Back to the grind! Or rather, back to more free time before Japan’s second school semester starts and Devon needs to start doing some real work.
With that free time, Devon decides that he’s fluent in Japanese (he’s not), that he’s capable of social nuance (questionable), and that he’s got the ability to stay cool under the pressure of novel interactions with gym staff (incorrect).
Find out exactly what kind of Japanese NOT to use when signing up for a gym membership in Chapter 11 of Forever Foreign!
Where and When to Listen to Forever Foreign, the Fictional Japan Podcast
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Episodes from season 1 of Forever Foreign drop every two weeks, and we would LOVE it if you’d subscribe and consider giving us feedback via a review or comment.
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Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design – David Armfield
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Victor – David Armfield
Voice of Alyssa – Byanka Philippe
Coming in a minute!
Chapter 11: Never Regret Thy Japanese (Transcript)
DEVON: Okay, we’re recording.
VICTOR: Like I was saying—
DEVON: Hold up. I forgot to say the date. Sorry. Saturday, August 24th, 2013.
VICTOR: Like I—
DEVON: Sorry! Just one more thing… Hi, Henrik. Okay, you can start.
VICTOR: Do you really have to do that?
DEVON: Kinda, yeah.
VICTOR: I don’t even remember what we were talking about anymore.
DEVON: I’ll get us on track. Henrik, it’s the day after Chiron English Camp. It’s 1:13 in the afternoon and Victor just got home.
I’m pretty sure I mentioned it in last night’s entry, but just in case, here’s a refresher. After our bus got back to Okayama station and we said goodbye to the kids, everyone was left to their own devices. Timothy and Kaori immediately bolted off in one direction without so much as a tip of the hat to the rest of us.
VICTOR: Why do you talk like that? “Without so much as a tip of the hat.”
DEVON: Yyyou don’t like it?
VICTOR: You sound like you have a stick up your ass or something.
DEVON: I think words should be fun! Why say you went for a walk when you can say jaunt? Why tell someone you had fun when you can say it was a cracking good time? Wait, I got one that’s perfect for you; why talk about a girl’s tits and ass when you can refer to her heaving chest and bulbous bottom?
VICTOR: Bulbous bottom?
DEVON: Don’t like it?
VICTOR: Not really, no.
DEVON: I’ll try to come up with something better.
Anyway, most of us got on trains to go home after English camp, but not you, Victor. Why don’t you tell Henrik and me about your evening?
VICTOR: Okay, so normally we would have a post-camp party, right? But Timothy and Kaori weren’t up for it this year, so it was on me. I invited the Hotaru crew to come with, but you all turned me down because you’re about the lamest group of ALTs I’ve ever come across.
DEVON: Really? Come on, man. We were tired. I told you I’d be game almost any other time.
VICTOR: You gotta work hard AND play hard in Japan, Devon. Work hard AND play hard.
DEVON: Want some coffee?
(footsteps, pulling out mugs, coffee pouring sounds)
VICTOR: After you all pussied out, I went to one of my usual places – I’ve got a few kyabakuras that I cycle between. Some bars, too.
DEVON: Kyaba… what?
VICTOR: Kyabakura. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them before. Oh man, is your ‘ol senpai ever about to come through for you.
(Devon sets two mugs down)
VICTOR: Cream and sugar, man. Cream and sugar.
(couple footsteps, fridge opening and closing, more footsteps)
(a bit of stirring throughout next sentence or two)
VICTOR: Thanks. Kyabakuras are bars where girls come around and hang out with you. Usually you sit in a booth or a private room if you’re feeling like splashing some cash. It depends a little on the place, but most of the time you get a cycle of different gals coming to hang out. It’s awesome. So awesome.
DEVON: Can you uh… ya know. S-E-X?
VICTOR: Can you bang them? No. The girls are there strictly to keep you company, not to give you handies under the table. Come on, Devon. Not unless you have some serious skill, that is. (couple second pause) Go on.
DEVON: Go on?
VICTOR: Ask me if I have some serious skill.
DEVON: Do you have some serious skill, Victor? (a 2 second pause and a little chuckle) Henrik, Victor just winked.
Okay, so you went to a Kyaba… kura? last night.
VICTOR: Nah, after my trip to Tokyo I’m a little strapped for cash. Just went to Hunters last night. It’s a club that a lot of foreigners and locals like to mingle at.
