Just Another Day

I’m packing my books up, getting ready to leave school. I had a meeting with Natsumi, because she’s about to go to Australia, and she wanted to practice her conversation skills. I feel a little bad for her, like she’s about to embark on the confusion that is my life, and she’s just a kid. Not tough-as-nails “it’s okay as long as I can complain about Japan later in internet forums” like me.
I try to leave, but Sports-sensei blocks the door with a huge smile until I recite the days of the week in Japanese. I do them okay, and then he tells me to do them backwards. I give him my students’ “Eeeeeeh?” look, and he shows me he’s joking by punching me in the bicep. I laugh even though he almost knocked me off my feet, but, hey, it’s nice to feel smaller than someone for a change.
I hop on my bike, ready for my adventure to get bus tickets for me and two friends, and I realize it’s darker than I thought and also raining. I briefly consider taking a taxi from school to the station and back, but either way I’d have to bike home in the rain. And I have an iPod and the book I’m reading told me to make special dates with myself to clear my head, so I head on my way.
The scenery is nice. I’ve never been down this road by bike, so I can look in the shops a little slower as I go past. The last time I biked to this station down a different road was in the dead of summer, so I felt that it would be refreshing in the frigid winter. I’m half right.
When I get to my destination, I’ve gotten a pretty good workout, and to any other day’s good fortune, the bus depot is heated. To this day’s misfortune, I am now sweating like a buta (pig). I feel fairly certain that I can buy three tickets without incident. I did it a month before to get my tickets for Narita airport, AND my friend Dave texted me my departure and destination in kanji.
I expect to pay 9,000 yen for the three of us. A nice-looking guy bravely nods for me to approach his counter. It’s weird to be on the other side of racial stereotypes. If you looked at an Asian person in America and worried you might have a communication issue because they don’t speak-a the English, you’d get slapped with sensitivity training. Here, expecting foreigners to not speak the language may be a stereotype, but for me, it’s true. That’s why I wear an apologetic expression and shrug and bow a lot. I know it’s rude for me not to speak-a the J-go. I’m learning. Yesterday, I learned how say “Please wait a moment” from a crosswalk. Yes, even the crosswalks are polite here.
The guy asks for 5,000 yen. I hand him the money without thinking. He could have been fining me for sweating in a public area. He could want the money for a nice, new hat. He may or may not even work here. As some of you mathematicians know, 5,000 does not equal 9,000.
My friend warned me to get a receipt. The man stands back, looking proud that he got the gaijin’s order without incident. His face indicates the end of the transaction. He really is a nice guy. I hate to put him through this.
“Excuse me,” I ask in Japanese. “This is for 3 people, right?”
“Yes,” he may or many not have said. Then he says something else. I give him the polite version of my students’ “Eeeeh?” look.
“Bus driver,” he says in English. I hold out the slip of paper he handed me that distinctly does not look like a ticket or a receipt. Neither does it look like the ticket I got a month ago from the same depot. I say again in broken Japanese, “Bus driver…give?”
“Yes, yes!” Then he draws an elaborate picture of me and my two friends. My guessing mind is all guessed out. I ask him to please wait a moment (Thanks again, crosswalk!) and I pull out my cellphone to call my supervisor.
No answer. I know he’s at basketball practice. I call my other English teacher friend. I get her on the line, and she’s instantly worried about my health, as the last time I called her, I asked for a favor, and she thought I said I had a fever. My cellphone blinks. In the land of technology, Japan deems it only appropriate to give the low-battery warning 30 seconds before shut-off. You can’t make this stuff up.
I slam the phone shut to end the call, and furiously reopen it to grab her number before it’s lost forever. It works. Unfortunately, none of the other phones in the office seem to. My life is a sitcom. The poor nice man is running around picking up various phones and flinging them about, looking for one that works.
He finally finds one, and I’m hooked back up with my teacher friend who I’m sure assumed I was long dead by this point. I explain the sitch, hand the phone to him, and try to compose myself as he explains the obvious confusion. A woman hands me a glove I dropped. By now I’m sweating like a murder suspect. Maybe she just wanted me to mop my forehead with it so I’d stop scaring the children.
The guy hands the phone back. My friend explains that the paper the man handed me was a coupon that is somehow different but equal to a ticket. But it only applies to two people, and we pay for the third person to the bus driver when we actually board the bus. Of course we do.
I exclaim, “Aaaah, I see!” and I hear a few ladies behind the counter repeat after me. Not with malice, but like they wanted to practice the new English phrase they learned for the world suddenly making sense. I hang up the phone. I apologize. A lot of bowing happens. I feel guilty, like I’d personally accused the man of making a mistake. In truth, I was torn between disturbing the peace here or letting down my friends who would be relying on my having gotten the right tickets at 4 AM when our bus leaves.
I bike out of the depot. I have to do something for these people. I circle around to count how many workers are behind the counter. I am almost hit by a bus AND a taxi. I don’t want to get them any of the pre-wrapped gifts they sell at the train station. It’s so cold and informal. We’ve been through so much together. I make it over to a nearby coffee shop. I grab a half-dozen of the most delicious-looking thing there: cinnamon rolls.
The coffee shop lady keeps asking questions — too many for a purchase of 6 pastries. All I can understand is, “(Something something), is that all right?” Yes, whatever. Arsenic in the cinnamon? No problem. My shirt’s on fire? Just shove the rolls in the bag, sweetheart.
I bike back to the depot, slaloming between buses and taxis. The man, bless his heart, stands right up when he sees me, attentive to my needs. Which is different from what I might have done in this situation, namely hide under the desk with my hands over my ears screaming “La la la, I can’t hear you!” (translation: “Ra ra ra, kikimasen!”)
He sees my bag of cinnamon rolls. “No, no,” he shouts in Japanese, smiling and waving his hand in front of his face. Ha ha, but he has a big desk in front of him. I smile and set them on the counter. I apologize a final time, gesture that they’re for everyone who had to put up with me, and back out of the depot bowing.
I start to bike home in the rain, which is refreshing again. A gas station attendant sees me and says “Good evening” in Japanese. This makes my night.
I get lost on the way back, but some high school kids point me back in the right direction. On this new road, I see a restaurant a few kids mentioned in their essays during our food chapter. For some reason, I even remember what they said was good on the menu, so I get it. At the drink bar, two young Japanese boys approach just before me. I’m still deciding what I want while the first boy fills his glass, but then the tiny one holds his hand out and says, “Dozo,” meaning “please” for me to go in front of him.
Natsumi might not have a tough time in Australia, after all. Yeah, I feel lost and confused and like I’m doing the wrong thing most of the time, but it’s not for lack of people’s politeness and willing to help out their fellow man.
That, or when she gets back, I can use her experience as a stranger in a strange land to guilt her into Japanese conversation practice with me! Yes!


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Best roommates ever! More details to come on the coolest ski trip in the Eastern Hemisphere. This trip was definitely jumbo/LARGE!

Hello there, 2008

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