Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lost in the Supermarket

Kenny and Stephanie introduced themselves as we drove away from the airport. London born, Kenny had become interested in Japanese while studying abroad in America, where, somewhere in the flyover country near Indianapolis, he found himself in a strange town, weeks before the start of the American school term, with no one to talk to save for the other international students, all of them Japanese. The experience stuck; building on the pidgin command of the language he'd gained the hard way by the time classes started with a semester of classroom study and several years working in a Japanese-owned ramen shop back home, JET had seemed like a logical next step. Now, with a car, a solid working relationship with the Oga Board of Education, and a steady local girlfriend, he'd already decided to stay for life. Once his JET contract expired, Kenny told me, he planned to study at Akita International University in order to get a license as a Japanese university-level English instructor, a well-paid plum of a teaching position. In the meantime, he'd be working in the elementary schools in Oga. It looked to me like he'd get along just fine with the kids— his bluff and cheery demeanor, combined with his beard and rugby player's bulk, made him look just like a friendly papa bear. My fellow new ALT, Stephanie, hailed from Melbourne, and had gotten into JET after a more conventional term in university Japanese classes. This was her first time in Japan, but she looked already to have gotten her feet on the ground, despite having to move her belongings twice-- she'd been put up in my apartment temporarily while the Board of Ed closed on hers. After a few compliments on my Japanese (<So fluent!>) and some of the usual self-introduction questions on my university, hobbies, and age, Ms. Furuyama seemed content to eavesdrop on the rapid-fire conversation Kenny and Stephanie had struck up with me in English, despite my efforts to pull her back into the talk.

Outside the car, the scenery felt, at first, oddly familiar-- we passed the AEON mall in Goshono where I'd spent so much time and money while at AIU. We stopped for a traffic light outside the hair salon where I'd gotten a trim. Through the window, I glimpsed a flash of the stylist's Space Western silver. And then, abruptly, as we passed over a hill, I was again in terra incognita.

Since AIU was on the extreme verge of the service area of Akita City's buses, it had been hard to explore in certain directions-- but living on the insular campus, it was somehow hard to grasp just how small the maximum area I'd been able to explore really was. The rocky coast we were now speeding along was probably less than a kilometer from a sushi restaurant where I'd had dinner with the Aikido Club-- but I'd somehow never managed to make it out here. I could feel my whole sense of location reform abruptly as we swept past berms of concrete tetrapods, a docked Lifesaving Service cutter and an empty berth for the Japanese Coast Guard.

The sun sank low over the Japan Sea. And there, ahead of us, in the distance, the coast turned sharply outward to meet the horizon. The Oga Peninsula. “Your new home”, said Ms. Furuyama, in English.

A few minutes on, and we found ourselves in the village of Funakoshi, one of the larger towns that made up “subtowns” of the incorporated peninsula. From the car, it seemed to be dominated by a strip of development along the coast road that reminded me somehow of beach towns in the US. Kenny helpfully pointed out a video rental store, delivery pizza parlor (“the only one for miles”), a vast pachinko parlor, and one of many ramen places catering to the (Japanese) tourist trade. All the ramen and love hotels couldn't shake the distinct “rural” flavor of the place, though. People here drove huge cars, by Japanese standards (among them the massive Mitsubishi SUV in which I was riding), and the most popular store in town was a single AMANO, a big-box establishment whose Akita branch had looked and smelled to me like a Tractor Supply.This one was even larger than Akita's, and seemed to be filling more of the role of a Wal-Mart, judging by the signs in the windows: groceries, housewares, and, of all things, drive-thru liquor! What a pity Jeff Foxworthy wasn't here to see it-- if not for the fact that the cheap booze of choice seemed, from the contents of people's carts, to be 5-liter handles of the distilled potato spirit shōchū, rather than Bud, the unfunny redneck jokes would write themselves. We pulled in to let me buy an initial supply of groceries.

From inside, AMANO looked even more like Wal-Mart than I'd expected-- a weird familiarity that made the fact that I was being stared at by every other customer as I made my way down the “Soy Sauce, Broth, Curry, Chinese and Korean Foods” aisle seem even more uncomfortable. <Look, a foreigner!> shouted a little boy as I rounded “Rice, Noodles, and Seaweed”. <Amazing,> said an older woman, looking at the stuff I'd put in my cart (an astonishingly ordinary bunch of bananas, garlic, onions, 3 kilos of rice, cornflakes, soy sauce, cooking sake, vinegar, mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, tofu, broccoli, potatoes, and a box of concentrated broth) <He knows what he's doing!> Thanks for the compliment, I thought. I guess you're half right. Since I could now read far better than I could while I'd been at AIU, I certainly did move like I knew what I was looking for. But somehow, even as I pushed a cart confidently through the “Fish, Dairy, and Frozen Desserts” aisle, the sense of being between two worlds was stronger than ever before.

As I looked up the unit price on two brands of premixed noodle soup, the feeling hit with an enormous sense of profundity. I froze, bottles akimbo. “Having a moment, David?” asked Kenny.

“Yeah, I just got lost between A and 'Oh my God, I'm actually here.' I'll be all right”. And, after a moment, I was.

We picked up the keys for my apartment from the landlord, an ebullient fellow in jogging pants who stood with me against the wall of his office for a photo and made much, in accented English, of the few words that I exchanged with him in Japanese. We drove away from the coast, into a residential neighborhood, and pulled up to a long, low apartment building-- my building-- that sat abutting an expanse of rice paddies. Kenny and Stephanie helped me carry in my suitcases and laughed about the notes, in charmingly eccentric English “To avoid the coming in of little animals, even little Snakes, please keep the door closed in a night” that someone had left, especially for me, around the three-room suite. And then the door closed behind me and I was Here and There and Nowhere all at once, and definitely Very Tired.

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