DEVON: Good time?
VICTOR: Ask me why I got home so late today.
DEVON: (sigh) Do I have to? I think I get the picture.
VICTOR: Are you sure? Talk about your heavy chests and… What’d you say? Bubble butts?
DEVON: Bulbous— Bulbous bottoms… Forget about it. It’s fine.
VICTOR: Well… this chick had the bulbiest bottom I have ever seen. And she had a friend. You really missed out.
DEVON: Next time, senpai. Looking forward to it. How do you say club in Japanese, anyway? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone talk about them.
VICTOR: How do you know so little about Japan? You’re almost as bad as Alyssa.
DEVON: Come on, I’m not that bad! At least I can speak some Japanese.
VICTOR: Can you?
DEVON: Yeah! Gimme a break! I studied for a semester back in Canada and… I haven’t stuck my nose in a textbook over here yet, but I will once I settle into a routine.
VICTOR: Well, going out with me and spankin a little toosh would be a good way to learn fast. Just sayin.
DEVON: I will. I promise. Actually, if you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you about the day camp. Do you, uh… Do you think Timothy will hold, ya know… everything that happened against me?
VICTOR: Have you met Timothy?
DEVON: Ugh… Any way of getting off his shit list?
VICTOR: You cut him pretty deep, man. He’s someone who values loyalty, and when you flipped the script like that… I don’t see him forgetting it any time soon. I still don’t get why you did that. Such a bitch move.
DEVON: Don’t tell me I’m gonna need to look over my shoulder when I’m around you too…
VICTOR: Nah, we cool. Actually, it’s kinda funny looking back on it now. Don’t tell Timothy I said that, though.
(mug being set on the table)
VICTOR: I’m gonna bounce, though. Only got a couple hours of sleep last night and papa needs a nap.
(standing up, footsteps as they walk to the door)
VICTOR: Think I can feel the booze poos coming on too…
(door closing, more footsteps)
DEVON: Henrik, this’ll probably be the only entry for today. It’s a Saturday and I don’t even have a hangout with the other ALTs planned. See ya around!
(tape recorder clicks off and on)
Aaaannnnd I’m back! Just for a couple minutes.
Later in the afternoon I went to Market for groceries, the plan being to make Bolognese sauce for dinner. I went up and down the aisles, gathering the necessary ingredients like a man on a pasta-making mission. Nothing too exciting. Then I saw who was manning, or rather womaning the till.
Now, a little bit of backstory for you. There’s this cashier who I see almost every time I’ve gone grocery shopping, a young woman by the looks of her. I’ve never made a point of lining up at her register, but more often than not it ends up that way. My reason for not mentioning her until now is… well… the fact that she’s a cashier who I’ve hardly said more than a handful of words to. That’s also kind of why I’m mentioning her now. You see, she’s always come across as very… aloof. What a great word that is, hey? Aloof. It almost sounds French… Is it French?
Anyway, Ms. Aloof always gives me an icy konnichiwa whenever I see her. I don’t think it’s anything personal because I’ve watched her with other customers and her tone never really changes. That’s just Ms. Aloof, it seems.
Every time she greets me, I send the greeting right back with a smile, and every. Single. Time. She looks surprised when I do it. Judging by the way everyone else behaves around her I think it might just be a matter of her not being used to patrons engaging in conversation. I’m all for it, though. That’s why we’re here on planet earth, isn’t it? To connect with people? That’s what grandpa Glendenning would say.
Ms. Aloof makes it hard, though. I’ve tried commenting on the weather or mentioning that the tomatoes she’s ringing through look delicious, but I’m always met with near silence.
There’s only so many times a guy can be met with a brick wall in conversation, so when I saw her today I decided to take more of a direct approach. Instead of commenting on something in the hopes that she would jump into the conversation herself, I pulled her in, asking her how she was. More specifically, I asked her, “Genki desu ka?” If you translate it, it literally means ‘Are you healthy?’ but it’s probably the closest equivalent to the English ‘How are you?’ in terms of conversation in Japan.
Ms. Aloof looked at me with the slightest upward curve to her lips and said, “Genki desu.” I’m good.
She then asked me how I was, to which I also replied, “Genki desu.”
