feelings. But, you, as a foreigner, start any conversation with two strikes against you. You’re a foreigner-a swing and a miss: STRIKE ONE! You can’t speak Japanese and they can’t speak English (the automatic presumption in any conversation with someone you don’t know;) A knuckleball on the inside corner of the plate: STRIKE TWO! If you do not say what you want to say almost to perfection you will definitely be misunderstood. Yappari! STRIKE THREE! you’re out!

It will feel like they don’t want to understand you, trust me. Like there’s a conspiracy to discourage you, and they’re all in on it. But, I implore you: don’t go down that road. You will quit! And with a good deal of anger and resentment to boot. I’ve quit so many times. Just hang in there. Sooner or later things will start falling into place. Don’t expect any encouragement, though. You have to be a self-starter and self-motivated, like with most endeavors that are worthwhile in life.

I’ve put together a list below of the 10 most used and useful Japanese words I know. If you understand and can use these words effectively you’ll find yourself well on your way to understanding Japanese language and people.

1-Sumimasen (sometimes contracted to suimasen)- It’s the magic word in Japan. It means…everything. Sorry, excuse me, pardon me, thank you, hey you, repeat that…it’s used in so many context that I’m still learning new contexts from time to time.

2-Gomen Nasai – Basically, it means I’m sorry. That’s the easy part. Knowing when to say I’m sorry is the tricky part. I still have trouble with this one. I use Gomen nasai when I should have used Sumimasen, and vice versa. You just gotta listen to Japanese people use it and understand the situation (which is more difficult than it sounds) and you’ll pick it up. It also depends on the relationship with the person you’re speaking to. Gomen nasai has more emotion that sumimasen so you probably shouldn’t use it in public. But, I hear it done all the time. It’s hit or miss, but if you use it in the wrong scenario, chances are you’ll never know.

3-Yappari – (Aka Yappa) Loosely translated it means: As I thought or as expected or I knew it (as in, “I knew you was gonna say that shit,) but in the cultural context of Japan it indicates a certain comfort. It’s only used with people you know. It’s kind of rude otherwise. I used to call Japanese the Yappari hito (The As Expected People) because they’re always looking for consistency, predictability or confirmation of their beliefs. Most questions begin with “Do Americans…” “Do black people…” “Do foreigners…” Every time I turned around someone was using Yappari in reference to me. I used to stop at McDonald’s most every morning and pick up breakfast, usually the same thing: sausage mcmuffin, hash brown and orange juice. My co-workers would see me when I entered, glance at the bag and the “Yappari”s would begin. At lunchtime the Yappari parade was for the Coca-Cola I wash down my bento with. With the students, in the gym, it was for my jump shot (it’s about 65% accurate on a good day). I still think it’s kind of rude. So, I started eating rice balls, drinking Green Tea and shooting bricks on purpose just to stump them. And whenever they say Yappari, I say, “Yappari. I knew you were gonna say Yappari.” It’s always good for a laugh. Usually I’m laughing alone, though.

4-Ganbatte / Ganbare! – I have short love affairs with Japanese words and phrases. I love them and I leave them. My first affair was with “Sumimasen.” It was a hot, steamy, tumultuous rendezvous, with no strings attached, that lasted about six months. Now, she’s just a booty call. The second was with Ganbatte! Loosely translated it means “do your best” or “hang in there” or good luck.” I fell head over heels with Ganbatte and her twin sister, Ganbare. But, she was a cruel one. In the end she broke my heart. I was in the hospital room with Aiko’s mother and sister while she lay in the bed dying of cancer. She had gone into a coma that morning and her lungs weren’t working properly, so they had to feed her oxygen. Death was en route. So was her father. He was stuck on a train, some kind of delay. We were all taking turns talking to her, not knowing if she could hear us or not. Her mother, hoping her father would arrive before she passed kept saying, “Aiko, Ganbatte…Ganbatte ne,” through streaming tears. I’d heard and used the word a thousand times before then but I never truly felt it until that day. I’d never felt Nihongo at all, until that day. it was like some kind of tool, or weapon, or parlor trick before then. It was never real to me. Now, it’s real, and Ganbatte is the most real word in the Japanese vocabulary to me. When I use it, I feel it. I understand it.

5-Sou desu ne / Sou desu ka- (Aka: Sou da ne, sou ka) The Japanese are all about synchronicity and avoiding confrontations and Sou desu ne / desu ka achieves this to an extent. It doesn’t mean you agree, but it smells like agreement. It doesn’t mean yes but it suggests a respect for the speaker. It basically translate into something akin to when Americans use right, or uh huh, uh huh, so basically it means nothing. But, it’s used in virtually EVERY conversation you’ll ever hear in Japan, so listen and learn. but be careful of the other sou desu which means I’ve heard or there’s a rumor going around, but that one doesn’t stand alone. it usually follows a verb.

6- Otsukaresama desu – (AKA Ostukaresama deshita, Otsukare, Otsu) Here’s one of those ubiquitous Japanese phrases that simply can not be translated accurately into English. But, you’ll hear it everyday, all day, and eventually you’ll get a feel for when to use it and what it means. It’s something like “You must be tired” or “thanks for being an active contributor to our great society…this Bud’s for you!” or “I’m outta here! Peace!”

