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The Tarzan of Tokyo

Walking through a supermarket recently, I accidentally bumped into an older woman.
I immediately stepped back, bowed to her and said, with deep concern in my voice, "sumimasen" - Japanese for "excuse me".

Unfortunately, I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I looked up to a see a tall American woman staring back at me, with confusion written all over her face. She backed up slowly, keeping her eyes on me, until she made her escape around the corner.

As a frequent traveler, I've become accustomed to making cultural errors.
But the longer I live overseas, the more I find that I'm making those mistakes with my own culture.

Glenns' Wonderings

Caucasians who meet me in Japan must get the same feeling as the explorers who discovered that fictional ape-man, Tarzan, "Hmm, he looks like one of us, but his behavior is very odd".
They do a double take at my pale skin and blonde hair, then ask, "Where are you from?"
"A-me-ri-ka", I reply, in my best Japanese-English.
They study me, and - speaking very slowly - ask, "Which part of 'A-me-ri-ka' are you from?"

It used to be obvious. Everyone who met me could tell that I was from the East Coast of the United States. Most Americans could even tell that I was from New York State.
That's not the case anymore.

As a New Yorker, I was raised to speak fast (to get my opinions in), be wordy (so no one else could get their opinions in), and stay cynical (because it's New York, damn it!).
That didn't work so well in Japan.

I had to slow down my rate of speech to a Texas pace.
That made things better, but it wasn't enough.
So, I eliminated contractions (I am certain that they could not follow my speech, otherwise).
Next, I dropped any hint of humor, sarcasm, or cynicism (they always misunderstand remarks like, "Madonna? Oh yeah, she's my favorite").
Finally, I abandoned all adjectives, modifiers, and prepositional phrases.
After six months in Japan, I was reduced to "me Glenn", "lunch good", and "toilet?".

All I needed was a banana and a wife named Jane.

Even then, communications were only partially successful.
I decided that I needed to learn Katakana, the characters that the Japanese use to pronounce English. With these syllables, every consonant is followed by a vowel (except for the letter 'n', in some cases).
So McDonalds becomes 'Ma-cu-do-na-lu-do', America becomes 'A-me-ri-ca', and both slender and surrender become 'su-re-n-da'.
Simple, huh?

Now the Japanese can understand my English. Sometimes, they're the only ones who can.
I catch myself occasionally and think, "did I really just say that?"

With the acquisition of Japanese words and phrases, my cultural corruption is complete.
During that trip to Philadelphia, I called my sister’s children ‘kawaii’ (cute), my mom’s cooking ‘oishii’ (delicious), and about a dozen drivers ‘baka’ (stupid).
I couldn’t understand why I got blank stares in return.

Now, Japanese people can’t understand my Japanese.
Americans can’t understand my English.
And my friends and family back home just don’t understand me at all.

All I can say is, "sumimasen".

GH 09/00
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