That’s it. That’s all we said to one another. But for how brief the exchange was, it felt like a monumental triumph, and the curve on my lips wasn’t slight at all as I walked away from the register; it stretched from ear to ear. With that wild look I stuffed canned tomatoes, ground beef, and onions into the bag I’d been given. As I bent down to put my basket away I heard a new voice.
“You look like you just got released from the asylum.”
I didn’t need to look to know it was Alyssa. Letting out a long sigh, I straightened up. “Can’t a guy just be happy? If you saw a baby or a dog smiling by itself I guarantee that you’d be talking about how adorable it looks.”
“You’re not a baby, are you?” Alyssa said. “And dogs can’t smile.”
“Yes they can.”
“No, they can’t.”
“They can, though, so…”
“Agree to disagree,” she said. “What are you smiling about anyway?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said. Then I just kinda forgot about bagging groceries for a minute and went on a tangent.
“Just one of those moments that makes you appreciate being alive. You know, Alyssa, you study a language enough to have the most basic of conversations – actually, it was just the start of a conversation, but who’s counting – and when it gets to the point where words are being served back and forth it really feels like a lock is slowly clicking into place. Ya know?”
“Japanese?” she said. “Are you talking about Japanese?”
“What else would I be talking about?”
She rolled her eyes and started to push past me. Then she stopped. “Hey, do you know if Callum is around? He’s not answering my messages.”
“He’s probably locked in his room working on his game. Why?”
“I was gonna ask him for help with setting up a gym membership.”
“You were gonna ask Callum? Why Callum?”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I should probably ask Mio. Or Bree.”
“Uhhh excuse me?” I said. “What about me? You should’ve seen the Japanese I was flinging around with the cashier just now. And remember the train? Remember how I got us to Soja by figuring out which platform to get on?”
“I remember us almost getting on a train to the other side of Japan,” Alyssa said. “Where do you get off thinking your Japanese is as good as Mio or Bree’s?”
“It’s not always about language ability, you know,” I said. “Sometimes it’s about personability. Being able to work through a situation and communicate in spite of the barriers.”
“But nothing! I accept your challenge.”
“I didn’t challenge you to anything,” she said.
“Nonsense,” I said. “I’ll have you set up with a gym membership in no time.”
“Let me make this clear to you, Devon. I do not want you to go to the gym for me. It’s a very nice thought, but I have a feeling that getting you to negotiate my membership fees would end up with me in debtor’s prison.”
“Don’t mention it!” I said. “I’ll have you lifting weights in no time!”
“Are you listening to me?” she said.
In case you’re wondering, I was listening to her, Henrik; I was listening to her words so hard that it hurt. It’s not that I have any delusions over how well I can speak Japanese – I’m aware that I’m a beginner – it’s more that Alyssa doesn’t seem to have confidence in my ability to rise to the occasion. That, I can’t overlook.
Saying good night, I left Market and started forming a plan in my head. First, I would… Well, first I would make a delicious Bolognese sauce and eat it, which I did. Maybe I’ll leave my recipe pinned somewhere in the apartment for whenever you move in. I use a secret ingredient that takes it from 10 out of 10 to 11. A happy belly every time. That’s the Glendenning guarantee.
Once I finished with dinner though… I would begin the journey that would change the way foreigners communicate in Japan forever!
(tape recorder clicks off then on again)
Sunday, August 25th, 2013
I’m outside Undou Town right now Henrik. That’s the name of the gym in Hotaru. Undou means ‘exercise’ and Town means… Well, that’s English, so I don’t know if I need to explain that.
After dinner last night I studied Japanese for two hours. I looked up words that might be used at a gym’s reception area, practiced a fake dialogue with an imaginary front desk worker… I even went over gestures that might be helpful. All of this to prove Alyssa wrong.
I’ve been here for a little while now, psyching myself up, and the only thing left to do is go in and actually talk to someone. I decided to bring you along because this is a really important step in not only my own personal growth, but probably just about every foreigner who moves to Japan. We all have to take the plunge at some point and stop relying on other people. Or we should, anyway.
So here I am. Just sitting on a bench outside the front doors. Totally ready to take the plunge. Hands are totally not shaking right now. I’m totally not going to chicken out and ask Erika to help with this… I’m not going to chicken out, am I?