7-Sugoi / Kawaii – (Aka Suge, moe, moeeee) Well, not a day will go by in your life in Japan when one or both of these words will not be heard. Sugoi translate as wonderful or terrific, or awesome. And, Kawaii might as well be the name of this country. I call it Kawaii land sometimes it’s such a cultural staple. it translates as cute or pretty. But, it’s a feeling attached to it that pretty much sums up the ambition of an entire culture. It’s pretty scary sometimes. Actually Moe can be used for stuff that is cute and disgusting simultaneously like Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty.

8- Wakarimashita / Wakarimasen – (Aka: Wakatta, wakachatta, Wakannai, wakaranai, etc…) You got it? Got that? Understood? You with me? You there? Got it. Gotcha. I’m with you. I got it already. Alright already. I get it goddammit. I don’t know what the hell you mean. I don’t get it. I don’t know. Beats me. I don’t know anything about that!

9- Kanaa / Kamo / Tabun/ Deshou – The subtlety of Japanese is expressed through words like these. Basically they are ways of stripping anything you say of any directness or surety or accountability. Would you like to go to the movies with me? Tabun iku. Iku kanaa. Iku kamo. Maybe I’ll go, I might go, I’ll probably go. By the time you get a straight answer the movies on DVD.

10- Onegai Shimasu – You want something? Stick this at the end of your request. It’s hard to refuse. it roughly translates as do me a favor but it’s much nicer. I use it all the time. I probably overuse it. Wanna put a cherry on top? Change the shimasu to the more formal itashimasu.

Shitsurei shimasu – (Aka shitsurei shimashita) Also deserves honorable mention. It means something to the effect of Pardon my intrusion or forgive me for disrupting this harmonious gathering. It’s another veritable staple.

One more thing. I mentioned that you shouldn’t expect any encouragement. But, you need to find something to keep you motivated. I went through several stages. Initially I wanted to impress people back home. Then I wanted to nanpa (pick up girls.) Then I wanted to spit in the face of the Japanese assertion that their language is incomprehensible to foregners. Then I wanted to learn how to cut them down to size verbally in their own language. Then I wanted to get a better job. Then I wanted to improve my quality of life and gain some independence from the circle of Japanese people I’d recruited to assist me in all task that require a high proficiency in japanese. Then I wanted to…Well, you get the idea. It doesn’t matter what you use to keep yourself going, just keep going! Just keep going!

That’s about all the leads and incentive I can give you on studying Japanese. Hang in there and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll be smiling all the way to the Immigration office to renew your visa (I just got a 3 year extension so I’ll be smiling til 2012 (-:

By the way, that leads me into #4: Just keep Smiling (-:



Me and Japan pt 3: Vexation and Vigilantism

…and once I get vexed, well…what can I say? I’m a New Yorker. I have to represent. If you violate personally you should expect some kind of personal repercussion. That’s a simple maxim, and a universal one, I thought. And even if that maxim doesn’t mean a thing in Japan I’m pretty sure Newton applies here…evidence to the contrary, Japan is still on the planet earth, so it ought to be understood that: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Y’all remember Death Wish, right?

I think there were 5 sequels. I’ve only seen parts 1 and 2, but that was enough. Charlie Bronson was violated, and he reacted! I think he overreacted a bit. All of those crooks didn’t have to die. But, they needed to be taught a lesson. I came to Japan to teach English, but, like Charlie, I felt thrust into the role of teaching something else: A little common decency; American style.

I ought to apologize, though. I probably made the lives of a number of foreigners in the Tokyo / Yokohama area a little harder…their experience here a little more intense,…the Japanese a little more afraid of them, especially the black guys. Gomen ne. (Sorry) But, living in Japan had become a daily vexation…if you’ve read some of my other posts (an empty seat, the crush, Shaking Shit Up, etc…) you have an idea of what I’ve been tolerating on a daily basis: Basically, the intolerable.

I thought a little retaliation was in order. At least i thought so in this 2nd phase.

Granted, I was warned. By people, by books, by movies…the word was out: Japanese people are shy (a pleasant little euphemism for xenophobic and/or racist) and not prone to displaying their true emotions. I could have come here and accepted their “shyness” on face value. I actually tried. But, I’d never seen such active and aggressive shyness before. It was fascinating at first. Almost comical. Until, come phase 2, when I lost my sense of humor about it entirely. I mean, sometimes it’s just offensive, and that’s barely tolerably in itself. And, other times…well, it’s taken to a point that no man with a sense of his own humanity can stand, that anyone with feelings can bear. It’s taken overboard.

Innocent or not, it had to be addressed.

I tried to understand it, first. To find some rationale for accepting it aside from this is their country and if I don’t like it I can go back to my own country. That’s certainly a sentiment a certain segment of Americans would spit at foreigners complaining about being abused. So. that one held me in check for a long time…until I paid a big fat tax bill, and then another and another and another…And I graduated my third-year students and found myself in tears, and helped carry a shrine through the streets of Yokohama, and had run into a former student from a few years back on the train and been told (with eyes welling and in pretty damn good English) that I was the best English teacher she’d ever had and thanks to the advise I’d given her she was able to secure her dream job as an English language tour guide in Japan, etc…In other words, I LIVE HERE, TOO.

