Hen Na Yoru
Walking from Broadway down to Cornwall, on the way home from the bookstore, today, I overheard some young man on a cellphone, sitting in a doorway, say to a friend on the other end, "but I can't speak Japanese!" I was amused by this snippet -- what would the context of it be, I wondered -- and considered walking up to him and saying something like "Nihongo ga kantan da yo! Daijobu! Gambatte, ne!" (Japanese is easy, I tell you! No problem! Don't give up!). I probably would have done it, except his not having any idea what I was saying (since he can't speak Japanese) would make the joke obscure to the point of pointlessness -- an in-joke for one.
A few blocks down, I'd forgotten all about him. As I was passing the King's Head Inn, I overheard two Japanese women having a conversation, in Japanese. They said the phrase kono hen a few times -- "in this area." I couldn't make it all out but they were looking and pointing around. Looking for something? Lost? I turned and said, "Sumimasen." (Excuse me). They gasped to be addressed in Japanese by some big white guy; I tried to assume an aspect of friendly helpfulness "Doko ni ikitai? Daijobu desu ka?" (roughly, "Where do you want to go? Is everything okay?"). They said everything was okay (in a sort of abunai hen-na-gaijin kind of way, shrinking back a little -- hen has two meanings, "place" and "strange") and so I wandered on.
A few minutes later, standing, waiting for my bus in front of a closed Starbucks, the two ladies pass me again, and I realize that the young man sitting beside me on the bench is code-switching between English and Japanese on his cell phone. Both he and his girlfriend, sitting beside him, seem to be Japanese. I notice his Japanese first, surprised because I thought he'd been speaking English. He has an odd accent, and I formulate in my mind as I eavesdrop on him, picking out a phrase here and there, how to ask him about this. "Sumimasen. Anata no hatsuon ga omoshiroi. Nihon wa, dono bubun kara kimashita?" -- my rather clunky rendition of "your pronunciation is interesting. What part of Japan are you from?"). Suddenly, though, he switches to English -- and his English sounds more native-like than his Japanese! Suddenly I'm puzzled as hell: what's his first language? Is his Japanese accented because he's an Asian native English speaker who has mastered Japanese almost completely, without quite getting the sound system down? (He's a helluva lot more fluent than I am, anyhow). Or is he maybe just speaking some dialect of Japanese, and a very successful student of English? I cannot tell. I try to figure out how to ask him, just as a mental exercise. How the hell do you say "first language" in Japanese, anyhow? Saishogo? (I sometimes just slap shit together like that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I see no mention of it in my dictionary... Saisho kotoba? Hajime -- na? --kotoba? Fuck, I dunno.) As I struggle with it, the bus comes. By the time we get off -- at the same stop -- I've thought about it too much and eavesdropped on him for too long to feel comfortable asking him these questions.
...and this is what I have to show for three years of life in Japan, aside from a few culty videos, some CDs, and a little Disk Union placard taped to my wall, to remind me of the good old days shopping for music in Shinjuku. Sometimes I can give tourists directions.
There sure are a lot o' Japanese in Vancouver lately. Odd to have three such encounters within the same half an hour. William Gibson would probably be amused.
Post script: hm. Mutsuko Sakura, the female star in a bunch of Ozu films, including Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story) died today. It doesn't really count as another coincidence but I noticed it immediately after finishing this blog entry, so I thought I'd tack it on. (In that spirit, on the way to work the next morning I noticed someone had stuck a sticker onto a utility box that read For those who know: Tokyo! Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.)