(sound of automatic doors and a few footsteps coming out)
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Konnichiwa! Anata ga koko 15 funkan soko ni suwatteiru koto ni kizuki, nanika tetasuke ga hituyou na no darou ka to omotta no desu ga… Daijoubu desu ka?
DEVON: Uh, Glevon Dendenning desu. Watashi wa… Ahh I wasn’t ready! Why did you have to come out?? (footsteps running away)
That doesn’t count, Henrik. I didn’t even get to the part where I talk about the weather.
(recorder clicking off, then back on)
Round 2. I went to a coffee shop down the road to regroup. I was there for about an hour before I felt comfortable enough to try again.
Recording over that last little bit crossed my mind but I think it’ll probably be good for you to hear me reflect on it. You see, I was hoping that things were going to go perfectly, but that’s generally not the way things go, is it? I should’ve improvised, as I was planning on doing all along when my sparse Japanese inevitably failed me. Alas, there’s no turning back the clock. Well, I won’t psych myself up this time. Just gonna go for it!
(Footsteps approach followed by automatic door opening then closing)
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Konnichiwa!
DEVON: Konnichiwa. Devon Glendenning Desu. Tenki ha ii desu ne.
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Atsui desu ne. Sakki aimashita yo ne? Soto de.
DEVON: Huh? I uhhh… (said quietly) Okay, time to blaze ahead. Devon Glendenning desu. Koko de undou shitai desu ga. Etooooo…… What was it again? Ahh I forget now…
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Daijoubu desu ka?
DEVON: Do you uhh, do you need track pants to work out here? I like yours – and I’ll get some if necessary – but I don’t own pants like that.
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Sumimasen. Nan no hanashi desu ka?
DEVON: Your pants. I like your pants. Uhhh anata no… pantsu?
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Dete kudasai.
DEVON: Sumimasen. Mou ichido kudasai. (whispered) That’s uh, “one more time” in Japanese, in case you were wondering Henrik.
UNDOU TOWN STAFF: Denasai! Deteike! Hentai! Sukebe!
DEVON: Okay, okay! Wow…
(footsteps walking away)
What just happened? And what was I even talking about? I went totally off script…
(Tape recorder click, cutting all sound)
Okay Henrik, I’m pretty sure I figured out what happened earlier today. I mean, I can’t explain the way things went off the rails; I guess I just thought I would try a little small talk before segueing into asking about the gym membership. But I think I know why I got chased out of the building as if I was leper.
You’ll have heard the number of times I referred to the woman behind the counter’s ‘pants’. I think I counted five times in total when I went back and listened. God, I still don’t know why I started talking about her clothes at all. A million other things would’ve been more natural.
Anyway, what I wanted to say is that after getting home I noticed the number of times I used that word and figured it was the only thing that stood out as potentially offensive. So I looked up the word ‘pants’ in my Japanese-English dictionary and found that the Japanese word is ‘zubon’. That might be the word I should’ve used, but it didn’t explain why she got so angry. Dead end.
Then, later that night Callum came over to hangout. We put on some anime – specifically a show called Fairy Tail – and that’s when the pieces started falling into place.
One of the racier scenes we watched featured a scantily clad lass with a male character making oblivious and inappropriate comments. Certain words came up frequently over the course of that scene, but as I was focusing more on reading the subtitles they didn’t register in my brain. Until they did.
There was one word in particular that I couldn’t help but notice as the sounds morphed in my brain. Pa-n-tsu. Pan-tsu. Pantsu.
“Pants!” I shouted, startling Callum enough to upset a bag of potato chips.
“What!” he said.
“Pants!” I repeated. “What does pantsu translate to in English.”
“Dacks,” he said. His crazy Aussie cartoon word. Not mine. Apparently it means underwear.
“I’m such a drongo,” I said. That time the Aussie lingo came from me.
I don’t know how much of my English she understood, Henrik, but thanks to that incredible personability that I was bragging about yesterday – you know, the one that would allow me to communicate effectively against all odds including, but not limited to, my near total lack of linguistic ability – she put her own meaning together. I pointed to the lower half of her body probably three times, for god’s sake. And depending on which English words the front desk worker understood and which she translated to Japanese, I may or may not have told her that I liked her undies.