Yep, the flame of self-righteous indignation was ablaze.

In my effort to understand it, I went into a long period of deep observation and experimentation. The results of which I hadn’t truly finalized until phase 3 (which I’ll discuss in later posts.) They say, don’t drive mad. Well, don’t research mad should be a saying, too. It can really bungle your results something awful. I mean, I should have started my research with a more careful examination of my own issues. But, at the time, I was seeking blame externally, and only incorporated any internal issues that supported the conclusions I wanted to arrive at, the foregone ones.

I asked myself a series of leading questions. For example: Why are Japanese so insensitive to my feelings? Can they be so obtuse as to believe that since I come from a different country and culture that I don’t share the capacity to feel as they do? I thought this, mental pen and pad in hand, while I watched (without making it obvious I was watching…like a Conservationists observing some endangered species’ mating rituals in the wild) an occurrence that takes place about 5-10 times a day: a man on the train shifted to an unnatural angle in order not to have me in his direct line of sight yet still be able to observe me peripherally, like a fish. Another man on the other side of me is stealing glances when he thinks I’m not looking and when I glance up purposely to test his reaction, he, as expected, darts his head away, like a fish when you tap your knuckle against the bowl. I generously chalked this kind of behavior up to their curiosity overwhelming their decorum. They know they shouldn’t be staring, and in their misinformed, stereotype-plagued minds it’s actually dangerous to do so, but they can’t help themselves. Even at the risk of being rude they feel compelled. They would prefer to be natural, to look or not look and feel no ways about it. But, because I’m not Japanese they are placed in this awkward situation. So, I wondered: Do they blame me? But, that would suggest that they weren’t insensitive to my feelings. That they were well aware that I possessed the same feelings as they but somehow this was retaliation. I’d made them uncomfortable by being in their vicinity so they were going to make me uncomfortable by treating me like a spectacle.

Was that the rationale? I didn’t jump to conclusions, though. I’m a piss-poor researcher for sure but I’m not an idiot.

When there’s an empty seat beside me on a crowded train, which occurs quite often, I pretend to read my book (it’s just a prop when I’m in research mode) and watch as well as I can the reaction of people on the train to the seat. Sometimes a man will board and see the seat. Though I avoid looking up at his face, I can tell by the position of his feet that he is facing it. He’s close. He’s huffing and puffing, making guttural Japanese noises I’ve learned indicate annoyance. Annoyance at what, I wonder. At being put into such a position by my mere presence? Annoyed at an empty seat’s shout of, “sit on me you asshole!” exposing the things he’d rather not know about himself, and about his brethren? It yells “you are all cowards at best, racists at worst.” It sighs, “you are so easily manipulated.” It belittles him. The empty seat ridicules them. Hell, I would get angry too if a seat made me feel like shit.

But, this was all projection on my part. I needed confirmation.

My first experiment was performed in order to confirm that they shared my feelings. One of those values embedded in Western culture is “do unto others as you would have done unto you” or something like that. Well, I decided to do some doing unto them. See how they like it. So, for a few months, I pretended to be Japanese. As soon as I began this experiment I knew it was going to be a total failure.

On the first day, I was nervous. I felt…bad. But, hell, they needed a taste of their own medicine, i just didn’t know if i was up to the task of administering it.



Maybe you’ve seen me. I was that black guy on the train not sitting next to a Japanese person. Funny, right? If anything, they were relieved. So, I had to be overly overt. I’d rush to an open seat, get half-way into the seated position, time enough for the person sitting beside it to notice that a Gaijin was about to sit beside them, and then I’d look at the person, and pretend to be shocked to find a scary-ass Japanese person there, donning the best look of fear I could muster. I must have looked like Buckwheat in the haunted house. I probably scared them more than I was pretending to be afraid. Tell me I ain’t going loco. The person looks and visually is so relieved I didn’t sit down that they actually exhale audibly “Phew!”

Have you seen me? I was that black guy on the crowded train surrounded by Japanese people, looking terrified (see picture again)  bouncing from person to person, with a look on my face and a manner in my body language that indicated I believed coming into contact with any of them would expose me to a lethal disease that kills slowly and painfully and for which there is no cure…and receiving the most bizarre looks you can imagine in return. My fear scared them more than my book reading and Tetris playing ever did.

Sometimes I’d strike pay dirt. Like if some guy would bump up against me on the train, I’d turn around and give him a dirty look and then, most conspicuously, pull my wallet out of my back pocket, gesticulating a bit to draw attention (as if that were necessary), repeatedly peeking back at him, with a lot of tooth-sucking and eye-rolling, check its contents, and then place my wallet in my front pocket and give him one last dirty look. You know what pay dirt looks like? He’d wince ever so slightly, like maybe someone stepped on his toe. He wouldn’t even acknowledge me. That’s the most reaction I’ve ever gotten.

Yes, it failed miserably. Yappari, deshou? (As expected, right?)

This vexed me further. How the hell could someone ignore what I’d been doing? Acknowledge me goddammit! I mean, I’d mimicked their most offensive reactions to me as best I could. It was really difficult. I’d never really snubbed people before, not conspicuously anyway. I’ve had precisely zero experience doing this kind of thing. I’ve never even had cause to treat people with seething contempt or malice… And, I’ve never been afraid of a people, per se. A person, sure. But, not a whole race, and of course not any race other than my own. That’s just too absurd a notion for a New Yorker.

