June 21, 2008

Dredging up the past

Today's post comes from the recent past. I once wrote about the first time I ever produced a piece of fiction for a contest. The post is here The link to the story is dead, so now the story is below. Enjoy.

HITORI-GOTO (Inner voices)

Sitting on a weather worn park bench, periodical in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. I half thought to myself that I ought to be keeping up with the world. I’m not. I’m spacing out. Staring into the steady stream of flinty-grey smoke that ceaselessly emanates from the glowing ember of the cigarette clasped between my fingers.
Without losing focus, or should I say, without changing it, I notice that the pavement that runs in front of me is steadily growing darker. Letting out an overblown sigh, the kind of sigh you’d expect from precocious children stars on bad TV sit-coms. I talk to the rain.
“Lucky I chose this place to sit.” The words, half mumbled, felt odd on my lips. Better to have kept the thought in my head instead of actually vocalizing it and letting it escape.
The overhanging leaves of the building behind me were keeping the splatter of rain from drenching me and forcing me out of my self imposed reverie.
Others were not so fortunate. I caught glimpses of dark suited businessmen holding briefcases over their heads, making a run for cover in a futile attempt to prevent the rain from doing what it does best.
After a short interval a young couple burst from the pathway and took refuge under the same structure that was providing me with protection.
Oh, no. This is my spot! My oasis. Why’d you have to choose this of all places? A wild and angry thought took root and spread through my mind bringing me back to the here and now.
One quick look at the two interlopers told me all I needed to know or at least it confirmed all my presuppositions. They were dressed according to all the strictures laid out by the latest fashion magazines, in fact these two could have just popped right out of the pages. Their posture, hairstyle, even the latest model cell-phone complete with all the dangling accoutrements clutched to the chest to prevent damage from the weather, a typical cookie cutter couple living in a country that frowns on individuality.
I am living in a place so crowded and congested that I’ve come to believe that you can’t even put your underwear on without someone else being in there with you, so I don’t want to give up the few precious moments of solitary solace that I had garnered.

And of course, as if on cue they started to babble…
“Can you sneak out tonight? I want to meet you.”
“Shhh, Not here. There’s someone sitting right over there.”
“The Gaijin? It’s OK. Doesn’t understand a thing we are saying. C’mon meet me tonight.”
“I don’t know…kinda risky.”
“That’s what makes it exciting, isn’t it?”
On and on it goes ad nauseam I’m invisible. No, that’s not it. I’m here, but ignored. I’m half shadow. Neither here nor there, visible yet insubstantial. I decide to give up my bench to the couple and brave the rain thinking that I might just find somewhere better suited for woolgathering. At that particular moment, the downpour drove another person into the safety of the shelter.
This time it was an old man, using a newspaper to keep the rain off his head. Without the slightest preamble he plopped himself down on the bench next to me, dashing the hopes of the couple who were eyeing the bench in anticipation of my departure.
Letting out a chuckle, he slapped the paper against his leg and said, “Some rain, eh?”
“The weatherman didn’t say anything about rain today, lucky I had this newspaper or I’d be soaked through and through.” He wasn’t speaking directly to me or to the couple standing behind us. It was more of an apology for intruding on a situation where he was on unfamiliar ground. Seeing that he wasn’t addressing me, I made no move to rejoin and just looked at him.
“Hey you’re a gaijin-san”, he blurted out after finally realizing who he was sitting next to.

“ARE – YOU – AMERICAN?”

I still find it incredible that so many Japanese have to increase the volume of their voice and over enunciate everything when they speak English. To let him off the hook, I answered in Japanese.
“That’s right, I am, good guess.”
“Eh, you speak Japanese?!” The look of shock was almost comical. Would have been if I hadn’t seen it so many times in the past.
“That’s pretty impressive,” He continued. “How long you been living here?”
This is the point I face in every conversation I have with someone I’ve just met. Do I answer truthfully and get into a long drawn out conversation or do I fib, feign ignorance and cut things off quickly.
I looked into the gentleman’s eyes for what seemed to be an overly long time. He just sat there with an open, congenial expression so; I decided to go for the truth. “I have lived here in this beautiful country for over fifteen years.” I spoke using the most formal Japanese I could muster. This didn’t have the desired effect that I thought it would. Well that’s not exactly true; the couple stopped their snuggling and looked at me in shock, realizing that I had actually understood all of their conversation and their plans for a trysting later on.
The old guy had a different take on things.
“Not possible,” he said matter of factly.
“Well it’s true,” I said, changing into casual language.
“Why would you want to live here for such a long time?” He inquired.
“This is not a good place for foreigners to live.”
That’s just happened to be what I was thinking about before the rain started so I ventured to ask his opinion on the matter. After all it just might be a good idea to hear a voice different than the one that’s been rolling around in my head.
“Why do you say that?” I countered, “this is as good a place as any to live, don’t you think?”
He pondered my comment for a moment and started to speak. Then stopped, his jaw snapping shut as if he were wrestling with the idea.
“Ahhh, what I’m trying to say is that you’ll lose a part of yourself if you stay here too long.”
He tried to convey a subtle, hidden meaning in his voice and facial expression and I felt that I understood what he meant. He continued, “The longer you stay, the particular aspects of your personality that makes you, you, changes into a completely different entity. You’re no longer the same person you were when you arrived.”
“You may be correct,” I said. “But that would be true even if I were living someplace else. We grow, change, no matter where we live, it’s a part of being, of life. ”
He shifted in his seat and rifled his pockets, looking for some cigarettes. He pulled out a rumpled pack of Mild Sevens and offered me one. I thanked him and gave him a light. We smoked. Looking out at the rain we smoked and continued to share our thoughts.
“I’ve come to think of this place as home,” I stated, stubbing the cigarette out on the sole of my sneaker and putting the butt in my pocket. “But it doesn’t always feel that way.”
“You might live here and speak our language, believe you know our ways, but a home is something different,” speaking emphatically and spraying the area with ashes from his cigarette. “You’d have to be accepted, seen, appreciated. You’re not! You’re transparent. You move through he streets and the only ones who even see you are the children. Even these two behind us didn’t notice you until now.”
It was true. I looked over my shoulder at the couple that was now squatting on their haunches staring, quizzically at the old man and me.
“There might be truth in what you say.” I carefully gather my things together and put them in my bag. Brushing the ashes off my jacket I give a departing salutation.
“Sayonara.” The rain had let up and I was able to leave without worry of getting soaked.

