Monday, November 06, 2006

Conversations on a Train

Sometimes being the center of attention in a foreign country can work to your advantage. Although I am often treated with the same respect and nonchalance as a Japanese citizen in public, I also find myself pulled into conversations with random foreign-doting crowds. All it takes is a glance, a smile, a nod, or even a defiant refusal to look in their direction, and suddenly some people believe I would enjoy spending my time teaching them English during my off-hours.

Other times, however, the people I encounter are merely curious and want to know more about me (and I them), so I usually indulge them, and learn more about the customs in the land of the rising sun. Who are these people. What are they thinking. What goes on that foreigners don't know about. These are worthy questions. Answers that I have learned, all with conversations on a train.

"No one has touched me in a long time."

I didn't mean to drop a piece of chocolate on her leg, but instead of flinching back in response to a random foreign man grabbing her, she just giggled, completely unphased. We met on the platform and had been speaking in fractured English for a few minutes.

"What do you mean, aren't you married?"

"Yes, but in Japan, being married is different. I have no kids. I need man to touch and comfort me. I have no boyfriend right now."

"Would you tell him you were married?"

"Maybe... sometimes, it's secret. How about you? You handsome man, you have girl for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...?"

I didn't really want to get into specifics about my desire to have something more than just a physical relationship, so I just told her I hadn't met anyone I liked. But her information intrigued me...

My first impression of Japanese women was based entirely on a foreign friend's Japanese girlfriend. He told me he wouldn't have been surprised in the least if she was cheating on him. Fidelity isn't exactly typical here, especially when you're dealing with young women who make it a mission to go after foreign men.

But what about marriage? Although I've never been inside, I've heard about the goings-on of the Japanese hostess clubs. Men come there mainly to be heard and respected, because their wives don't listen to them and don't tell their husbands they like their ideas. This is the first time I've heard from the other side of the coin; are both typical husband and wife in Japan looking elsewhere for needs that should be satisified by marriage? I may be an outsider, but I don't understand.

"Oh no, my husband don't speak Japanese."

"Oh, he's foreign? Is he American?"

"No, he Romanian."

"Oh, you speak Romanian?"


(Awkward pause while I struggle to figure this out)

"Ummm... how do you talk to each other?"

"We speak in English."

This definitely sparked a moment of insight for me. Although I understand there are thousands, if not millions, of interracial couples across the world, I always assumed at least one of the partners was speaking his/her first language. Apparently this is not necessarily the case, as the evidence from Japan Railways would lead me.

An English-only relationship where neither of the participants is a native English speaker. That must be unique. I could understand this for a very casual relationship - a Japanese girl dating a French man, for example - but for marriage? Shouldn't one of them make the effort so at least one of them isn't inconvenienced? Isn't that the Japanese way? Fix the problem, don't assign the blame.

I spoke to this woman for twenty minutes. Her English was decent, to be sure, but I hardly thought she could handle a serious conversation with useful vocabulary or necessary grammar. Is her husband the same way? This may go back to the standards on marriage, especially when a Japanese woman is involved, but I don't think so. She seemed perfectly normal and content with her place. Regardless of how they met, how their relationship developed, feelings are forces more powerful than anything we can communicate with words. Holding a hand, looking into someone's eyes, letting them cry on your shoulder... these actions will always speak louder than words in any language.

Foreigner connectivity is equally as common. I've struck up random conversations with foreigners on trains from Fukuoka to Matsuyama, and later had the opportunity to meet them in another station. This must happen quite a bit in Japan - seeing a friend entering a train as you depart, neither of you able to exchange more than a few words due to the efficiency of the Japanese rail. Even when I'm not the instigator of these dialogues, you get the impression they want to talk to you; one way or another, you're meeting new people.

Diverse hoi polloi
Physical, emotional
The connecting train

1 comment:

Ken said...

Interesting conversation. Not a soul speaks to me on the train. I do hand out breath mints and gum though.