I wanted some satisfaction! It was time to take the gloves off.

to be continued…


Home Alterations pt.1

I’d built this trip home up in my mind to be just what my spiritual adviser would advise if I had one…an adviser, that is. I have a spirit, I think. Three years have passed since I’ve seen NY. Much too long. Long enough for home to become idealized, for NY to become a shining city on a hill, for America to become a beacon of diversity and open-mindedness cast on a rigid, small-minded world…I mean, Japan. I’ve built up Japan as, culturally, the Anti-America. And, thank god for that. If I had seen even a faint glimmer of a time in the near or distant future when Japan would become tolerant of foreigners, I would have given up my US passport years ago…and be disqualified from voting in this election. Yes, I’d be kicking my own ass all over Yokohama, regretting the worst, hastiest decision I’d ever made.

At least, that was what I thought prior to passing through customs at JFK and having that post 14-hour flight stogy that left me dizzy with a nicotine rush; a dizziness that didn’t subside until I landed back at Narita ten days later wondering why the hell was I glad to be back here.

Yes, what I learned quite cruelly this trip home is that Japan has a way of creeping up on you, and just when you least expect it…BANG! ZOOM! POW! Right in the kisser!

I spent weeks preparing for my trip. Made a to-do list, a to-buy list, a to-meet, and a to-see list; a comprehensive compilation of all those activities and things and people and places that for me make home home . Highlights included: canvassing door-to-door for Obama in North Philadelphia and a food tour of all my favorite spots all across NYC. I couldn’t have been any more excited.

But, ultimately, the purpose of the trip home was to take part in the most significant event in my country’s history: The election of Barack Obama. If any of you have had the chance to peruse my other two blogs ex-pat for obama or my latest start-up Hail to the Mutt, you know that I have been following his campaign very closely and passionately, as I intend to follow his presidency. So, of course I had to be there. Win or lose. I came prepared to shed tears, riot, protest, or celebrate. Fortunately, nothing untoward went down and all went as expected…

At least, nothing had gone awry with the election, that is. But, back in Loco’s world…

I’d called my mother a month prior, and told her she could expect to see me come Halloween and she was overjoyed…that is, until I stuck my foot in my mouth.

“Can I stay with you for a spell?” I asked

“Yeah, no problem,” she said a little tentatively.

“Don’t worry, I won’t get under your hair…I’ll probably be out most of the time anyway canvassing for Obama. Gonna run down to Philly and wake some undecideds up and I’m gonna be driving seniors to the polls and…”

“Are you coming here to see your mother, who, by the way, you haven’t seen in…what…almost 3 years, or are you coming for…”she yelped.

“Well, come on, Ma. We’re talking about history here! A black president! I mean, of course I’m gonna spend time with you but I gotta do what I can for the change I believe…”

“Jesus, you can’t get on a fucking plane for your mother, but for Obama you can?”

“Ummm…” Yes We Can, right? Fuck!

Anyway. that’s how it started. Me being insensitive to my mother’s ever increasingly fragile emotional state. Some son I am. By the time I was packed and ready to embark on my Obama mission, not a month after that ill-fated phone call, I get the news from her husband (not my father), who’s a real prick: “Your mother’s in an alcohol rehab drying out and…you can’t talk to her! She can’t get calls for 28 days.”

Thanks a lot motherfucker! “Well, I’m staying there so I’ll see you tomorrow?” I had to ask. It’s his house.

“Well…I don’t know about that…”

“What do you mean?” This motherfucker!

“I don’t know about that.”

“She didn’t tell you I was staying there?”

“I…I…” He’s an effete, feeble old fuck, did I mention?

“Listen, old man, I’ve had my fill of half-ass answers over here. Can I stay there? All I need is a yes or a no!”

“Well..I don’t know…”

Click!!! Fuck him!

It’s NY, so i didn’t sweat it. I got backups galore. I got people everywhere. I called my former landlord, who’s like a second mother- so much so that my primary mother, at 67, is still jealous of her- and she just happened to have room. Room…hell. She has a four-story brownstone in Bed-Stuy where she’s currently living alone. Though she can definitely use the money, she can only take but so much of her tenants’ bullshit. I was the only one she got along with. She just happens to be my best friend’s mother so she practically raised me. I even call her Ma.

“Sure you can stay here, but you gotta clean your shit out of the basement!” I’ve been storing a number of boxes down in her cellar ever since I set out for the Far East 5 years ago. Unfortunately, so have a number of her other former tenants, so she was feeling that her generosity wa being a bit abused. “Or at least hit me off for storage.”

“No problem, Ma. And, thanks! See you Halloween.” Did I mention she’s the coolest Mom in the world? Well, consider it mentioned.