After explaining this to Callum and nearly getting laughed out of my own apartment I asked for some help with cobbling together an apology speech. I never said I had to get the gym membership completely on my own after all, did I? No sense turning down help when it’s already there. That’s called ‘stupid’.
We’ll see how things go tomorrow, Henrik. Toodaloo!
(tape recorder click)
Monday, August 26th, 2013
Good evening, Henrik.
Where to start with today’s events? The beginning, maybe? Nowhere better I suppose… Wait, actually let’s go nonlinear. Just give me a second to work this out in my head… Okay, I think I’ve got it. Aaaaaand action!
It was two o’clock in the afternoon and dark clouds were gathering overhead. I paced outside the entrance to Undou Town, my hand a vice as it pressed the phone tight to my ear, forcing me to take in every word of admonishment. I wanted to hear them, on some level, Henrik. Knew that I deserved every last noxious syllable. The price of hubris.
“I understand, Erika,” I said to the woman who very closely resembled a supervisor but refused the title. “I won’t go back inside Undou Town. It’s something I just wasn’t ready to do on my own.”
The call ended with a click. Hmm, to tell you the truth it wasn’t a click. It ended more with a tap since all I had to do was touch the red button on my phone’s screen. Okay, the call ended with a tap.
Running shaky fingers through my hair, I forced myself to take one last look at the doors to Undou Town. Doors that were now forbidden to me. Doors that represented so much more than merely the entrance to a physical fitness training center. They were a checkpoint of sorts to a life of independence in Japan.
I sat down on the bench, watching people coming and going freely with no troubles as they spoke to the woman at the counter. They might’ve been communicating any number of things; a request for a towel or perhaps questioning why their monthly fees had gone up. Whatever each patron’s speech contained, one theme was constant. There was an ease about each interaction, a lack of complication that I envied.
At some point as I sat outside I noticed that my hair was damp and my skin was slick. When the rain had started, I couldn’t say. Evidence of my misery.
I took my head in my hands, full of self-pity and despair at the lack of prospects for myself in this country. I closed my eyes and wallowed in it, and as with everything the rain stopped. Really, it would be more accurate to say that it stopped hitting me because I could still hear the pitter patter all around. Shelter had come, unbidden, and with it a voice.
For all of my despair I couldn’t make out what was said, only that the words had come from the mouth of some angel of mercy. The clouds opened, pierced by rays of light, and as I looked up into the blinding splendor there she was.
27 MINUTES AND 34 SECONDS EARLIER.
I spent the morning rehearsing the apology that Callum had helped me come up with. I spent yesterday morning rehearsing another speech as well, so there were no illusions that any of this would be fool proof, and yet I still had a strange sense of confidence as I hopped on my bike and rode off for Undou Town after lunch. The sun was shining, the cicadas were chirping – or whatever they do. I’m not really sure if you can call those sounds chirping… Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon.
North along the river, across two bridges and one very short tunnel, and there I was at Undou Town, the gym built into a mountainside. As I got off my bicycle every bit of that confidence I just mentioned vanished. A part of me wanted to get right back in the saddle and turn tail for my apartment rather than head inside the building. The voice in my head told me to call Erika, Mio, hell even Victor and ask for help. But another voice knew this was something I had to do on my own.
Wishing I hadn’t just wolfed down two egg salad sandwiches, I forced my legs to move. I didn’t wait outside the entrance this time; I barged right in. Behind the counter was the same woman from yesterday, which I was grateful for. If it’d been someone else my apology wouldn’t have made any sense at all and we’d be back to square one.
Speaking of apologies, I need to make one to you, Henrik. Nothing would’ve made me happier than to have taken you along for the ride, but the thought crossed my mind that recording the whole thing was adding unnecessary pressure to the situation. So I left you behind. Sorry.
What I can offer you is a reenactment of the conversation. So here goes.
As the automatic doors to Undou Town opened I was greeted with a cheerful ‘konnichiwa’. The woman hadn’t lifted her head from the binder she was looking at, so as far as she knew it was another regular citizen of Hotaru that she was greeting.
“Konnichiwa,” I said.
She stopped flipping through the pages, frozen for just a moment before raising her head. When her eyes met mine I was surprised to see that she didn’t immediately reach for a panic button that would launch me into the sky. Maybe it was the fact that I had my hands raised above my head in the universal gesture for “I’m not here for your panties.”
