Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nonsense Syllables


Going to the store is a commitment to stick it out no matter what happens. For the most part, I'm on my own. I only know limited Japanese, though I'm learning, and most people here only know limited English, though they are learning. The net effect is a nearly complete breakdown in communication. So, I go to the store and know that it is fully my responsibility to find what I need. Paying for it is as simple as looking at the cash register and counting out the Yen.

It's a feeling of helplessness. You're going into a situation where you know that only you can really get yourself through it, unless there just happens to be someone there who speaks English, but you can't depend on that. I have to go in knowing that I may certainly meet with failure, embarrassment and/or shame.

As I was walking through Narita Airport in Tokyo, i overheard an American complaining that someone didn't speak English. It would have been easy for me to be disdainful of him, except that not long ago, I was expecting Jin-Sang to live her life in such a way to accommodate me. I lived thinking she had something to give me, something that IO needed from her to be complete, whole, and successful. Just like the Yank, who expected Japanese people to have all it took to make his life more convenient, I expected Jin-Sang to have what it took to make me happy and adjusted.

The easiest approach would be to shop completely from vending machines, but this approach denies one the experience of being among others while needing nothing from them. If I g into a store without the wherewithal to get what I need, I leave the store knowing something in my needs to change to remedy the situation. But even in that "failure," I got to interact with the cute Japanese girl who seemed happy to have us attempt to utter nonsense syllables to each other, just as I was happy. I didn't get everything needed at the store, but I left with an experience that helped me feel good that I made the attempt. It's worth it to try, and it's worth it to take responsibility for the failures. It's worth it to live. It's worth it to risk. I'm glad I came. I'm glad I'm here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Toto, I don't think we're in Addis Ababa anymore."


When I arrived in Ethiopia, the harsh realities of that country weren't so difficult for me. It was the day in and day out of going from one compound to another. The first day I arrived, I was immediately introduced to the pummel and jostle of the intense begging in that country. Later, as I tried to get about in my new home, I learned that a white person on the street sends out a universal invitation, by virtue of having white skin, to every kid from the age of walking to early adulthood to say anything from "Give me money" to "Fuck you," from "I am hongry" to "You son beech." Within a week, I'd developed a phobia for going out on the streets and that phobia persisted until I left the country two and a half years later.

I've often told this to others, and people sympathize, but I'm certain they don't fully comprehend the intensity of the hassle, for a white person, on the streets of Ethiopia. Whenever I've told white people who've spent time in Japan about this, they have said, "That's what they do in Japan." I can't imagine Japanese children saying, "Hey you, you son beech, fock you," but maybe I'm wrong. At any rate, I've had a kind of dread in the back of my mind that I'd get hassled on the streets of Japan. I never realized this until the first morning that I went out, noticing that I'd think things like, "Let's get out there before all the school kids wake up," and "Are you sure you want to do this?" That first walk that first morning, I saw no children. Since then, I've gone on several walks, have seen people of all ages, and no one has said more than greetings to me.

As I walked to the pharmacy (kusuriya) earlier this evening, out on the main road here, I thought about my experiences in Ethiopia, how forlorn I felt and how much I literally hated living there. The converse is that I'm enjoying being able to be in Japan without having to grit my teeth and muster up patience and courage to even think about unlocking my door and going outside. The intense amount of energy given to this during my time in Ethiopia was astounding. When I wrote the rough draft of Wayward Son, I put a lot of words into trying to recreate this loathsome experience for the reader. I don't think it can be done. Without having gone through it, I think the reader thinks I'm making too much of it, perhaps exaggerating, or simply going on and on about it. I can understand that, but I'm also realizing how significant it was for me. I'm realizing now how significant it is for me that I am now in Japan and not in Ethiopia.