I arrived at JFK International airport, American Airlines terminal. I don’t know if any of you have ever been there, but suffice it to say that by the time you get from the plane to the baggage rotary you know- without question- that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You walk about 12 miles through a twisting, drearily lit labyrinth of dingy carpet, droning smile-less staff, alongside 200 or so people who look like they’ve had the life sucked out of them. 14 hours in economy class will do that to most people. The line for Immigration is a mile long on account of the staff, God knows why, not being prepared for this International arrival, and though there are twenty or so booths, there are only 2 Immigration officers, who have the audacity to have a conversation with each other from their respective booths about how they’re supposed to be on their dinner breaks and how they hate this shit. Finally you get to one of the booths and the officer glances at your bona fides, notes that you haven’t been stateside in a spell and welcomes you back to America with as much warmth as the stewardess on the plane had explained what to do if, god forbid, your Boeing 777 took a nosedive over the Bering Strait.


Once you’re through Customs, a solid hour and a half after landing, you’re finally on American soil, so to speak, and are immediately accosted by cab drivers while a recorded announcement, in a language you can refreshingly understand entirely, informs you that, by no means, should you get into a taxi with a driver who is pandering in the Airport lobby. And you notice something else…something disturbing: After five worry-free years amid the harmless Japanese, living in an area where going to sleep without locking the door isn’t something you’ll be kicking yourself in the ass about the next day, where you are essentially the only threat to the serenity of the neighborhood, every American you pass looks like a threat to your belongings if not your life. You try to relax, tell yourself that this is home, goddammit, and these are the people you know all too well. You tell the third driver to get in your face, “No, sorry, but I won’t be needing a taxi this evening,” and he gives you an up-and-down and once-over. It takes a second for the reason to catch up with you. You glance down at yourself: Obama T-shirt, Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie, Old Navy down vest, Levi blue jeans, Timberland standard-issue construction boots, Kangol busket fishing hat sitting slightly crooked on your head. You’re ‘hood-friendly, well-camouflaged. What the fuck? Then it clicks. It’s your English: wayyyyy too formal. You should’ve said, “Nah, Bruh, I’m all set…I gotta rental,” or “back up off uh me, Yo! If I needed a cab I woulda got at you the first time you asked,” or something like that. You shake your head and wonder what the hell has happened to me???

The thing is, I’ve been teaching English to ESL students as well as living among English speakers from all over the globe for five years straight and over the course of that time, I managed to subdue my Brooklyn accent a bit and standardized my English substantially. Not to impress people so much as to ease comprehension. The result: my appearance doesn’t match my syntax. This is by no means a new issue for me. But, I’ve always been able to turn it on and off almost unconsciously depending on the environment I found myself in. This slip-up was a red flag.

Once I obtained my rental and was on the road, don’t you know I went East when I should have gone West. Was headed out to Long Island before I caught myself. This is a route I’ve taken so many times over the course of my life that this kind of error was jarring. For the second time in less than an hour, I felt like a tourist in my hometown. And, as I drove, something else dawned on me that I hadn’t considered while I was trying to go through the motions of being back in my element: I hadn’t driven a car in 3 years! The mechanics are pretty much like riding a bike. But, NY highway traffic takes some…let’s put it this way: for me, there’s something fatalistic about driving in NY. There’s a certain daring involved. No one gives you anything. Courtesy is rare. Decisiveness is mandatory. You wanna switch lanes, turn on your blinker and take it.  And, in taking it, you also kind of take your life in your hands. But, there’s a flow, a synchronicity and a rhythm to it that diminishes the danger a bit. Having been reared in it, I never had a problem with this road culture…

…until now. I felt wayyy out of sync. It was dark and I was tired and intimidated. I stayed in the right lane and still drew horns.

I arrived at Ma’s house, shaken and stirred. I gave her a big hug and a small wad of cash. She gave me a key and the skinny on what had gone down over the past five years. We shared a joint and I tried to shed my jet lag. But, it wasn’t working. I popped open my laptop and I had a voice-mail on the SKYPE line from Sharlene, one of my best friends. I called her back.

Right off, she hit me with, “I got laid off Wednesday and Wendy got laid off today.”


“Yeah, this economy is fucked…Aaaanyway, we’re celebrating our independence…Come hang out with us.”

I heard “Ok…” come out of my mouth, but it must’ve been the weed talking.

I should’ve taken my ass to bed.

…to be continued


Ducking and Bobbing

“Kyou Ji-mu ni ikanai no?” Aren’t you going to the gym today? Kana asked. I opened my eyes, carefully rolled over to the side of the bed and checked the time on my cell phone. Shit, it was 9:00am already. I felt like I’d just gone to sleep. I’d told Kana last night that I was going to play ball today and I had every intention of doing so. I was about to hop out of the bed like I usually would but thought better of it and clawed and crawled from under the quilt and two comforters and climbed out cautiously.

“Daijoubu?” you ok? she asked, probably noticing the difference. “Ojii-san mitai.” You look like an old man.

I grunted an ambiguous affirmative. Minimally, an OK morning requires a warm bedroom. Our bedroom was freezing, and it was only going to get worse once I stepped out of it. I could literally see my breath, thick enough to blow smoke rings. And I blame her! I blame her for a number of irrational reasons that seem fair game when I wake up in the morning, emerge from three layers of wool and down, dressed in sweat pants, a hoodie and tube socks, and suddenly feel like I’m roughing it the Adirondacks in the middle of January. She chose this fucking igloo posing as an apartment that we live in and I pay for. Moreover, it’s her country that compels us to conserve energy by making oil, gas and electricity practically luxuries. The oscillating space heater at the foot of the bed tempted me to sit in front of it and dawdle a bit but I thought better of that, too. If I sat back down, chances were I’d lay back down and the next time I opened my eyes it would’ve been noon. And that small window I’ve allotted myself for a weekly workout would slam shut once again. I slid the door open, ducked through the doorway.

