Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Foreigner in my Own Bed

A single beam of light slipped through into the room as the shoji (Japanese style sliding door) crept open just a few centimeters. I bolted awake. It wasn’t my own bed I was asleep in; I was staying at a friend’s family home for the night and was currently enjoying that first night of sleep common to hotel rooms, half asleep, half awake and keenly aware of the foreignness of my surroundings.

And that’s before you factor in the tatami floor and shoji.

I heard a scraping. A flash of it, hurried, earnest and utterly new to me.

What manner of guest had snuck into the guest bedroom in the dead of night?

What on earth produced such a rapid burst of scratching?

“Mary?”

And with that her cold wet nose, shining eyes and panting mouth were face to face with me as I lurched back on the futon in surprise.

Evidently tiny dogs named after biblical figures are more than capable of opening sliding doors and scaring the bejesus out of me.

I suppose it’s to be expected. Staying in unfamiliar surroundings often leads to such moments.

Then there’s the danger that occurs from making familiar surroundings unfamiliar.  Salarymen generally achieve this by getting blind drunk and forgetting what apartment they live in within your nondescript box of a building and thus stumble drunkly into your room only to discover that not only is the contents of said room foreign to them but so is the resident.

I’ve never forgotten to lock my door after that.

So when I eventually venture back to the UK from time to time you’d think I’d find some comfort in the familiarity of home. My old bed, the absence of endless crickets chirping throughout the summer, the double-glazing cutting out most of the outside world should all lead to a peaceful night’s slumber for my wearied jet lagged limbs.

But the door creaked on its hinges. It swung open with a bang. That familiar noise transported from tatami mats to Matt’s wooden floors. No futon but the opportunity to launch beneath the bed before I could catch a glimpse of my early morning visitor.

For *#%*’s sake… Rodney…

I shuffled away from my pillow to lean over the bed and look beneath, found nothing, wondered where the hell he’d got to (cut me some slack, this is a pre-coffee story) and then promptly saw him peek out from the other side of the bed before darting out of sight. I clicked my fingers on the right side of the bed hoping to lead him out to the door. Evidently my sister uses clicking as a signal for something else because I immediately heard a mad dash, crash and whump as he landed in the bed behind me. I turned to find him across my pillow, laying on his back, paws pulled up and a quizzical expression etched across his mug that that seemed to say,

“What? I’ve been here the whole time.”

And he had.

My bed, my futon, was back in Japan.

This one belonged to Rodney now.

You bed stealing little...

You bed stealing little…

 

The Ojigi’s Up Part 2: Dogs and Monkeys

So where am I now?

How far gone am I?

Well evidently I’m at the stage of ojigi-ing to strangers on the tube, I also accidently said sumimasen (excuse me) to a group of people earlier that day as I made my way through a crowded corridor at Paddington station. Fortunately I rather mumbled it and beyond relaying my embarrassment to my friend who was with me at the time I doubt anyone else was the wiser.

But, Japanese is there now, firmly locked into my head for at least as long as I live here and that is beginning to have other side effects beyond excessive bilingual politeness.

Because not only is it locked in; it wants to get out.

It wants to show off. Or I do. Frankly I’m not sure where to draw the line.

First of all there are natural trigger points for the language. It has in some way become automatic as the incident with the inadvertent sumimasen-ing demonstrates. If I’m thanking someone at a shop 99% of the year I’m saying doumo (thanks) or arigatou (thanks) and if I happen to be in Kyoto well I’m saying okini (thanks for saying thanks). Ta very much is generally no longer on the menu. It’s on the specials board but only makes an appearance around Christmas time. It’s a seasonal specialty if you will and makes about as much sense to the Japanese as the idea that Yorkshire pudding is not a dessert.

Home sweet... wait I am in King's Cross, right? Great, like I wasn't confused enough.

Home sweet… wait I am in King’s Cross, right? Great, like I wasn’t confused enough.

Then there are the moments where a Japanese word would actually work far better than an English word.

Natsukashii which translates as nostalgia or ahh that takes me back works far better in Japanese and conveys a multitude of feelings in a tenth of the time it takes in English.

Genki which means how are you? Is not only the question, it’s the answer. The how are you? exchange boiled down to two words.

Also it can be used to describe a hyperactive kid, a naturally energetic person and a person surprisingly energetic for their age too.

Japanese; more in common with a swiss army knife than a katana.

Then there’s KY. It’s short for kuuki yomenai and directly translates as can’t read atmosphere. I’m sure you know these kinds of people; most of us at some point are one after all. But as short hand for your socially useless mate or relative it’s a real time saver and compares favourably to, “Him? Yeah, he’s lovely when you get to know him…no, I know he seems like a dick now but…”

So there you have just a sliver of what’s going through my head as I walk around my hometown. A constant but rather patchy subtitling system throwing up possible alternatives that fulfill the criteria of being better than the more common term but then rather falls down on the fact that you are the only person within god knows how many square miles who has any idea what you’re saying.

It’s like dogs and monkeys I suppose (cats and dogs, a bad relationship).

Maybe English and Japanese just isn’t supposed to share one cranium.

There’s only one thing for it.

Talk to the family dog.

Turns out he already knew suwatte (sit).

I might have taught him last year…

I may have taken the idiom the wrong way.

This may be chronic.

The Ojigi’s Up

It was my third time home and I knew things would be different. The first time I came home Japan was still new and shiny, I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the country, the language remained utterly mystifying beyond the simplest of exchanges and I had little idea that some two years later I’d be visiting home for the third time still with no end in sight to my time in Japan.

Coming home this time was different for a quite simple reason; I’ve passed what Malcolm Gladwell coined The Tipping Point when all the little things begin to coalesce and emerge as the beginnings of a new whole… on the London Underground of all places.

I’d made it through Heathrow airport in one piece and was at this point on the tube winging my way through London. As I went to alight at Oxford Circus to change to the Victoria line an older gentleman attempted to get on the train at the same instant. There was a moment of sidestepping in unison, left then right, a lean back and a shimmy forward before I thought to myself, hold on passengers get off first, and slipped past him with my mid-sized duffle bug.

As I put the bag down on the platform it occurred to my jetlagged brain that perhaps the older man had not in fact been letting me off first and had been thinking age before youth, or more likely in London, screw you mate I’m going first.

So, nervous that I may have offended the man I turned around as the doors were closing to give the man a slight nod to show my appreciation or apologies.

Except I didn’t nod.

The head moved forward yes, but my neck didn’t so much as creak. The pivot had come from my waist.

I’d bloody well ojigi-ed (bowed) to the miserable old bugger.

Ok it was only a slight ojigi certainly but it was noticeably not a nod.

Two and a half years ago I’d barely scratched the surface here; I knew that. What I didn’t know was that Japan had not only scratched my surface it had damn well got under my skin, buried itself in my subconscious to the point where muscle memory if left unchecked would leave me bowing to poor defenseless Brits across the land.

However, uncontrolled and hopefully largely unobserved ojigi-ing is not the only symptom.

I’ll get to them in the next post.

In the meantime though, I may have found a cure while I was at home at least.

Simple yet effective.

I wonder if they serve it on British Airways?

The cure to what ales thee.