Sunday, July 5, 2015

Something Lovely Happened on the Way to Yokohama

I was on the Toyoko Line, headed home to Yokohama, enjoying the extra space I'm given often by my fairly fainthearted fellow commuters. The car was full but the seat beside mine was empty. I noticed, of course, but on any given day the amount of attention I pay it varies from too much to as little as possible. This was one of those 'as little as possible' days, for I had my iPad on my lap and was reading (and responding) to some of the comments I'd gotten on my FB page.

One comment in particular was from this guy essentially blaming foreigners for the foolishness that goes on here due to their unwillingness to adjust to and make peace with life in an introverted country...yeah, fascinating, right? I was about to respond and tell the writer what I thought about his theory but, life, as it has a habit of doing, intervened.

I looked up to see that the train had pulled into Jiyugaoka station. The person sitting on the opposite side of the empty space beside me got up, collected himself and got off the train along with a good number of the other passengers. As the boarding passengers filed in, I told myself not to pay them any mind. I dislike that spat on feeling I get when I see Japanese people, clearly eager to sit down, spot the empty seat near me, actually make an instinctual move toward it, then once their eyes scrape over me, abruptly alter their trajectory and scurry away. Almost as much as I dislike my inability to ignore and forgive it. Even after all these years it's still requires an effort I'm not always capable of making. On those days it's like trying to ignore a 20 car pile up on the highway. Who wants to see bloodied corpses hanging out of shattered windshields? I do apparently.

But, I powered through by shutting my eyes, nodding my head downward towards my iPad, and re-opening them then...only to continue reading some sycophantic drivel about how wonderful the people here are and how I'm to blame for the behavior I was avoiding watching at that very moment, with my supposed loud, obnoxious, and extroverted nature.

I took a deep breath, but before I could exhale I noticed two tiny legs standing before me. I looked up to see a mother and daughter that had boarded the train. The mother pointed and manually aimed her daughter at the seat beside mine-- frankly shocking the shit outta me!

The youngster, all of 4 or 5, resisted, and cried, "Kowai!!" eyes brimming with terror. She grabbed and clung to her mother's leg for dear life, eyes transfixed on me.

I glanced up at mom. She looked genuinely dumbfounded by her daughter's reaction, and would have died of an overdose if embarrassment was made of aspirin. But there was something else there in her eyes and expression. Something I couldn't quite get a read on. Perhaps it was exasperation, like if this was something she'd been trying to impress upon her daughter for some time, that non-Japanese people are not scary, but clearly to no avail. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

Generally when this kind of thing happens, if I'm acknowledged at all, the parent will adopt a mien that suggests she/he is thinking, "thank god he's a foreigner and has no idea what my child said..."  It's almost cute, like the fear I inspire is some well kept secret, like the body language of the child doesn't scream the meaning of the word. At least I tell myself it's almost cute.

So, I braced myself for the next move; a crucial one.

How will mom handle this? Will she reinforce the fear? Or ignore it, as if it's to be expected and nothing can be done about it? These are the two most popular options in my experience, and I expected nothing less now.

I wanted to turn away, but the rubbernecker in me seized control of my neck, and commanded, "You extroverted minion of a loud and obnoxious people, take it like a man!"

But, mom did something unexpected!

She took the seat beside me herself, and her daughter took the seat on the other side of her. And once she was seated she glanced my way, smiled warmly, and said, "Sumimasen..." from which I interpreted her meaning to be 'Sorry about, whatchagonnado'.

I shook my head and waved her apology off with a sympathetic,"iie..." with which I tried to convey, 'Don't sweat it, mom. I work with kids every day and they say and do the damnedest things.'

My mind was struggling to wrap itself around what had just transpired.

Struggling, but failing.

Instincts took over, and I slid away from her as far as I could, which was about half an inch or so. I do this intuitively sometimes whenever people sit down beside me. I've found that this gesture tends to alleviate some of their discomfort (and there is almost always discomfort.) I'm not talking about physical discomfort. Generally there is sufficient space for a person to sit beside me without having to squeeze in.

Besides I really don't care about anyone's physical comfort. It's a crowded train. Nobody is supposed to be truly comfortable, and to expect to be comfortable, particularly here in Yokohama, would seem to me to be unreasonable. I'm talking about mental discomfort, evidenced by the persistent appearance of fidgeting, shifting, inching away, sometimes even scratching and an inability to remember what to do with their hands or to sit still and relax.

She must have noticed my sliding away, for she looked at me sideways, then down at the expanding sliver of seat between us as a result of my scooching.

She kind of smile/bowed.

I smile smiled/bowed back and returned my attention to the foolishness on the iPad, the comment accusing me of being the problem...a most tiresome platitude, actually. I responded that his comment was boring, and moved on to to the next.

Every so often I noticed, peripherally, a tiny head poking out from the other side of mom. It was the little girl. Whenever I would turn my head her way she'd duck back behind her mother, in that peek-a-boo way children do. Her face was still sour, though, like she hadn't made up her mind whether I was Kowai-worthy or not, or perhaps wondering what the hell was her Mom thinking trying to seat her beside me.

Around the third or fourth time she peek-a-boo'd me, I waited with my face in her direction for her to re-emerge. When she did, I turned away. And waited for her to duck her head back behind her mother before I turned her way again and waited. When she re-emerged this time, before I turned away, I caught a glimpse of a smile on her face.

Then, I looked up to see we were pulling into my station, so I packed up my iPad and stood to disembark. As I made my way for the door, I turned one last time.

The little girl was looking at me. Her fear was gone replaced by what could have been glee, or maybe even a little sadness that I was leaving. She waved at me and gave a hearty, "bye bye."

I waved back, winking. Then I glanced at mom.

This time I could read the expression on her face easily.

Without question, it was gratitude!

I knew exactly how she felt cause I felt the same. I wore a grin all the way home.

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