The gym opens at 10am on Sundays and I planned to be there when it did. On Sundays I have 4 private students, each an hour long, so every Sunday from 2pm until 8pm I am busy teaching English. In fact, every damn day of the week I’m busy teaching English. I work Monday through Friday, 8-4 at a Junior High School, with at least 1 and sometimes 2 private students in the evening, and on Saturday I also have 4 private students for a grand total of 15. At 3500 yen a pop it’s not a bad deal, and it keeps me out of the kind of trouble I used to get into when I had free time up the wazoo. You’d think I’d have used that time to set to paper the great American novel I’d been writing in my head since I was 17, but nope. I’d had better things to do then. Now I have no time and ideas up the wazoo. Seems me and my wazoo can never get on the same page.

Generally on Sunday mornings at the gym, I meet up with a couple of other players. The reason I joined the gym was because they offered basketball -a rarity in health clubs in Japan- so I considered it a bonanza not only to find one with, albeit, a lonely half-court, but for it to be only one station away from my crib at that.

I stepped through the doorway to the staircase, ducking the top edge of the door. I have to be especially careful when I enter and exit rooms because of the low-clearance. At least twice a week I drop my guards and WHAM, temporary drain bamage. Or worse, I recover from a bend a little early and it’s the give-less doorway versus the top of my head  which leaves me feeling like my neck should be broken. So, moving about the house requires a series of bows and bobs, stoops and dodges. I make my way downstairs to the bathroom for the morning whiz and brace myself for the Frigidaire.

I wouldn’t say our duplex is drafty but there must be leaks somewhere. I just can’t seem to find them. It’s like the cold comes in through the walls, windows and up through the spaces between the parquet wooden floors. I tried that old ghetto insulation, putting blankets and what not at the foot of doors and sliding windows, but that hasn’t helped. And the bathroom…that fucking bathroom is the worse! It called for some drastic action so I went out and bought a miniature space heater just for the bathroom. I have a number of pet peeves and a cold bathroom is in the upper echelon. I want to keep it on at all times but every time Kana uses the bathroom she shuts it off.

Yeah, it’s easy to point the finger at her.

“Why is this house so fucking cold???” I screamed out in exasperation as I do every so often. I wanted to take a dump but I’d be damned if I was going to do it then. I stooped through the doorway- this one lower than the others in the house- and turned on the toilet space heater. Then I went and made a pot of coffee while I waited for the toilet room to get warm enough to consider sitting in it. In Japan, the bathroom and the “toilet room are in separate places, sometimes on opposite sides of a hallway, sometimes next to each other, but generally separated by at least one door. It makes sense to me. I mean, I think of the many times when I had girls staying with me in my brownstone apartment in NY and if I was taking a bath and they had to take a shit, either I’d have to be inconvenienced by having to vacate the tub until she was done or have the artificial bouquet of my dish-washing liquid derived bubble bath invaded by the aromatic yet perfumy odor of a girl’s number two. However intimate it may be, the 2nd room idea is a cinch as an improvement.

The sink has last night’s dishes in it. Kana is against dishwashing. She loves cooking but cleaning the kitchen afterwards fucks up her high. And even if she does deign to do it she does such a half-assed job that I lose my mind. Also on my list of peeves are half-cleaned dishes. I think this peeve is derived from an episode my Moms had when I was young. There were six of us and my mother was doing all the cooking and, like Kana, she’d be damned if she was going to clean up after us. So, we did it in rotation according to a duty roster. My older brothers found a roster laughable and they were away half the time anyway, and my older sister had moved away, so they weren’t a part of the rotation, thus it fell to me and my younger sister, Iisha. Anyway, disgruntled at being forced to do what television had shown me time and time again was a woman, specifically a Mother’s duty, I probably did them half-assed from time to time, and I know Iisha was a half-asser. She really hated doing them. Then, one day, my mother got sick. So sick that she had to be hospitalized. It was a very scary thing not to have someone you depended on for everything around for an indefinite amount of time. And a terrifying thing to see this force of nature in a hospital bed looking like there’s no tomorrow. I blamed myself, with some help from my mother. She laid on the guilt pretty strongly as mothers are apt to and adept at doing. Hepatitis, the doctor had informed her, was behind her illness, and he suggested it might have been contracted as a result of half-ass cleaned dishes. He must have been a quack or maybe my mother misunderstood what she’d been told. But, I didn’t know shit about Hepatitis at the time and neither did my mother. I don’t even know what alphabet it was A, B, C, D, or E. But she bought the doctor’s quakery hook, line and sinker, and blamed us, and since my little sister and I were doing most of the cleaning anyway, I blamed myself and ever since have been a little on the anal side when it comes to clean dishes. I don’t mind cleaning dishes. I just don’t like to be told or asked to do them. If I don’t do them for some reason just accept it and wait for me to get around to them, or do them yourself. Nor do I want to be told thanks for washing the dishes, like Kana has a habit of doing. I guess she feels compelled to because of the disparity between the way she does it and the way I do. I’m like a human bottle of bleach. I clean dishes and silverware with a Brillo Pad or at least a soapy scouring pad. I scrub the black off of cast iron frying pans. I don’t release a pot into the drainer until it squeaks. My metal sink shines, my stove gleans, and I put dishwashers to shame.

