Last week, I ate school lunch in the staff room, sitting at a table with plates full of mini omelets, rice, daikon salad, and some goo of tofu mixed with beans, which is rather redundant, if you think about it. Well, probably best not to think about it, actually. Plus a slice of orange for desert.
“Seeroi sensei,” asked the school nurse in Japanese, “Do you like green tea?”
“Yeah sure,” I said. I mean, who doesn’t like tea?
And they all laughed.
“Wow, more Japanese than a Japanese!” said the Vice-Principal.
“And speaks like a real Japanese person,” said the nurse. And everybody laughed some more.
This is my life. Actually, I gave up trying to be a real person in Japan years ago, about the time I realized my innate whiteness makes even the simplest of actions instantly hilarious. So I just ate some more bean goo and drank my carton of lunch milk through the tiny straw included for my convenience.
“Are you watching the Olympics?” asked the Principal. He had a bit of egg hanging off of his lip.
“You have a bit of egg,” I said, “hanging off your lip. Yeah, I saw the Men’s Half-Pipe on the morning news.”
“Shame about Shawn, huh,” he said, only he said it with a mouth full of rice, so it sounded like “Schwinn.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Eh, Japan took bronze and silver, so that’s enough for me.
“You’re really Japanese!” he said, and everybody laughed some more. Ah, you make good joke about white teacher. You berry funny man.
“Almost like a normal member of society,” I said, and everybody laughed some more. I don’t know why I bother, honestly.
The Olympics in Japan
The truth is, even if you wanted to root for another team, I don’t think it’d be physically possible here. Like, this is the thing about the Olympics—-when I lived in the U.S., the entire spectacle seemed full of U.S. athletes, raking in tons of medals. But here in Japan, it’s exactly the same, only with Japanese athletes winning everything. Every highlight reel, all the interviews with athletes and fans, it’s all about Japan. I guess that only makes sense, but television is very deceptive, is the message I’m taking from all this.
Here, the Olympics revolve around Japan. Every time you turn on the TV, there’s endless footage of some wrinkly Japanese dude gearing up to be the oldest ski-jumper ever, or that skinny Japanese guy in tights putting on his sparkly shirt to go out for an ice skate. If Japan won only one medal, they’d simply replay it over and over, until it looked like they won a thousand medals. And they’re in love with curling for some reason, where apparently if you’re really good with a broom, you can get a medal. Seriously, if I were a Japanese woman, I’d be reluctant to enter any event that resembled cleaning the house. On the other hand, I guess you could just shred your self-pride and go for the Pentathalon, where you also prepare cute bento boxes, hang out the sheets and towels, race to the station with two kids on your basket bike, and yell at your husband for coming home late at night reeking of roast chicken. Goooold!
Karma is Waiting for us all
On my way home that evening, I stopped off at my neighborhood izakaya. They have really good oden, which is a steaming, mysterious broth of fish cakes, eggs, and daikon, served with a side of hot mustard. It’s pretty funky, but since it’s Japanese, it’s delicious by default. Above the bar, a TV was broadcasting the Japanese version of the Olympics, so I sat there with all the old men, drinking shochu and gazing intently. I knew it was just a matter of time before somebody said something to me, which made me flash back to a day in New York City, years ago.
I was in a taxi with my girlfriend at the time, going to see The Blue Man Group. I saw them in Tokyo too, by the way. You should really go if you get a chance, because they’re amazing. I mean, assuming you’re into drumming, and especially by people who are blue. Anyway, the taxi driver looked to be from India or Pakistan, and he had an accent, so just to make conversation, I asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” he said rather sharply.
“Oh,” I said slowly, “I meant, where were you born?”
“New Jersey!” he shot back, “I’m American!”
And that killed that conversation. And I couldn’t understand then why he got so angry, since I was, in my mind, just trying to be friendly.
You know, it’s funny how life eventually gives you perspective. At the time, I saw my questions as idle conversation, whereas he saw them, most likely, as a comment upon his skin color. If so, he would have been right. He didn’t look like me. His English was different from mine. It wasn’t a matter of where he was born, because I’d already concluded that he was “foreign,” or at least, not as American as I was.
It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I really understood this, but making people feel like they’re different, foreign, is not a great way to get them to like you. Japanese folks have done a great job of helping me understand this, like every day. Thanks, nation of Japan.
I’ve also noticed that, assuming you don’t die, life has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. That’s called karma. It’s an Indian thing. I looked it up on Wikipedia. And right on cue, the Japanese guy next to me at the bar said, “Wow, you use chopsticks really well.” Actually, that’s true; I do. Picking up a floating hard-boiled egg is not exactly easy.
“Thanks,” I said, “I have strong yet supple fingers.”
“Where are you from?” he asked, and for a moment I thought of saying, “Right around the corner,” but I knew that wouldn’t fly, so I said simply, “America.”
“How’s your country doing in the Olympics?” he asked.
“Hell if I know,” I laughed. “All I see on TV are Japanese athletes. Japan seems to be winning everything.
“Hmm,” he said, “I guess there’s a lot we can’t see.
“Here’s to that,” I said, and we clinked glasses. “And to Japan.
“Wow, you’re just like a Japanese,” he said.
Then we each took a sip of shochu, and watched the various people on the screen waving their countries’ flags. And here we were, two guys who looked nothing alike, sitting side by side in a Japanese bar, both rooting for the same team. Somehow it didn’t seem strange at all, at least to one of us.
“Nah, don’t get all crazy,” I said. “I just live in this country. By the way, how’s that octopus sashimi?”