09 April, 2013

Gales of laughter

I've been reading funny stories to the boys out of a book written nearly 40 years ago. The book's called "Japan: It's not all raw fish" by Don Maloney, an American businessman who has quite a flair for writing humour. The book is a compilation of a weekly column that he Japan Times, an English-language newspaper.
wrote for

Though his stories of Japan are a bit dated, there is enough in them for us to really enjoy them.

We're still laughing over the story about eating on the Shinkansen (bullet train). One time he was offered for lunch, "among other things — a 'mixed sandwich' (that means 90% bread, 1 % ham, 9% cucumber". Then one time he went for breakfast just after the "breakfast" in the dining car closed at 8.30 and was offered "Beef Stew, Curry Rice, or Mixed Pizza. "I almost decided on the Mixed Pizza — 8.30 or not — but then remembered that, in Japan, 'Mixed' is a translation of 'cucumber'..."

Every now and then someone will mentioned "mixed" and much laughter will ensue.

The most recent story I read produced wails of laugher at one point also. But first I need to explain a little. The author couldn't understand why taxi drivers didn't respond to his clear instructions in Japanese. Then one day his secretary witnessed an interaction in a taxi and gave him this advice,
"Please understand, your Japanese is fine. It's just that taxi drivers – and many other Japanese, too — make up their minds when they see you that you speak a foreign language, not Japanese. So, even when you speak Japanese, they're all tuned to hear a foreign language and that's what it sounds like. Try warming them up first," she advised, "with an "Ano ne," or with a "Sumimasen" (Japanese attention getters) repeated a couple of times. That will tune them back to Japanese and you'll be okay."
We've experienced this phenomenon ourselves. The most memorable being when I was pregnant with our second son and attending a large university hospital for a pre-natal checkup. For some reason I had to go to the in-hospital pharmacy to have a script filled. The pharmacy had a little hole-in-the-wall for outpatients, so we fronted up there. This tiny young came to the counter to serve us. We started to talk in Japanese to her and she fled. She just ran away leaving us wondering what we'd done. She went to get someone else braver, someone she thought would manage these scary foreigners better!

Back to the story in the book, the author tried his secretary's advice one night and this is what happened:
"We were rolling along at the usual 80 km/h, and about five or six blocks from the traffic light [where we needed to turn] I leaned forward an gave him my opening 'Ano ne'. Completely shocked, he hit the brake with both feet. As the tires squealed like a mailman's bicycle, I went over the back of the front seat and was standing on my head next to the driver."
At this point in the story, it took a long time for everyone to regain composure and quieten down enough for me to finish the story, relaying the satisfying news that the taxi driver did indeed follow the author's instructions, to the letter, after this.

No doubt there are many other foreigners out there with their stories. We've heard stories of experience foreign looking missionaries who were accompanying fresh Asian-looking recruits and have had conversations with a Japanese person looking only at the Asian-appearing person. Yes, how you look is important!

P.S. It isn't a book I'd give to the boys to read because there is language that dishonours God in it, plus there are numerous references to things that they simply wouldn't understand. I do my best to edit those out as I read. Even so, we often struggle to get through a story without repeated interruptions from our youngest asking for clarification.


Ken Rolph said...

The not-looking-at-a-person situation is more common than we realise. I've heard it said by people in wheel chairs. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the main complaint of women. It seems that we are very used to making judgements about whether particular people are ones we can engage with in a meaningful way. If we decide not, we direct all our talk to the person pushing the wheelchair, the husband, the brother, the father.

It is such a normal human thing to make instant evaluations about others. It really takes a conscious effort to move beyond this.

Wendy said...

You're very right Ken. We judge by what we see, or think we see. It is a fundamental flaw in most of us.