“What the hell was that all about? ” asked the girl.
“How the hell should I know?” came the reply from her boyfriend. “At least we have the bench to ourselves.”

“… Hey, the Gaijin-san forgot his newspaper.”

17 comments:

Anonymous Boxer said...

I'm printing this out because I want to read it the old fashioned way... with reading glasses. Hee.

I think you should and post more of them.

NYD said...

Jeez that was fast. I just put the thing up.

I'm Glad you didn't yell something silly like "Yatzee!" or "Yeah, I'm first!"

When you finish reading please be honest, not brutal, just honest.

Kurt said...

There are some places I've traveled (no names mentioned) where, though the people are perfectly pleasant, you can tell they are not being themselves with you. Other places, I don't get that feeling.

Mona said...

hmmmm. food for thought indeed...

In my country we have a saying : " kavva chalaa hans ki chaal, to apni bhi gaya bhool"

Meaning: when the crow tried to walk like the heron, he could not & he even forgot his own gait in the process...

Although I have seen old people who say that they would not like to leave their birthplace because they would feel 'rootless', I have seen comparatively younger generation feel at ease in places that have more comforts to boast of.

I feel the settling down depends on what kind of quality of life a certain place has to offer.If it is better than where you have lived before, you will feel you have come to heaven. If it is worse, then you might have a difficult time adjusting.

Also there are other barriers like language & culture shocks!

I think you are one of the more flexible beings amongst mankind! :)

I love the expression, the use of language here.

puerileuwaite said...

Reminds me vaguely of my own submission to a song writing contest for Tiger Beat magazine, only mine started out: "Sitting on a park bench ..."

Then, lo and behold, Jethro Tull comes out with Aqualung just 10-years prior. Coincidence? My lawyers don't seem to think so ...

lime said...

that is really marvelous, nyd. and though i do not know much of japanese culture i do know what it is to live as an expat and there are certain themes that resonate among all those who know that life. very well done....my story would be at a taxi stand in trinidad's third largest city ;)

ThursdayNext said...

Its funny because I always associate the term expat strongly with that time in American history when Hemingway roamed Europe, but you should write more and more of what it is like now to be an expat because it has a stong impact on the reader.

Corn Dog said...

Yatzee. THanks. Wonderful piece. Insightful.

citizen of the world said...

I have to tell you, when people post long bits of writing I frequently just skim them to get a sense of it. But I didn't with this one - I got drawn in right away and really liked it. I have had both the expereince of being invisible in another cultture and also feeling painfully visible and watched.

NYD said...

Kurt~ A lot of life is like that. As long as folks treat you with respect, you are doing wel.

Mona~ As always your comments are insightful and eddifying. I actually like the imagery of the proverb. I wonder if there is a concise english equivalent.

Pug~ I have a sneaking suspicion that Aqualung or quite possibly Bungle in the Jungle were major theme songs in your adolecence.

Lime~ Thank you. that means a lot. There is one difference between us though. You took the taxi to the airport and went home, I'm still sittn on the bench. Can't wait to see what happens when the rain stops.

Thursdaynext~ I've got many stories.; some of them are about being here. Since this was fairly well recieved I might just post a few of the others that are sitting in my storybook folder gathering ions.

Corndog~ Right back at you CD!

CTZEN~ That's what I thought would happen and that's why I haven't posted many stories on this blog. Look at the label cloud- "stories" is one of the tiniest headings.

Thanks for the compliment. I'm glad you liked the tale.

Claudia said...

Howdy new neighbor....I wanted to read this but I got an error message and now I want to read it even more and beat someone over the head with my stiletto to get to it. * grins * By the way, I also have this insane urge to run my hand over your head. Just saying...

NYD said...

Hi Claudia~ You might have gotten the error message because I was doin some repair work on my template. Give 'er one more go and you ought. to get what you want.
For some strange reason Lots of gals want to rub my head. I guess I have that kind of effect of the goils.

Anonymous Boxer said...

I'm back - I really like this - my parents were married in Japan (1955) and my Father also spoke "fluently" and my Mother told similar stories of being half-invisible at times - they returned when she became pregnant but I think my Father could have stayed forever.

Anyway, your writing is very clean and yet.... descriptive. I felt as if I was sitting on that bench with the rain.

Allan said...

Very interesting insights...it's a ghost story of sorts, told by the Ghost himself. More!

NYD said...

Boxer~ Ah, the things we learn about others when we reveal ourselves.
I think I know how your dad felt.
Thanks for the kindness.

Allan~ You are the second person to read this and tell me that it's a ghost story. Interesting, I'll have to look at it again.
Cheers!

leelee said...

you need to be published my friend...really very well done..

HUGS!

Anonymous said...

See NYD, I'm not the only person that thought it was a ghost story.

But it's still a great story to read. Thanks for repeating it.

Can't wait for the next set of pics and story.

JBG