Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Alma R. H. Reyes


September-October 2013

“Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things I'm thinking of?”
—“Can You Read My Mind” song
from Superman

The colors of autumn will not be shining until around November, but at least, we have hurdled through the boiling heat, sweat and humidity of summer. We often hear weather forecasts that “predict” the next day’s temperature; don’t you wish it was the other way around—that the weather can predict what people want the day to be? The weather as a mind reader!

Japanese love to look at things. During springtime they celebrate cherry blossom viewing (“Hanami”) by flocking the parks to gaze at radiant pink and white cherry blossoms, then drink saké under the trees. They always have to do something while looking at something. In anticipation of autumn, September is the month of moon viewing (“Tsukimi”) in Japan. Here they are again, gazing at something. Tsukimi celebrates the full moon, and Japanese traditionally eat omochi rice cakes while enjoying the glistening lunar sky. What could Japanese be thinking on such an auspicious night? Have you tested yourself how crafty you are in scrutinizing the Japanese mind? Many foreigners complain, “I don’t understand Japanese.” But, does it really take understanding to know who they are, what they are, and how they are?

Let’s see if you have not found yourself in any of these situations.

Case 1: Restaurant.
You call the waiter and order something so extraordinarily outside of the menu; let’s say, chicken, but with less salt, and a bit of ginger to add, but with no onions. What happens? The waiter stares at you like you came from Planet Z. Give him a five seconds of complete blank response. And, as you repeat yourself with “Well?” He tilts his head to the side, combined with the famous “Yaa…sore wa…” (“Umm…that is…”)—bits of broken phrases that don’t complete a sentence. He is not saying NO, but he is not saying YES either. Do you think he doesn’t understand your Japanese (or English)? Or, that he didn’t get your order at all? That’s what you think. No. What he is NOT saying to you in his blank expression is, “Oh my…I really want to help you with your order, but taking such an order was not instructed to me, and I would rather not explain this to the manager, who would find it bothersome to explain it to the chef, and in the long run, I would have caused trouble for both the manager and the chef, and that does not say good about me. So, I’m sorry, but, I have to tell you ‘Sumimasen, sore wa chotto dekimasen ga….” (Sorry, but that cannot be done.). End of order. In some cases, just to appear polite to you, he will exit with a “Shosho omachi kudasai” (Just a moment please.) and pass the buck to another waiter, so someone else can take responsibility. Just the same, the second waiter will likewise, give you the “Sumimasen” treatment. Very rare places do actually entertain your outrageous request, and when they do, be assured that is a restaurant you would like to go back to.

Case 2: Office meeting.
Your boss proposes an incredibly illogical plan, and you are definite there is no other response but to disagree. You start to voice out your opinion, but you notice, no one else in the room is nodding in agreement. The table is surrounded by blank expressions, or some that are not even looking at you. You just cannot believe that no one is negating your boss’ idea. Do you think your colleagues agree with your boss? Or, maybe they don’t understand your Japanese (or English)? That’s what you think. No. What they are not saying to you in their poker face looks is, “Oh, I wish I could be bold like him and disagree with the boss as well, but I really shouldn’t. No one else is disagreeing. If I say I don’t approve, I won’t be counted as part of the group. I would embarrass my boss, and that does not speak well of me.” End of meeting. Thus, instead of initiating what could be a healthy and constructive discussion of intellectual exercise, the room will echo with “So desu ne…” “Dou deshou…” “Mmmm….” Yes, broken phrases that do not complete sentences. Welcome to the Japanese gray society.

Case 3: Inside the train.
Atsui! Atsui! Atsui! (Hot! Hot! Hot!) Boy, it is really steaming hot inside the train. It isn’t middle of summer yet, so the trains don’t turn on the air-conditioning yet. You are sweating top to bottom, and you notice you are not the only one. People are fanning themselves, wiping off the sweat from their faces. All the windows are shut (as all Japan trains are). You take the human gesture of opening the window in front of you. What happens? You see some raised eyebrows, a few glances, or some who don’t look at you…but don’t worry, they see you. They just don’t want to show you that they see you. Do you think they do not want you to open the window? Or, that maybe you appear strange, the typical hen na gaijin (strange foreigner) that you are? No. What they are not saying to you in their emotionless expressions is, “Hey, he can open the window. I really wanted to do the same thing, but no one does that. No one tells us to open the windows if we find it hot inside the train. I’m not supposed to do something I wasn’t told to do. I’ll just sit here, wipe my sweat off and stick it out.” Enjoy the ride.

Are gaijins like me crazy? Yes, it is fun sometimes to play with your mind and tickle through the Japanese brain to decipher what they are REALLY thinking out of the obvious; because my dear, what they really show is usually not what they really mean inside their hearts. So much of Japanese way of life is scripted, directed, manipulated and predicted, that you can’t even tell what is real or not. Isn’t living in Japan fun?
So, don’t stop gazing at the autumn moon. Look hard, and think hard. You’ll see, something is going to come out in awhile. And, it won’t be just a rabbit...!

May the autumn colors be with you!

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