I do not enjoy buying Shinkansen tickets.
First of all, they’re expensive. Around $200, from A to B and back, for a five hour ride. Second of all, this is the Japanese countryside. Almost nobody here speaks English, including the station employee who sells the tickets. Third, my Japanese ain’t perfect (and ain’t neither is my English), so I get anxious when Japanese people decide they don’t understand what I’m saying.
As I drive to the train station, I hope that the nice, middle-aged guy is behind the glass selling tickets. Somehow when my Japanese enters his ears, it clears his eyeballs without incident and makes its way up to his brain where further processing can occur. I’ll get my tickets and my service as if I were any other guy.
I arrive at the train station, I park my car. I can see into the station, but I can’t see who’s in the office.
If I’m not lucky, the senior station master will be sitting behind the glass. When I speak Japanese to him, it will definitely enter his ears, but will hit a bottle neck—his eyes. So much activity goes into his brain from his eyes that the Japanese that I spoke gets misinterpreted to match my appearance: I look like I am from an English-speaking country, so he will hear English, which he doesn’t understand.
I get out of the car and enter the station. The senior is sitting there. I resign myself to a long five minutes.
The station is not empty. I notice an odd, older Japanese man waiting around. He’s wearing jeans with matching jacket, a baseball cap, a colorful Welcome to Thailand! t-shirt, and a pleasant expression.
I ignore him. I’m focused on the train master. I’m glad I wrote down my itinerary, because his eyes can handle the simple Japanese I’ve written down saying which trains I want to take, what times, what dates. He ignores everything I say unless I repeat myself in threes, but at least the process is underway.
The old man in the Thailand t-shirt approaches me. I was speaking Japanese the whole time to the senior in the station office. However, the old man greets me in English. The second the old man opened his mouth and English comes out, I prepare myself for what usually comes: Someone who knows how to speak basic English but doesn’t know how to have a basic conversation. I will nod and smile as they talk about themselves or prattle on a monologue they’ve rehearsed. They do not require my input, just my audience, my praise, and my applause. A waste of my time and a mostly benign invasion of my privacy that I’ve gotten used to. Things could be worse.
Instead, this old man smiles at me. He speaks to me in English, but something is different.
What a rare sight you are! he says.
Where do you live? he asks.
What do you do? he asks.
Where ya from? he asks.
That something that’s different is the man is actually speaking to me—we are asking and answering each other’s questions and taking a genuine, if brief, interest in each other. He’s a 75-year-old retired businessman traveling the country. I’m the local English teacher with a sweetheart in Tokyo I’m going to visit. Etc.
He smiles. His smile isn’t about me, even his English isn’t about me. He speaks to me in English. He speaks to me in Japanese. He’s more interested in who I am than in what language I speak. It’s usually the opposite.
I receive my tickets. The man waves at me as I get in my car and drive away. I’m very glad I got to meet him, because he showed me something I haven’t seen in a long time. I know some foreign people with spectacular Japanese, some Japanese people with spectacular English. But it’s rare to meet people who wield their second language (L2) comfortably, effortlessly with benevolence, kindness, and sincerity.
I want to be like that.
I forget about the old man in the Thailand t-shirt and go back to my life.
A few weeks later, during a free period at work, I begin writing an essay. One of my Japanese coworkers, a teacher, has done something to embarrass me, not for the first time, and I try to process it by writing a scathing essay criticizing him and other advanced L2 practitioners I’ve met.
The essay is a failure. It is a venomous, unreadable rant.
I write a second draft. It is a failure. All I’ve done is cover up my venom and pain and hurt feelings with demonization.
I write a third draft. It’s longer than ever, and I realize that even I don’t want to read it. The negativity strewn throughout my essay is overwhelming. This time, however, I mention some of the precious few L2 practitioners I’ve met who are like the man in the Thailand t-shirt, and then I begin to write specifically about the man himself. There’s something significant about him, but I can’t figure out what it is.
I am frustrated.
I go to Facebook and try to write a short, concise distillation of the essay, to essentially grasp at the core idea, the feeling that pulses through my chest. I come away with this:
Mastery is a battle. “In my experience, humility and skill seem to be gained or lost at inverse proportions until one realizes their battle is not outside with others, but inside with themselves. Capability along with peace, directed inside and outside, are the signs of mastery.”
