Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Babel Babble

日本語. Español. English.

Never before have I crammed the three into one weekend.

And never before have I been so utterly exhausted.

Let me do a bit of explaining. Before I became the GRINGA CULICHI, I worked as an English teacher in Japan. It was an amazing year, one that I still can’t quite put words to when people inevitably ask, “So, how was Japan?” Not sure if I’ll ever get the elevator speech down for that experience, but you can get the scoop here.

As part of my duties as a token 外人 (foreigner) living in the tiny community of Maruoka-cho, Fukui-ken, a place that might best be described as the Huajuapan de León of Japan, I taught a Thursday night English class at a community center near my house. My students were several decades older than I was, but age wasn’t an issue. We had a blast together, and reflecting back on the experience, I learned more from them than they could have ever learned from me.

Living in Japan was tough, but leaving Japan was even harder, mostly because of the finality of it all. Tears flowed freely for my last couple of weeks in 日本. Moving to Mexico, an ocean away, I thought I’d never see any of my Japanese friends again.

Happily, I was wrong.

Hiromi and Noriko, two students from that Thursday night class, came to visit me in Oaxaca last weekend. And with their visit, my two worlds, my two identities – the gringa in Mexico and the 外人 in Japan – came (or is it crashed?) together.

There was the language issue, of course. Hiromi speaks a little Spanish and Noriko speaks pretty decent English, but neither proved sufficient for haggling with vendors in Oaxacan markets or understanding the rapid-fire language spoken by tour guides. I, much to my chagrin, discovered that I had forgotten about 99.9 percent of the little Japanese I amassed during my year in Fukui, meaning that the three of us were reduced to communicating via a long, painful, exhausting game of charades for most of the weekend. Thank God that the word for bread – pan – is the same in Japanese and Spanish.

There were little cultural things. Like how Japanese folks will wait at red stoplights for ages, even if there aren’t any cars in sight, because in Japan, you follow the rules, but in Mexico, people walk into oncoming traffic without giving it a second thought. Or how the Japanese value of cleanliness made for some pretty interesting visits to ramshackle Mexican mountain bathrooms with no running water or toilet paper. Or how Japanese food, save for 山葵 (wasabi), is pretty darn bland, and Mexican food is known for its spiciness. (“My stomach became hot!” exclaimed Noriko, fanning her hand in front of her mouth, after trying green chile salsa for the first time.)

So the weekend wore me out (I was in bed, linguistically and culturally exhausted, by at the granny-esque hour of 9pm on Sunday night), but it was totally worth it. I’ve hosted friends and family in Mexico before, but my past visitors have all come from the United States, where we’re somewhat acquainted with Mexican culture (or at least the Taco Bell version of it). It was really fun to see how curious and excited Hiromi and Noriko were about the little things that I take for granted – tortillas served with every meal, cheesy mariachi music, even the cacahuates japoneses (Japanese-style peanuts, as they’re called here in Mexico – a type of peanut that, curiously enough, isn’t even eaten in Japan).

At one point in the weekend, the ladies caught a glimpse of the tattoo on my foot – it’s a series of four Japanese kanji that read "一期一会" (“one time, one meeting,” or ”once in a lifetime”). I got the tattoo done in Japan, but for a variety of reasons, kept it carefully hidden while I was there. Now that I’m in Mexico where tattoos aren’t so taboo, I’m not as cautious about covering it up. I cringed when I’d realized they’d seen it, assuming that they’d think less of me because I was "inked," but instead, they responded positively.

This is 一期一会,” Noriko said, referring to our weekend together.

A 28-year-old American girl climbing pyramids, shooting mezcal and singing along to mariachi music with two 60-something-year-old Japanese ladies? Two 60-something-year-old Japanese ladies she thought she'd never see again? In Oaxaca, Mexico?

Definitely 一期一会. Una vida, una vez. Once in a lifetime.


Quinto Sol said...

I just booked my flight to Oaxaca... I'll be there before sundown!

Just kidding, of course.

Very nice story...

I, too, was shocked when I visited Japan... BUT it was the opposite of what your guests experienced... I had never felt safer in all of my travels... whereas I have felt threatened in my home country. Sad.

Save me some mezcal... sans the gusano :-)

Sara Mac said...

Yes, believe the hype, Japan is super safe. I can't tell you the number of times I lost my wallet there, only to have it returned to me, all yen in tact, of course.

Once I left my wallet at an onsen and the owners, upon returning it to me, literally bowed and apologized that I had been inconvenienced by leaving my wallet at their establishment. Seriously!

But there's no mezcal in Japan, so Mexico does have its perks :-)