She shot off like a flash, a whirring of stiffly lurching arms, frog marching, goose steppingly absurd helpfulness. A gust of misdirected efficiency whipping through the aisles of the store, drawn round bends by a microclimate of hurrying and scurrying staff members. Each one weaving around customers and obstacles alike at a pace that can best be described as akin to the one achieved when crossing the road as the green man begins to flash.
Welcome to the world of Japanese shopping. Not the crazy, department store sale shopping. I stay well clear of that. No this is the day to day garden variety where a simple request like, ‘Do you sell light bulbs?’ Can result in the transformation of an overly starched store clerk into a passable imitation of Road Runner. Off she shoots like a bolt of lightening, mostly because I’m never quite sure where they might strike.
There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it I suppose. If Zeus almighty, or in this case, a store manager, is directing said lightening bolt (or if they actually know where something is) then my misadventures as Wiley Coyote will draw to an all too early finish. But if not, then I enter the world of supermarket Pac-Man.
Well Pac-Man when he’s swallowed that pill thing and the whole screen starts to flash and the ghosts turn on the tail end of their sheets and scarper.
The magic pill in this case being, ‘I have a question.’
The first time I asked for help in a small town department store I was just looking for a light bulb. You see, upon entering my first apartment in Japan and flicking on the light switches two bulbs decided that the unexpected shock to their systems was clearly beyond the pale and subsequently blinked out of existence with a whimper. As signs go it perhaps didn’t auger too well for me.
Eventually after growing tired of living in the gloom, by which I mean my dimly lit apartment not England in general, I ventured out into a department store armed with a scrap of Japanese and attempted to track down a light bulb. Not finding it in plain sight I asked a store clerk where it was. A brief exchange of haphazard cross-cultural pointing and signing over and she was off, a blur into the distance.
It was at this point that I realized just how many things we never even consider in our day-to-day lives. For example, when the shop attendant helping you with your inquiry darts off like a greyhound in heat what exactly is the appropriate distance to maintain in your pursuit?
Are you supposed to jog along with her?
Is nonchalantly strolling behind going to result in you losing her?
Are you supposed to stay put until she eventual returns with the item you were after and drops it straight into your basket like a loyal labradoodle?
Will losing her result in this kind woman, in a fit of helpfully nervous panic, sending out an all channels bulletin across the store intercom imploring everyone in the store that if they see a lost and confused looking strange young foreign man to please escort him to the electrical appliances aisle?
It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Just like in Pac-Man when the magic, trippy pill thing wears off they inevitably track you down. Sometimes you win and they drop you exactly next to the item you need, other times you lose and they, ‘eto, ano…chotto’ (ahhh, ummm…well) and send you packing back to the Game Over screen.
One thing though; I’ve been here for over two years now. The mishaps, the confusion have all but disappeared so why has this image stuck with me?
Well, because… I can’t help but wonder… if I ask the store clerks one after another, asking the next just as the previous one zips off into the distance, could I complete the Supermarket-Deluxe-Department-Store-Challenge-JAPAN edition of Pac-Man? Or will I just crash the damn machine?