I delete most of the original essay. I begin with the old man instead.
At this point it’s been two weeks, and thousands of words and tens of thousands of keystrokes. I think about this essay and what the hell it’s about when I buy a sandwich at the store, when I look in the mirror while brushing my teeth, when I reverse my car into my parking spot.
Last night, rubbing shampoo into my hair in the shower, it hits me:
I am trapped on a little one-tree island. I’m all by myself. When I see other people, I see the distance between us. I am fearful and suspicious of them.
Will they make fun of my little island? Will they try to steal the little coconut from my little tree? Will they upstage me with bigger islands and bigger coconut trees? Will they talk poorly of me amongst themselves later?
And so I fall into the trap of self-absorption. I’m not directly thinking about me—I’m thinking about other people thinking about me. I am so absorbed in myself that I experience a constant barrier between myself and everyone around me.
I get a weird feeling around most advanced L2 practitioners. I’m not where I want to be yet, I am not satisfied with my level, so if I’m very honest with myself, I get very ornery with people who are not my students or friends who speak to me to help with their linguistic development but balk at the idea of reciprocating. I also have unpleasant feelings about people who are on my level or higher and act in a superior fashion.
So when the Thailand t-shirt man began speaking to me in the train station, I had my guard up, ready to defend myself from some jerk who thought he was somehow entitled to my time. I was sitting on my little island holding on to my coconut for dear life.
But the old man got off his island and swam over to mine. It’s a rare thing. He left his island, where all of his personal concerns and desires—and defenses—are stored up, and came over to my island.
He brought a gift. He wanted to share the smile that sat so perfectly on his face with me, because I forget to wear my own.
This is not about L2. This is beyond my little grudge with the teacher. The old man in the Thailand t-shirt didn’t want anything from me, he wanted to give to me.
Last night, I go to the convenience store. I still have sweat all over my shirt from lifting at the gym. I just want some chicken and something to wash it down with. I bring my things to the register, where Otoo-san is working.
Otoo-san knows a little English. I’m still thinking about this stupid essay and that old man while Otoo-san bags my chicken and coffee milk. I’ve already paid. Otoo-san is only speaking Japanese to me this time, as if he’s as tired as I am.
I just wanted to get in, buy my chicken, and go home and unwind. Even though I’ve given him my money already, I stop. He notices the fingers I’ve wrapped together with tape.
I just want to go home. I just want to rest.
I think about the old man.
The thing is, I tell him, in English, is that I bought a bike recently.
Oh really, he replies, in Japanese.
Yeah, yeah. It’s my first time riding a bike, so I took it up to the park to practice.
Your first time, really?
Yeah. At first I didn’t know how to ride at all, but I practiced and practiced, and after some time, I was able to ride it.
Yeah, I was really happy. But then I said to myself, ‘Faster!’ And I could still ride!
So then I said to myself, ‘Faster!’ And I was still riding! I squat down and pantomime holding on to handle bars.
And then I said to myself ‘Faster!’
CRASH! WHOMP! BALLOOMP!
We both have a big laugh. (Maybe you had to be there.)
I stay far longer than I have to. I share something with Otoo-san that I don’t have to. I speak English the whole time.
I’m tired, I’m having a really bad time at work, I’m shocked at how fat I am after seeing some recent pictures, I’m broke this month because of my $600 mountain bike, and I feel like my life is an unfixable mess.
But I share a story with him anyway. I see an opportunity to maybe put a smile on his face, and so I do it.
I finally get back in my car and head home.
The old man in the Thailand t-shirt taught me a word. It was written on his shirt, in beautiful, colorful script: ‘Sawatdee.’ It means ‘hello,’ he said. It also means ‘goodbye,’ he said.
As I finally complete the essay I’ve been laboring over for now four weeks, I look up ‘sawatdee’ on Wiktionary.
‘Sawatdee,’ from the Sanskrit ‘svasti.’ It means ‘blessing.’
(Note: I’m thinking of changing the direction of Shougayaki. This piece was originally published on another one of my blogs.)