Saturday, March 17, 2007

sowing seeds to build a bridge

last night i decided to sleep in as hard as i could, but i only made it to 8:45 am. i've lost the knack i used to have for late mornings. nearly everyone i know is out of town this weekend, so i rattled around my house with no clear idea about what to do for the day. if it were warmer, i'd open all the windows and just enjoy being home, but with the windows closed, i felt restless. i did sit outside in the sun for a few hours and finished a strange and disappointing book, but after that, i knew i had to go somewhere or i'd just feel frustrated and bored for the rest of the evening. should i hike alone, walk along the beach, or ride my bike somewhere? part of the problem is that i get exhausted from standing out so much. people (though they often pretend not to) do stare or double-take when they see me. on the weekends, i just don't want to deal with it. i'm not saying i always mind being conspicuous, but it's annoying that it's only because i'm different, not because i've chosen to wear some sassy outfit. it's harder to have a devil-may-care attitude in another culture with crochety old women staring you down at every turn.
i put my sunglasses on and rode a little self-consciously into the day. it really doesn't take much to make me smile, though, and i got my mood's salvation in the form of a gas station attendant. buying gas in japan is quite an affair--as soon as you drive in, you're greeted with enthusiastic shouts from all the attendants. you order what you'd like from the comfort of your car, hand them any trash you'd like to rid yourself of, and they fill you up, wash your windows, and then (the grand finale of courtesy) they direct you into traffic, sometimes stopping it in order to wave you in. so i was laboring by the station on my bike and ahead i saw an attendant ready to direct a car forward, but when he saw me, he motioned the car to stop so i could pass unhindered. this really is remarkable because his priority is his customer, and he could have just as easily made me wait. i gave him a thank-bow and pedaled on feeling lighter.

one thing i've learned about myself is that i like having a quest of sorts, a desination, so i set off sluggishly and irresolutely for a grocery store pretty far away. Shufu No Mise (literally, the housewife store) is the only one in town that carries this vanilla creme sponge cake roll i've been craving, so i rode vaguely toward it with my self-inflicted haircut blowing in the bracing wind. i kept thinking, "this is an awful long way to go for a little cake." but at least i was out getting some exercise, and since i had nowhere to be and nothing to do, i supposed i'd just ride until the headwind overcame my desire to be outside. surprisingly, i made it all the way to the store, albeit slowly and without much stamina. on the way, i passed the all the usual signs i can't read, and i thought about what a challenge it's been for me (whose main talent lies in the linguistic arena) to basically be illiterate and only able to communicate in overwhelmingly unspecific sentences.
imagine if the only english words you could read were: tree, mountain, river, small, big, month, day, minute, child, fire, water, raw, and meat. yep; it limits your comprehension a little. i pick out what i can, and every day i understand a fraction more, even surprising myself by knowing something i didn't know i knew. but restaurants can be difficult. this is how i read a menu: "hmm. two things with pork. cheese on something. something. something. meat something. corn with something. salad with eggs, sesame, and something that's fried." i usually pick out things with one ingredient i recognize, and hope the rest isn't made of cow intestines.
at Shufu No Mise, i ran into one of my students shopping with her mom, and she gave me the little surprised bow/konnichiwa greeting. i waved, smiled, and echoed her konnichiwa. as we passed, i heard her mom ask, "who was that?" "oh, my english teacher." (the mom chuckling) "and you greeted her with konnichiwa?" i could imagine me and my mom having the same conversation. i set out for the long trek home, paused to watch the ocean, and was happy to finally get out of the (by then) glacial air.


  1. AnonymousMay 14, 2007

    So I'm not up on the Japanese etiquette- what would the proper greeting have been if not konnichwa? I think I even spelled that wrong.- Erin Sinberg

  2. hi erin! no, no. the funny part is that i'm her english teacher and she greeted me in japanese. konnichiwa is the most common greeting, so no sweat. in the morning and evening there are different greetings "ohayo gozaimasu" and "konbanwa," respectively. of course if you pronounce it like the native speakers, you run it all together so "konnichiwa" becomes "'chiwa" much like our "good morning" becomes "'mornin."