Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Intercultural Relations

Well, the weekend proved more interesting than I had anticipated. I think I may have gone on a date. Maybe. Probably. I'm never very sure about these things. A japanese guy. He happened to be in Osaka on Saturday and called to see if I'd have dinner, ended up staying over that night*, and then we hung out in Kobe till late on Sunday before heading back to our respective towns. Nice. Sort of strange. Nothing I was really expecting.

On the train on the way to Kobe from my apartment in Nishinomiya, we sat on the short bench seat at the rear of the car, nearest to the conductor's cockpit. Only room for the two of us, and his bike propped up against the front of our legs with the train swaying and the car a bit quiet. It was so pleasant to be next to someone on a train without having to pretend to not notice the close proximity -- with being able to actualy enjoy the proximity. I had the duty phone on 'manner mode', and kept pulling it out of my pocket thinking it was ringing. It took me a while to realize that it was just my hand tremoring. I was supposed to act as a judge and give the closing address at a regional high school speech contest that afternoon, and he had offered to wait until I was finished so that we could have dinner again together before he left for home. We talked about the speech contest, about how public speaking made me nervous, about his work and his new apartment... He asked what I was reading; I pulled One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest out of my bag and handed it to him.

Watching him frown at the English description on the back cover ("In this classic novel of the 1960's, Ken Kesey's hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel..."), my heart lurched. His English isn't bad, but words like 'boisterous' surely weren't in his vocabulary. I well know the frustration of puzzling in vain over something that seems like it should come so easily; I felt instantly small for having shown him the book. Besides my own shyness, the main barrier to dating is the whole language problem. My spoken Japanese is absymal. I mean, really awful. I don't know if it's MS lesions gumming up the works, or just a matter of disuse, but even English grammar has been coming out a bit garbled lately, not to mention 2nd languages. How stupid of me to have highlighted the problem in so glaring a manner. I tried to explain the plot briefly in Japanese. I used to know the word for 'cuckoo'. "It's a bird you always read about in..." the word I was searching for now was haiku. I could still feel my hands buzzing. Please god, let that have been a bad MS day, and not something more...

Usually people laugh at this problem (seems like western men and asian women don't have any trouble getting over it) and say something about 'The Language of Love'; well, for me the language of love appears to be English. I asked Vanessa what you do when your Japanese isn't quite good enough and his English isn't quite good enough... "That's when you spend most of your time making out," she explained. Oh. I guess that's how western men and asian women work around the problem. I'm not sure if that's really me, though.

Anyways, I don't know. We'll see what happens.

At reception following the speech contest, I had wanted to speak to the high school students who had put in the time to memorize Kennedy's 1963 Civil Rights Address, but ended up instead being accosted by various community heads who wanted to press the hand of the consulate representative. I have no idea why. I won't pretend that I've never been impressed by a title or a big name (you should have seen how excited I was to give a visa interview to the drummer from The Boredoms), but honestly: this is a visa waiver program country; I can't do anything for these people. When I was in Japan before, I drew attention all the time because I'm blonde and boiled-egg pale; now I get it because of some overblown title on my business cards..? It's all pretty silly, really. My closing remarks in simple English ("President Kennedy gave his speech because he wanted two groups to understand each other better, and become better friends...") were not delivered nearly so eloquently as the students' recitations had been.

Some part of me suspects that being annoyed at having people treat you differently because of a title or affiliation is somehow just as big-headed as enjoying it. I need to work out a way to gracefully handle the situation.

At dinner, we ordered a dish that was labeled 鍋「なべ」, or 'winter hotpot', but the Italian interpretation we received was something entirely different. "Damesareta!" I laughed. He smiled. "Yes, damasareta," he corrected me. And I was pleased to discover that I didn't mind.

*He lives somewhat far away, and I have a spare bedroom -- please people, this is a family blog.


Editfish said...

"Oh. I guess that's how western men and asian women work around the problem."

That's true to a certain extent, but does not always extend to those who have lived in various countries and worked to integrate themselves as best as they can.

My wife and I were in a similar situation when we first met, and were friends for almost two years before we started dating. Many of those early conversations were frequently interrupted and paused while one of us consulted the bilingual dictionary. :D

Patience is key, along with a willingness to allow the other person to correct your grammar and pronunciation, as you have already demonstrated.

I'm not intimating that anything will come of all this; merely that there is a "third way" to bicultural relationships that is frequently overlooked.

Thanks for sharing!

Sharon said...

glad to see you're back posting. even though i haven't posted in a while, i still check on yours and Karyn's. we are freezing here in maryland and hope that our hhg delivery isn't messed up by the snow storm which is supposed to hit monday or tuesday.

keep writing!