I took her lack of panic as about the warmest welcome I could’ve hoped for. A few tense steps followed, and when I realized that she really was going to give me a chance I launched into an apology.
In Japanese – and let me remind you, it was spoken with my mouth and could’ve been filled with any number of errors – I said the equivalent of, “I think there was a misunderstanding yesterday. My Japanese isn’t very good, so I probably made some mistakes, and for that I’m sorry.”
She looked at me with a blank expression, not saying a word. I was thrilled about that as even the slightest interruption had a high probability of derailing my whole speech, leading to another… incident.
“I’m still not 100% sure what yesterday’s problem was,” I continued. “But my best guess is that it had something to do with me using the word ‘pants’.”
Here, I used the English word rather than the Japanese for pants. Just so we’re all following along, this also means that you could argue I was using the Japanese word for underwear, too. I took care to wrap it in air quotes, though, to prevent any further confusion.
“You see, ‘pants’,” I continued, again using air quotes. And that’s as far as I got with that sentence before she interrupted me.
“Why ‘pants’?” she said in Japanese, mimicking my air quotes with a snarl on her lips that said my status as sleazebag lingerie sniffer was back on the table.
There was the derailment that I was talking about Henrik. It seemed like she was asking more about the air quotes than the word itself, so I did my best to explain, taking a deep breath.
“The meaning of ‘your pants’,” I said, once again bending and unbending my fingers. “Is… uhhhh.”
Here I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine a person who has never once driven manual transmission jumping into the driver’s seat of a moving Ferrari and trying to shift the gears. In much the same way, I was trying to dive back into a conversation spoken in Nihongo. A conversation that lurched to a halt.
I was rendered completely dumb, stuttering and practically drooling in front of this young woman. Trying to restart that engine with less air quotes and less of the word ‘pants’ wasn’t much use, either.
Worry crossed her face and she reached behind the desk. Thankfully it wasn’t for some Looney Toons-style trap door lever; it was just a regular old telephone.
“Oh god,” I said, now in English. “Please don’t call the police. I’m leaving!”
Turning around, I ran as fast as I could. Outside, I paced back and forth in an effort to calm down. This isn’t the end of the world, I told myself. It’s just another mistake. Another zany story I get to tell! I can never come back here, but that’s okay. There are other places I can work out at. I can be the weird guy who does body-weight exercises down by the river. I can go for runs. Heck, I can even speed-walk.
The point of that pep talk was to convince myself that life would go on as usual. Unless the police really were being called. Then maybe it would be a little different.
As I was settling down I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. Oh god, I thought. This is the end.
But the name on the screen of my phone didn’t read ‘Hotaru Police’, or whatever it would read if the cops called. It read, ‘Erika’.
My knees suddenly felt weak as the inner monologue quickly convinced me that a call from my employer was worse than one from the police. I’m ashamed to admit it, Henrik, but for a moment I considered not answering that call. In the end I did, though, and was greeted by a voice that wasn’t exactly angry, more cautious. Erika spoke with the sort of unease that overcomes a long-time friend of someone who’s having more and more convincing accusations of murder thrown at them. Or pantie-snatching crimes, as was the case here.
“Devon?” she said.
“Hello, Erika,” I said.
“Where are you right now?” she asked.
“Outside Undou Town.” I wasn’t sure at that point what she’d heard, so I left it at that.
“Ano… I… just got a call from them,” she said. That pretty much cleared up what she’d heard.
“They said that you went there yesterday and today and, ano… I heard that you were asking for one of the staff member’s underwear? Then you started making some weird gesture like you wanted to tickle her or something? Is that true, Devon?”
I let out a long sigh into the phone’s receiver. “No, Erika, it’s not true. Well, it is true that I went into Undou Town and started talking about the front desk worker’s pants… And I did also make a gesture… But I never meant to talk about her panties. And I definitely was not suggesting that I wanted to tickle her!”
“Maybe you could explain things so I can better understand,” Erika said.
So I went over the whole ridiculous situation from start to finish. I expected, or maybe hoped, that she would burst into laughter at some point, but she never did. On the other end of the line, Erika didn’t say a word. At first I thought she was just being a good listener, but eventually I paused long enough to hear the tapping of a computer’s keyboard. She was taking notes.
