Nihonjin, I presume?


There’s a Japanese grocery store just a few blocks away from my brother’s apartment. I’ve been eyeing it since before Sean left. Every time I pass it, though, it happens to be closed. It doesn’t help, of course, that I rarely leave the apartment before 8 these days. I’m inside, avoiding the siren call of cupcakessunhatsmakeup, sending resumes, soliciting my successful writer/editor friends for advice, pecking at essays and travel articles I want to pitch. For cash, I’m back to transcribing interviews for said successful writer/editor friends. Despite my rah rah rah zeal to get back to the New York City journalism scene, I’m starting to feel nervous yet again; like the me who wasted 8 years in one of the most exciting cities on Earth due to insecurity. Office hours are 9-5. 5-8 tends to be when I cook dinner. Or webchat with Sean. 8 tends to be when I head out for a walk. And then, yet again, Momotaro will be closed.

Each morning I vow: this will be the day I get to Momotaro. Each evening, I pass by and see the shut gate. I’ve started to focus on getting out of the house early enough to make it there and am sure that my intentions involve more than scoring konbu dashi for the tempura sauce I keep saying I want to make. No. My intentions are more duplicitous; I want to practice Japanese.

Yes.

I know.

All the times I complained about being solicited by random Japanese people. All the times I bristled when my arrival at a restaurant spurred interest. I just wanted to fade in to the background, as much as was possible. I didn’t want to be pounced upon with a “Herro!” … I just wanted to buy my shampoo.

And now all I can think about is how my Japanese will surely fade if I don’t speak it. After two years, I’m finally at the point where merely listening can boost my skills and I can’t help but feel it’s a crucial moment for my Japanese development. On the streets, my ears perk like a Yorkshire Terrier’s when I hear random yelps of Japanese. I peer at any Japanese writing I see. I’m considering joining Netflix again just to have access to Japanese movies. I’m thirsting. I’m hurting. I’ve become what I hate.

I made it to Momotaro today. There was no howls of いらっしゃいませ! as I entered, but to my delight, I did hear Japanese spoken behind me. To my right was a fresh vegetable display I might have seen at Supa Tamade; daikon, mint leaves, shitake, and kappa. To the left, two young Japanese kids enjoying mochi at a booth. Directly ahead of me, a cash register run by a Japanese girl speaking English with exactly the same inflections as my ex students. I was surprised to feel my heart swell.

I always knew there would be certain things I would miss about Japan when I finally left. No tipping. Coco Ichibanya curry. Drinking in public. I didn’t expect to miss the smell of dashi, or coolers stocked with Calpis and Oi Ocha. For years now, I’ve missed Pillsbury. Couscous. Wedges of cheese larger than a thumb. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve trolled the D’Agostino’s next door to Diego’s apartment simply to stare at boxes of Stove Top stuffing or rolls of snowy soft Charmin. But I’m confused. I’m caught in the early days of repatriation and I don’t know what I’m supposed to miss anymore.

Behind me, I heard a flurry of English-accented Japanese. I turned to find a middle aged man, no doubt a former expat like myself, chattering away to the teens who had previously been enjoying their mochi.

“おいしい???” he beamed. I wanted to shrink at the inanity of his question; the utter obviousness of his ploy to practice. I felt as if I’d been mentally spanked by my own psyche for my selfish desire to hear some Japanese. Stealthily, I retreated into the safety of the dry goods aisles to focus on my search for dashi. My mood immediately brightened as I noticed the same exact brands I’d seen in Japan. Kewpie salad dressings. Itoen green tea. Kogame vegetable juice. I immediately snatched up a 3-pack of udon and a bottle of the goma dressing I’d poured on everything from soba to salad, but the dashi was a little harder to find.

I noticed the stock boy hovering near me. It’s happened before, since leaving Japan, that I’ve lapsed into Japanese without thinking; when someone bumps into me, out comes the すみません. The stock boy nodded at me, and surrounded by soba, Cook Do packets, and goma oil, before I knew what was happening, it slipped out. Pardon me, I’m looking for the dashi. ます form. “ですが” instead of “ですけど,” since Sean has told me it’s more polite.

“I’m sorry,” said the stock boy. “I’m not Japanese.”

If the middle aged man’s “おいしい???” was a spank to my psyche, this was a pistol whip. Especially since I can usually spot a Japanese person from Japan the way I could spot another Westerner in Japan. They glow to me now. The attitude, the expression, the clothes, the features. There can be no mistake. I thought there could be no mistake.

“I’m sorry!” I cried, my hands growing clammy around my udon and my goma dressing.

“Don’t worry,” said the stock boy. “Everyone thinks I’m Japanese.”

“But … but …” I sputtered, wilting in my shame.

“Have you been to Japan?” he asked.

“I … I lived there for 2 years.  I just got back 3 weeks ago.” Shame, shame, shame.

“That’s why your Japanese is so good,” he said.

“Look!” I said. “I’m really sorry. I used to hate it in Japan when people just assumed I’m American because I’m ….”

“It’s okay. Really.” said the stock boy. “Everyone thinks so. And I work here.”

As I left the Japanese grocery store, I was surprised to find that I was near tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was humiliated, crushed by the irony, Japan-sick, or, after getting a load of all those Tohato potato chips, just plain hungry.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. tokyoterri says:

    please, I don’t want to carry twin natsukashii as well as my own!;-)

    (expat New Yorker living in Tokyo…)

    great writing, keep it up!

  2. WOTDsctoo says:

    This is the first time I’ve stumbled upon this blog, but I really appreciated this post.

    It was very well written, and I feel that you conveyed your emotions to me perfectly.

    But…I’m sure you didn’t write it to be praised on your style. 😄 Anyway, that was intense. Good luck with your life away from Japan!

  3. aabram says:

    I, too, wandered in here accidentally. I’m glad I did though. You certainly have a way with words.

    But yes, assuming things can get one into embarrassing situations. Usually the other way round — assuming that nobody speaks your language, only to discover later that discussion between you and your friend wasn’t that private after all…

  4. I know how that feels! I’ve had a burning desire to practice and learn more Japanese but I’m afraid of becoming a nuisance. Does it really only take 2 years to reach fluency (or darn close to it)?

  5. ieatmypigeon says:

    David – I’m nowhere near fluent!!! At 2 years, I’ve just broken through the “Beginner” barrier and am ready to start “Intermediate” study. The man I spoke to wasn’t Japanese, so of course my simple sentence sounded good to him. 🙂

    I’ve heard that, for native English speakers, it can take up to 12 years to achieve fluency. I don’t know how many hours of study that entails, but it sounds about right to me!

    Aabram: you’ve predicted the subject of one of my upcoming posts.

    1. 12 years…works for me! I’m a white-belt-beginner-novice-rookie of Japanese, but I’ll practice all I can. Thanks for this posuto, I’m glad I read it. 😀

  6. Nate says:

    I understand what you mean. But I think it’s worth it risking the burning feeling in your face from embarrassment than to live with the burning feeling in your chest from suppressing the desire to speak the language. 恥ずかしいけど他のはよくないだろう。^_^

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