It starts with the Japanese language, something that ranks right up there in terms of things I am clueless about, like particle physics or the Roman Polanski code of ethics. One reason I even considered staying in Japan was because my son Teo already has a place here, speaks fairly fluent Japanese and knows his way around the Japanese culture. It seemed like a safe bet, and within a few hours of arriving at the Narita Airport, the payoff was obvious.
He helped me exchange currency and buy a bus ticket before we were even out of the airport. (Although even he was mystified by the paperless high-tech toilet there.) Soon, we were on our way to Tokyo to stay for a couple of days with a family he knew.
We took a couple sight-seeing trips and he efficiently guided me through the labyrinth that is the Tokyo train and subway system. Imagine that there are no signs in plain English in this system, and not even any signs in romaji, the Latin alphabet translation of the traditional Japanese kanji characters.
You've got to buy tickets from machines that display only kanji, purchase a ticket on the correct train, follow signs you will never in a million years decipher, attempt to find the right platform in the multi-level stations, board the correct train, get off at the correct stop, then transfer to another train. It makes the term byzantine seem quaint.
But I watched with awe as Teo negotiated our journey through the subways every step of the way.
In the coming days, whether it was translation or etiquette or ordering food, he was on top of it and I gladly accepted the help while fruitlessly leafing through my Japanese For Dummies phrase book, trying to formulate something intelligent in Japanese before winter came.
I knew Teo would soon return to his teaching job and it seemed like my main option would be to sit in his apartment all day playing on my laptop, with an occasional bike ride mixed in. When I got hungry enough, I'd venture to a nearby convenience store for rice balls. I had figured out that all I had to do was place the rice balls on the counter, slip some coins to the cashier and just keep saying "hai" (yes) until they handed me back my change and my bag full of rice balls.
This was not a blueprint for meaningful interaction. Not a way to learn the culture, one of my rationales for staying so long here.
But slowly I made progress by studying my phrase book and meeting some locals at a weekly language class. I went from ordering a hamburger at the Tomato and Onion by pointing at the menu and nodding my head to ordering a fried egg sandwich by pointing at the menu and saying kore o kudasai (this one, please) and actually requesting a glass of water in Japanese.
This week, I befriended the owner of a little French cafe my son and I had stopped at a couple of times previously. Between Junichi's broken Engrish and my phrase-book Nihongo, we communicated. I learned about all the best places to eat in town, the coolest bars, the niftiest tourist attractions and the fact that his favorite food was steak, which he cannot get in Miyako. All that for a $3 cup of French roast.
I can only guess what he thinks he knows about me after our exchange. But apparently he understands I like baseball and he does not think I'm a child molester, which is a good start when trying to hit it off with the locals in a foreign country.
Full of confidence, I struck out on my own the next day to have lunch at the Chinese restaurant he had recommended.
An older Japanese woman met me as I entered. I greeted her with a hearty konnichiwa (good afternoon), sat down and quickly stated in what sounded to me like flawless Japanese that, in fact, I spoke little Japanese. She smiled and pointed to the menu.
That seemed to grease the wheels. After that, I successfully ordered some stir fry and green tea, requested a refill on the tea, complimented her on the food (I'm pretty sure there was chicken in there somewhere) and paid my bill, all in Japanese. I was proud I had struck out on my own.
So back to Mr. Donut. While munching on a chocolate cream-filled, it struck me that the term for the action I had taken that day -- "striking out" -- had a double meaning, sort of like the Chinese character for "crisis," which supposedly is a combination of "danger" and "opportunity."
Striking out on you own can mean to boldly go to a Chinese restaurant in a Japanese city where you've never gone before and order food despite a flimsy command of the language. It means to begin, to take action. In the baseball sense, of course, striking out means to end in utter failure. It means you've settled for convenience store rice balls.
But you can't have one without the other. You can only strike out if you don't fear striking out. Maybe that's why bēsubōru (baseball) is so popular over here.
Regardless, I've now had a Phase 2 glimpse of the two-sided power of playing the Human Game with limitations. It just might come in handy.