I aimed the gas-powered space heater in the living room at the kitchen and knocked out the dishes. The sinks in Japan, due to the height of the people I guess, are much lower than the sinks in the US, so I have to bend over quite a bit to wash them. While the coffee brewed and the toilet room warmed, I bathed in the warmth wafting from the heater.

A typical wintry Sunday morning in Yokohama.

That is, until I bent over even further to put the knives in the knife rack under the sink and I felt a twinge. And froze. There was nothing abnormal or unusual about the movement, no strain, nothing awkward, and no unusual exertion to warrant its arrival. It just came. Slowly, painfully slow, I returned to an upright position. The twinge…actually I can hardly call it a twinge, too premature, but it was something. It was not painful. It was just there, ominously so.

I decided to stretch…stretching was the ticket. It was all I could do not to panic.

A couple of weeks ago, on the last day of school before the winter holiday, I didn’t have any classes to teach so I went to the school gym to shoot the ball around. While I was there some of my 3rd year students came in the gym to practice. When they saw me with a basketball they were ecstatic. I’d been working there for about 3 months but they’d never had an opportunity to play ball with me. It’s a given that they’d never seen a black man play ball except on TV so this was an incredibly rare opportunity for them. Something they’d probably tell their kids and grandkids about it’s such an anomaly. In their minds Black People are the authority on a couple of things, and one of them is sports. I hate this kind of thinking, as you might expect, but they’re just kids and it’s hard to get angry at them the way I get vexed at their parents for reaching adulthood and maintaining that level of ignorance. In fact, when the kids start in on me, I actually got excited about showing them a little of the playground legend shit I used to do not so long ago. If only I’d been wearing sneakers. In Japanese schools, as in Japanese homes, outdoor shoes are not allowed, and gym shoes are to be used in the gym, so actually I was already breaking the rules by shooting around in the sandals I wear around the school.

“Danku shite,” dunk it, one kid said, like dunking was in the repertoire of all black people.

“Dekinaiyo,” I can’t, I said. He looked bewildered, like I’d said I can’t read. Once he realized I was serious his disappointment was plain.

I shot a jumper, and since I was already warmed up a bit by the time they’d arrived, it looked pretty good as it swished in, snapping the net a little.

Ohhhs and ahhhs all around.

I passed one of them the ball. He proceeded to shoot with the kind of form any coach in the US or even Argentina for that matter, would be would be proud of. He effortlessly knocked down the jumper from about 20 feet. Like this was something he did everyday all day. Another grabbed the rebound and a third, about the same height- 5’9 or so, gave him a little defense. The ball carrier did a wicked crossover, shaking the defense loose, and cut for the basket while the other regained his composure just in time to block the shot by smacking it against the backboard. Watching them I had a vision of the Olympics in the not too distant future and the so-called American Dream Team capturing the Bronze metal in Basketball, Kobe Bryant shaking hands with Takeshi Tanaka, point guard of the Japanese team who just triple-doubled him to the tune of 47 points, 15 assist, 10 rebounds and 3 block shots.

And that’s when stupidity got the best of me and I decided to defend this guy. His intimidation of my height and weight advantage lasted for about 6 dribbles of the ball. I could see the change in his eyes. He was going to show this black guy how well he’d been studying the NBA. He was fast and clever and had some moves I’ve rarely seen in the flesh in his repertoire. His 15 year old legs were strong, coordinated, with an elasticity I’ve never had even when I was his age. He had a handle and was prepared to be defended the way Kobe might defend him. He expected me to try and out athleticize his ass. But, I’ve been a cagey veteran for a while now, so I pretended I intended to do that, but hung back a deceptive distance. I wasn’t even going to attempt to defend a drive to the boards but indicated I was expecting one with my body language. So, when he tried his jumper he was surprised to find me right in his face. Surprised, but not dissuaded. He pump faked and I faked a block and then when he released it I really didn’t have to jump to swat his jumper across the gym.

Ohhhhhs and ahhhs all around.

His intimidation returned with a vengeance and it felt damn good to be the source. Here I was: a good 20 plus years on him and wearing sandals at that. I could imagine what they must’ve been thinking. With great deference the ball was given to me and another guy who had been chomping at the bit for a go at me stepped up. I slid over to him and showed him some of my wary moves. Not fast or fancy, just time-honored and well-honed. I carried on like this for about 30 minutes or so and had worked up a nice sweat so I called it quits. Before I left, they all lined up and bowed to me. Not because of my game…they couldn’t have been that impressed. My game is streaky at best and straight suspect at worst. The bowing thing is just something that Japanese cats do. They bow for everybody and everything. They bow at the ATM and on the cell phone. After a while you just get used to seeing it; took me about 2 years.

