Voices

Learning to bow

By the

April 5, 2001


“Sumimasen, America-jin desu ka?” (Are you an American?) inquired the polite middle-aged man standing on the train platform with me.

“For the love of Buddha,” I thought. “Not again.” It was 7:32 a.m., four minutes before an express train came to whisk me and the bevy of business-suited men and uniformed schoolchildren into the nether regions of the Nagoya subway system. I was not feeling particularly charitable towards anyone, least of all anyone with demonstrated potential to turn the hour-long commute into a full-blown investigation of the anomalous American.

“Soo desu ne,” (Yes, that’s right.) I replied.

As the unfortunate combination of miso (a salty tofu-laced broth), granola cereal and coffee I had been given for breakfast turned over in my stomach, I reevaluated the necessity of reading my Japanese homework at the train station, as it seemed to be widely interpreted by my fellow commuters as an invitation to speak to me at an hour when I couldn’t be relied upon to be coherent in English, let alone Japanese. But my conversant companion persisted.

Halfway through my stilted explanation of my presence in this sleepy suburb, an orange-haired girl wearing a neon pink mini-skirt trimmed in lace, a faux rabbit fur-collared coat and white knee-high platform boots clomped past us. I couldn’t repress the impulse to turn and gawk. While I had been cautiously stomaching my host mother’s interpretation of an American breakfast (my host sister later came to my rescue and successfully convinced her that I couldn’t eat rice like everyone else), this girl had apparently been outlining her eyes and lips in white and crimping her streaky, dyed hair. But no one else seemed phased by her ostentatious display of Bordello Barbie-esque style. They were looking at me.

That my theatrical pursuits have since given me cause to sympathize with the intricacies of the clown-makeup application process (c.f., Nomadic Theatre’s Equus) doesn’t obviate the fact that despite the strutting-peacock fashion sense of this woman, I was still the center of attention. Schoolgirls snuck surreptitious glances at me, probably wondering how anyone could possibly be so unglamorous as to appear in public wearing jeans and sneakers. Grandmotherly types were far less reserved, staring unashamedly at the displaced person standing in their midst. And the businessmen (with a few intrepid exceptions) edged away from me, causing no end of self-conscious anguish for me.

(As a friend currently studying abroad noted, Japanese women almost always inspire feelings of utter fashion inadequacy. After two failed consumerist attempts to blend in?the less fortunate of which involved a pair of three-inch platform sandals that caused me not only to be an awkward foreigner but also an extremely tall, awkward foreigner?I finally recanted and elected to save my yen instead of attempting to assimilate into a couture culture that would never make pants long enough to cover my ankles.)

But while the novelty of being a novelty quickly wore off, there were other aspects of life in Japan that never did.

I took a whole lot away from Japan when I boarded the plane in Nagoya International Airport with my mother and seven pieces of luggage in tow. (No kidding. I joked that I was developing my business plan for starting an illegal export business, based on a tip that it’s a seller’s market for hand-made pottery tea bowls.) But I also took away some less tangible lessons.

First, I made the important discovery that Westerners look ridiculous in kimonos. This self-evident truth does not seem to discourage any of us from allowing ourselves to be wrapped up like human Fruit Roll-Ups and sent teetering off on tiny sandals, however. The logic seems to be: So what if the sleeves don’t approach my wrists and my heels hang off the backs of the sandals, I look okay, right? Wrong. Very wrong.

Second, you can never hear too much J-Pop (shorthand for Japanese Pop Music). Never mind that all of it sounds alike or that the lyrics are uninspired or that the going rate for a freshly-minted CD is over $20. J-Pop dictates the five ring options on everyone’s cell phones each month when the charts change and, hey, if you’ve got to listen to the Muzak version whenever you enter a public area, you might as well know the real thing.

Third, and most importantly, I left with 14 rolls of exposed film, mini cylindrical testaments to the accumulated experiences of five months of making horrible gaijin gaffes, struggling to read the newspaper, daily rice consumption, tea ceremony lessons, failed pottery-making pursuits, bean-throwing and “Naked Man” festivals, 21st birthdays (in a place where 20 is the big-deal number) and adopting five new family members, a couple of fish and a dog.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Mrs. Siesseger,” my host father said to my mother upon meeting her at the airport. “Meet my daughters: Yoko, Naoko and Marie.”



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