“And that’s pretty much everything,” I said at the end. “Just a silly mix-up that won’t happen again.”
“I see,” Erika said. Tap tap tap.
“I need to consult with Okada sensei about this, but I’ll probably take you to Undou Town later in the week to apologize properly. Please don’t return until then. We don’t want to make the situation worse than it already is.”
“I understand, Erika. I won’t go back inside Undou Town. It’s something I just wasn’t ready to do on my own.”
That pretty much brings us back to where I started this entry, Henrik. I wallowed in self-pity for some time on that bench outside, and eventually was brought back to reality by a voice.
Oh, did I say it was raining? Maybe I got a little carried away. It definitely was not raining unless you count the sweat dropping from my forehead. There might’ve been four clouds in the entire sky today, none of them even close to touching each other. But don’t let the cheerful setting take anything away from my angel of mercy’s dramatic arrival.
“Are you sad?” I heard a voice from above say.
I looked up, and not very far at that, because the woman who asked the question stood less than five feet in height. She was old, probably in her 70s, with frizzy brown hair that hardly covered her ears, and there was a large handbag hanging from one shoulder that she hugged to her body.
“Pardon me?” I asked, not quite hearing her the first time.
“You looked sad,” she said. “I thought you were crying.”
“I wasn’t crying,” I said. “But I guess I am a little sad. Do you speak English?”
“Ehh? Aren’t we speaking English now?”
“Fair enough,” I said. “I’ve been trying to set up a gym membership for the last couple days but have had some problems. The lady who works in there seems to hate me now.”
She said something in Japanese that I didn’t understand before switching back to English. “You seem so nice.”
“I am nice!” I said. “But I’m not very good at Japanese.”
“Maybe I can help,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “They called my boss and everything. She told me not to go back inside Undou Town without her.”
“Okay, listen to your boss if you want.”
The old gal shuffled away, leaving me to stare in disbelief. I think she’d made it as far as the entrance when I got up and chased after her.
Trailing my newfound champion, I tip-toed past the sliding doors where the woman at the front counter greeted us with the usual, “Konnichiwa.” This time she looked up before we had a chance to respond. The moment she saw me her mouth was open and ready to fire off some aggressive Japanese. I’m sure she would’ve, too, if it weren’t for the old lady next to me putting up a hand to cut her off.
It was like a switch in the receptionist’s brain was flicked, because she did a complete 180, dousing her fire for me and smiling sweetly at the senior instead. However, a short exchange between the two of them followed, leading to a few crinkles in her brow. She turned to me and asked a question. I didn’t catch much of it, but after all I’d been through it was impossible for me not to hear among the jumble of rapid-fire Japanese the word ‘pants’.
The old woman turned toward me, doubt crossing her face. Any delusions that she’d had of me being a nice young man seemed to have been wiped away just like that. “She says you’re… Ahhh how do you say in English? I saw it on the internet the other day…”
The old lady then spouted some Japanese before pulling out a handheld notebook from her bag.
“Ahhh yes. She says you’re… joh-neh-sin for? Johnson for? Is that right?”
There was line upon line of English scribbled into the pages, each with a Japanese translation next to it. When I looked at the one she was pointing to I pronounced it for her. “Jonesin for.”
“Ahh thank you,” she said with a smile before turning serious again. “She says you were jonesin for her underwear.”
I recoiled. Then, taking as deep a breath as I could manage I said, “I’m not jonesin for her underwear. I was never talking about her underwear to begin with. I was talking about her pants! Her… zubon.”
“Why were you talking about her zubon?”
“I don’t know!” I said. “Look, I just got really nervous and started talking about the first thing I noticed. She was wearing the kind of track pants that I’m not used to seeing, and it seemed like the best thing to latch onto.”
The old lady nodded slowly as I spoke.
“I’m really really sorry if I made her feel uncomfortable.”
“‘If’…” she started. “No, she is uncomfortable.”
“Okay. Then I’m really really sorry for making her feel uncomfortable,” I said. “I didn’t mean to.”
The two women turned to each other again before the interrogation went in a different direction, this time focusing on the gesture I’d made earlier. I didn’t need that bit translated.
