Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dial 119

Some countries become characters in their own right. Before I left for India, a fellow waiter said: "Tell Mother India I say hello." I'd smiled politely, surprised this man in black so adept with a corkscrew was really a New Ager in disguise. But after a few months on the subcontinent, India became she. She became Mother. She enchanted and repelled, sheltered and shunned. She taught me what I didn't know I'd needed to learn. "Say hello to Mother India," I hear myself say to a friend en route to Delhi.

And now, there's Japan. Its status as a character in the saga of my life grows stronger every day. "Oh, Japan," a fellow English teacher sighs when she reads a billboard emblazoned with Japanglish: "Great looks. And brian, too." When I first arrived I'd found these errors humourous, even charming. That was during the honeymoon phase when Japan was as fresh and bright as the rising sun.

But now I sigh, too. I don't know why multi-billion yen companies can't afford a dictionary. I don't know why it's okay to clip fingernails at your desk but it's impolite to sneeze. Why the air conditioning is turned off to conserve energy but toilet seat warmers are set at full blast. Dial 119 instead of 911. Stop signs shaped like yield signs. A bed is a bed-o. A coat a coat-o. A cream puff is a choux crème but not pronounced the French way. "Shoe cream," my Japanese friend forces me to say. Black at weddings. Black at funerals. Black except when it's not black.

Oh, Japan—sometimes I just don't get you. And I suppose you don't get me. I sit like the cross-legged males rather than kneel. I forget to put on the toilet slippers. I can't pick up silken tofu with chopsticks. I walk while sucking candies. I put my hands in my pockets. I like butter. I like sitting in the sun. I tell stories of streets filled with cherry blossoms that no one celebrates with sake. Blossoms falling on parked cars and cyclists. I tell stories of waitressing and tree-planting and exploring the world. "You've been a waitress?" you ask.

Some days I just want to hate you. It would be easier if you weren't so darn nice. You come to my door with bouquets of lilies. Roses. Daffodils. You bake bread. You pick fresh asparagus. You stop me on a hiking trail and offer me onigiri. You give me a dozen pumpkins. You give me your mother's kimono. Your silver Tiffany heart. You call out to me—again and again—so full of heart-felt cheer: "Konnichiwa!" And I call back—sing the only four syllables I can pronounce with ease. And we smile then, in that place beyond geography and culture where another country becomes nothing more than someone you're supposed to meet.