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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]


Chapter 10


December 13, 1989   -   ON A SLOW TRAIN HOME


Elin and I were on the train going back home at night from a long day's English teaching.  We were reading, nestled into the cushion seats in the clean and almost empty car, sitting across from each other with our sock-feet stretched out onto the opposing seats.  Even though I'm taller than her, her legs are longer than mine, and not so thick.

I do love trains.  Buses can make me queazy but on trains I feel secure and content, especially if there's room to lounge.  Heat blew out from the grate beneath the seat.  The car gently rocked and clicked its reassuring rhythm which put me in a meditative mood like a ballad around a camp­fire.  I wouldn't have traded it for the bullet train.

How cold it had been waiting at the countryside station for the 8:32 to come.  While we stood under the shelter, we read the adver­tisements tacked onto the wall behind a row of benches where an old man sat waiting and drinking a glass of hot sake he'd gotten from a vending machine out front.  I said "Sumimasen," (excuse me) as we were standing close to him looking at the wall.  It was, I think, an appropriate thing to say, but he nervously waved a hand in front of his face, muttered "English no!" and quickly scooted down to the end of the bench holding tight to his sake glass.  We continued studying the advertisements.

One poster in particular caught our attention.  In it, an intense, tall, young Japanese man in Western clothing was kneeling on tatami mats in a tea room just like the one in our house.  He held a tea cup in both hands.  His back was self-consciously straight and he stared seriously out from the picture as if something extraordinarily significant or profound was happening.  It seemed to us such an arrogant ad.  His face was thoroughly splattered with the stains of somebody's soft drink.

As always the train pulled up exactly on time.  We opened the doors, as they're not automatic during the coldest months, and we stepped in.  The car was warm but not too warm as they sometimes are.  We put our coats and bags above the seats and settled in for the half hour ride.


Elin pushed her shoulder length brown hair away from her eyes and took The Japan Times out of her purse.  I read a magazine for "dedicated students of the Japanese language."  The train pulled out and softly rattled along.  We talked a minute, rubbing each other's feet and then went to our reading.

My eyes turned to the chilly night outside.  A couple of large bright pachinko parlors, Japanese pinball palaces, dominated the view.  Their lights were so many and so bright.  It reminded me of driving into Las Vegas.  The size and audacity of the buildings, framed by large parking lots, the shining, blinking facades and glowing interiors dazzled me - what a light show.  Kelly calls it the single most prominent sight in Japan.  I wondered what the thrill was.

The train stopped at another small station.  A lone woman waited in the cold.  She had a striking face, high cheekbones, and was thin - like a magazine model.  I thought about my compatriot in Japanese class, Rod, and his ill-fated Number Ten - surely what he would have called this lady.   The adultery finally got to him and he'd told her they couldn't go on seeing each other.  I pictured him in Kyushu holding his beautiful housewife lover and mother of three back as she struggled to get out of his grasp and leap from the forth story balcony of his one room mansion.  The lady outside my window entered the car in front and I stared at the empty platform as though in a petit mal until the train moved on down the line. 

Moonlit bamboo groves and shadows shuttled by as Elin began to read aloud from the Japan Times.  There was a letter to the editor from a burned out English teacher com­menting on four other foreign English teachers who'd been fired from the Nagoya school system for having had the nerve to recommend changes in the curriculum.  The author of the letter was foaming at the mouth saying, "Well what did they expect?  Hadn't they learned yet that there's no way to teach English in Japan and have any self-respect?"  We got a kick out of it.  The letters to the editor in the English language newspapers here are ter­rific - and they help relieve some of the pressure.

The conductor came by and Elin stopped him to purchase our tickets.  He was middle-aged and skinny with a nicely trimmed mustache and a friendly politeness.  It was obviously a professional challenge to him to be able to negotiate this transaction smoothly.  Elin zipped through the necessary dialogue with graciousness and ease.  The exchange went by without a hitch and after the closing formalities he went briskly on his way.  I was proud of her.  A couple of months ago it was such a struggle.  Now she's having long conversations with friends and neighbors.  American couples are notorious for not learning much Japanese.

"Very good, darling," I said.  We looked around and stole a kiss.

Then she read some Tokyo apartment listings.  They were unbelievably high.  It's always good for a laugh.  We, fortunately, don't pay much rent.  Sometimes we eat out for as little as three dollars each.  A couple can live here on a thousand dollars a month if they try - we don't.  You get used to spending money here.  And as a matter of fact, as the train pulled into Maruyama station, we were so tired we talked ourselves into foregoing the bus and taking a nice fifteen minute, thirteen dollar cab ride to our house by the temple.  We love the trains, sometimes we like the cabs too, and we especially dearly appreci­ate going back to our peaceful home at night where we can cuddle up with each other and disappear into sleep.