I was feeling pretty good and went to bed that night feeling young and spry. I’d put it on those young whipper snappers but good, and I wasn’t even in my Nikes. I’d decided to meet with them weekly and get some games going. I’d told Kana about it. She was impressed.

“Ojii-san,” old man, she said, “Wakazukuri suru neso you’re trying to be young, and proceeded to give me another task to prove my vitality, which I did with flying colors.

The next morning I’d awakened with a twinge. I ignored it. Usually I ignore it and it goes away. But, later that evening, en route to meet my second student at a café in Jiyugaoka, it came back with a vengeance. I’d just gotten off the train and was about to take on a long steep set of stairs when the pain stabbed me in the lower back area so forcefully that I thought it was in my chest and I was experiencing the first of what will be several heart attacks I’m likely to have over the course of my middle age.

I froze, my vision blurred by pain and dizziness, and the staircase began to look like an obstacle I wouldn’t ever consider tackling again. For a second I thought of how fucked I’d be if I collapsed or needed help. But, the anger that thought generated only increased the pain. The pain was humbling. I was at everyone’s mercy. I was about to unload my broken Japanese on the station staff who were watching me curiously.

The pain was paralyzing me. I stood there, helpless, frozen, alone, with thousands of rush hour eyes raking me as they passed. I felt afraid, like a child that had gotten separated from his parents in the subway, surrounded and being eyed by thousands of people who looked like the kind of strangers that his parents had warned him to beware of, and they were somehow aware of his predicament.

I had to get out of there. I had to get home. After all, I wasn’t really paralyzed. And if I was really having a heart attack, the way Richard Pryor had described his episode, I would have definitely known it by then. So, I tested the range of motion available to me without eliciting excruciating pain. This testing process almost cost me consciousness. My vision actually blurred and I felt the diminished capacity in the normal use of my mental faculties. For a couple of seconds panic had me because I really didn’t know what I could do. I had momentarily lost the ability to save myself, like a fly caught in a web.

Then it leveled off, the pain did, all of a sudden, or maybe I just realized that my fear of the pain was the only reason I hadn’t moved and if I wasn’t going to suck it up and move on then I might as well had died then and there. And, move on I did. I was walking like Frankenstein with a knife in his back, but I was walking, and that was progress. The staircase before me became traversable. Slowly I began the climb, one step at a time, like a puppy taking on his first staircase, fearful yet determined. And as I climbed I remembered that this was not the first time this had happened.

I remembered the first time I had been stricken so. I was working as a consultant at a housing organization back in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, having the time of my life. I was writing for a local newspaper, volunteering at several community organizations, corresponding regularly with my literary agent while preparing a final draft that she had confidence would find a home in a publishing house. I had a girlfriend who was beautiful and intelligent and liked to get high as much as I did. I was surrounded my friends and family and a community that supported me and I had started my own home improvement business which I was thoroughly convinced would make me entirely self sufficient. I’d quit my 9-5 a year earlier and had changed my life so dramatically that I was almost unrecognizable. I was on such a high, then. I was on the verge of living the life I’d always wanted to live and I felt invincible, indestructible.

Then, one hot summer day, there was a lull, a slow day at the office where I did my consulting work, so I leaned back in my chair, threw my feet up on my desk and took a power nap, the Air Conditioning cooling my body glistening with the sweat I’d worked up that morning breezing around the community on my Specialized Mountain Bike coordinating the installation of yard lights, dreaming of living the life I had already begun to live. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and ready to continue the day. I stood up to go to the bathroom and take a power leak. On the way to the bathroom I abruptly sneezed and maybe I’d tried to contain it a little for my co-worker was headed in my direction and I didn’t want to spray her, but that’s when it began…I felt something happen. I couldn’t be sure until I returned to an erect position, the violence of the sneeze having caused me to lunge forward and bend over. And once erect I felt like someone had taken a steel rod and shoved it up my ass, through my spine, up to the base of my neck. I hollered in agony and my co-workers rushed to my aid.

I was in the throes of agony so I can’t remember exactly what happened, only that everyone had all kinds of advice, chiropractors and hot baths and tiger balm and the likes. Eventually I was able to move and I made my way home, fortunately walking distance from the office, and climbed into my tub, sat there for a few hours and then climbed into bed, feeling helpless, deflated, and defeated. I thought my life was over. If I had to endure this kind of pain, this kind of immobility, even occasionally, I didn’t want to live. The toll it would have on the lifestyle I had mapped out for myself would be too severe. A lifestyle that included daily excursions on my bike, tri-weekly trips to the basketball court, summers at the beach, evenings in my home office, seated at my desk writing the great American novel. In the pain I was in, even rolling over in the bed would be a crucible.

Fortunately, the pain went away, but it had been so agonizing that I remained traumatized.

Till this day…

And when I felt that twinge at the kitchen sink I had a flashback that was almost as terrible as the actual pain. While I stretched I decided that I wasn’t about to go to the gym today and play Jeopardy with my back. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t go. As I made my way to the bathroom I thought about how much I really love playing basketball, how much i really needed to play. It’s the only real stress relieving exercise I do. My only chance to blow off the steam I build up over the course of a week. On the court I can really release myself and that way I can…WHAM! I slam my head in the doorway to the bathroom!


I sat on the toilet, rubbing my head, thinking about the seven foot doorways of home.

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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