“Those were air quotes,” I said simply. “In Canada – and I thought in other countries too – we use them to kind of highlight something we’re talking about. Especially if that thing has multiple meanings and we wanna make it clear we’re talking about a different one.”
More slow nodding followed. More Japanese went back and forth. Then finally, a laugh. Just the smallest of laughs. A titter, really. But with that release of air went all of the tension from my body.
I allowed myself to laugh, too, and soon the three of us were in a fit over the whole stupid situation. When it died down we sorted out what I’d come there for in the first place: a gym membership. I was given the form I needed as well as an extra for Alyssa and an explanation of everything that needed to be filled out.
When it was all said and done I thanked the old lady who’d helped me and asked for her name.
“Mori,” she said. Mori san.
“I guess I’ll see you at Undou Town from here on out,” I said.
“I’m here at least two or three times every week,” she said. “Please say hello if you see me.”
I cycled home with a massive weight off my shoulders after that. Not only would I not have to inconvenience Erika, I’d also achieved the original goal of getting a gym membership. Or at least getting the papers that would allow me to do it.
That brings us to the present moment. I called Alyssa over to gloat but she hasn’t arrived yet, so I’ll shut things off for now and turn it back on when we’re ready to go.
(tape recorder clicks off and then back on)
DEVON: (whispered) Here we go, Henrik. (louder, called to the door) The door is unlocked.
ALYSSA: Devon? Where are you? Why’s it so dark in here?
DEVON: Ahh Alyssa, what a pleasant surprise! Please have a seat.
ALYSSA: What pleasant surprise? You invited me here… I’m turning on a light.
DEVON: Come on, can you just let me be all cool and evil genius like?
ALYSSA: Is that what you were going for? I’m turning on a light, Devon. Sorry
ALYSSA: What’s the emergency? You sounded urgent on the phone.
DEVON: I’ve gathered you here Alyssa, chief among my doubters, because you generalized my character. You attempted to make an ass of me and, I’m happy to say, because of that you’ve done nothing but make an ass of yourself.
ALYSSA: When did I make an ass of you??
DEVON: Silence! I won’t have you add lies to insult. Why don’t you just sit back and listen for once? Listen, as I tell you the story of the man who surmounted all obstacles. The man who did just as he said he would, overcoming a… minor lack of Japanese ability with the power of character. The power of interpersonal intelligence.
You see, it started when you threw down the gauntlet at Market the other day. I went home and formulated the perfect plan. It was a stroke of genius, really. One that would have me—
ALYSSA: (said in the middle of the ‘You see, it started…’ sentence) I’ve heard all about it, Devon.
ALYSSA: (said at the start of the ‘One that would have me—’ sentence) I know what happened, Devon!
DEVON: You what?
ALYSSA: Callum told me a little and Erika filled in the rest.
DEVON: (Long sigh) Gossips… Well, since you’ve taken all the fun out of me telling my story you might as well take your gym signup sheet too and head home.
ALYSSA: I don’t need a signup sheet.
DEVON: What do you mean you don’t need a signup sheet? What did I go through all of this for??
ALYSSA: I went with Erika earlier today. That’s how I heard about you creeping the hell out of the staff at Undou Town.
DEVON: Hey, we’ve gotten past that. She’s my friend now.
ALYSSA: Is she? Well, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need a signup sheet. I filled that out and got my membership card just before dinner.
ALYSSA: Really. Check it out.
DEVON: (another sigh) Well, can you tell me what I need to fill in then? I’ve taken a look at things and I have no clue past writing my name.
ALYSSA: I can try, but you should really get Erika’s help. She’ll fill the whole thing out for you and you’ll be done in a minute.
DEVON: And that’s exactly why I won’t be asking for Erika’s help! I feel like we just went through this with the whole gym membership thing. Didn’t we just go through this? What are you gonna do during your first day of work on Wednesday? Just gonna call Erika whenever you have a problem.
ALYSSA: Shut up and lemme see the sheet. (paper shuffling sound) You’ve already written your name… I think this is where I put in my bank info, but… You should really ask.
DEVON: Don’t say it! Lemme get my bank book. Actually, I’ll shut off Henrik first. I have a feeling this won’t be much fun for him.
ALYSSA: Henrik? You weren’t recording this, were you? Be more considerate, man! Not everyone’s as chill as me…
DEVON: See ya, Henrik.