Interview between the gods of living abroad and me, December 1984.
Gods: We understand you’d like to live abroad. So, tell us a bit about yourself.
Me: Well, I love English literature and dairy products. I’m good with words but not with pictures. I’m an Anglophile, but I’d also like to brush up my French.
Gods: Your French needs brushing?
Me: It’s got all tangled since college. I can only speak in the present tense and I’ve forgotten the word for “restroom.”
Gods: “Les toilettes.”
Me: Merci. Also, I’m not keen on big cities. I like small towns. Villages, really. Small, quiet villages full of English people who love books and speak fluent French. And have cows. Did I mention that I don’t care for seafood?
The gods decide
And that’s how I ended up in Tokyo. Okay, it appeared to happen because my company was developing new software in Japan and needed a technical writer. But I ask you, how likely is that?
For months after I moved to Japan in April 1985, the enhancements weren’t firm enough to document. This concept of insufficiently firm software baffled my parents, then aged 71 and 82. As my dad wrote from California: “Is that why they call it ‘soft’?”
It’s no fun sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week with no work to do. The Internet would have been a godsend, but the Gods of Keeping People in Touch were still working on it. Instead, I spent a lot of time writing haiku.
I dreamed last night
I found a tentacle in my cornflakes:
The clock’s hands move
As if Godzilla himself
Were trying to stop them
In my free time I worked on a mystery novel, the aptly named Terminal Death. Although it was set in Palo Alto, I’d written half of it in Liverpool, England. Now I was trying to write the second half in Tokyo. It didn’t go well.
A poodle …
In addition to perfecting my haiku – and I think you’ll agree I was nearing perfection – I studied Japanese. As I told my teacher, I’m good at grammar and syntax, so I expected to pick up the language in no time. This was boasting, which isn’t done in Japan, except by foreigners. Especially Americans.
As it turned out, the things I knew about grammar and syntax didn’t matter a damn.
For example, word order doesn’t matter much in Japanese, which uses suffixes called “particles” to indicate parts of speech. Where we have to say, “I would like to win the Lottery,” they’re allowed to say, “The Lottery (particle) would like to win me (particle).”
So the particles are important, but I kept mixing them up and saying things like, “I like to eat my friends with Mexican food,” or, “A poodle owns my family.”
Then there’s the principle of yoin, a kind of reverberation between sympathetic souls, which dictates that in Japanese, you say as little as possible and allow your interlocutor to complete the meaning for herself. The truly cultured Japanese person, I gathered, says almost nothing. But when I said, “A poodle … ” and looked at my teacher, she just sat there and waited for me to continue.
After work, I taught English lessons for my colleagues. For the advanced students who might be sent abroad on business, I devised real-life scenarios. They all learned to answer the phone with “Hello?” instead of “Moshi moshi,” but I could never stop them bowing while they said it.
Too Late for the Festival
Eventually the software firmed up and got documented, and after 18 months in Japan, I returned to California. I found myself missing the smell of tatami mats, the sight of kanji letters lit up in neon, even the sound of the bosozuku boys, the harmless gangs who whined their motorcycles through the streets at night. I missed bowing and being bowed to. Most of all, I missed my colleagues.
So, like a good technical writer, I sat down and documented. I tried to be honest about my struggles with the cuisine (seafood and I still don’t get along), my bouts of homesickness and loneliness, the way I chafed against the Japanese saying that “the nail that sticks up must be hammered down,” but I also recorded the experiences and relationships that gave me an abiding respect and affection for that beautiful country.
Too Late for the Festival was published by Academy Chicago in 1999 and has just been re-issued in paperback. So far, it’s my only published book.
Gods: You see? All part of the plan.
Me: Right. Sure. Whatever.
Gods: We have filled in the rest of that sentence, and you’re welcome.