19 September 2012

Japanese kindness.

Two weeks ago, I received a call. It was my first day "on-the-job," which is how I refer to my once weekly volunteer position (which is not so much a day but a two hour window. Anyway! Semantics!). I was at work when a woman called and asked for me. She briefly reintroduced herself. I had met her once before; she was a friend of a recently-departed-from-Japan-friend, and she wanted to know if I had any any plans for this Friday? There was a dance festival and a friend of hers was a performer who had given her two tickets. Would I like to come?

"Of course; that will be fun," I said, reminding myself to speak slowly and in simple sentences. I have a tendency to talk quickly, words upon words falling out of my mouth in a jumbled pile, a trait that drives my dad nuts and can make it difficult for non-native American English speakers to understand me completely. (Is 'native American English speakers' a thing? Anyway, you know what I mean).

We decided to meet up that Friday at 11:30, near a department store downtown. I was there early, and grabbed a bite from the kombini. My new friend, Eiko-san, showed up right on time, carrying with her a Burger King lunch for the two of us. I immediately regretted my 7-11 choice. For a variety of reasons, some about Japanese politeness, some about how my Mama raised me, some about the length of time it's been since I last had BK, I knew I was going to be eating two lunches.

We walked the couple blocks to the theater, and I immediately realized that this was a bit of a bigger deal than I had thought. Not only was I the only gaijin I could see, we were among the few not dressed in full kimono. The lobby was full of orchids, donated from prominent area businesses, arranged along all the walls and spilling in to the foyer. Older Japanese women, scattered in groups, their salt and pepper hair done up tightly, in complement to the delicateness of the flowers.

It was at this moment, amid all the beauty, I was so thankful I put on a skirt. Lesson to self: this is Japan. ALWAYS overdress.

We made our way into the lobby and picked up our tickets. On the way in, Eiko-san introduced me to her friend. He used to be her dance sensei, and it was he who brought the Odori Dance Performance to Nagoya in 1945 as a way to cheer up the city in the post-war malaise. This whole performance was happening because of him, and his gravitas was apparent. He hoped I enjoyed the show. I thanked him and hoped that I was able to convey my thanks.

Eiko-san, from the moment we entered, constantly made sure I had everything I needed. Any question I had (Are pictures okay? Can we eat in here?) she would find out the answer. She was on her feet in a flash, then back down, pointing me to the bathroom, translating the program, explaining to me the Odori Dances as best as she could.

The building we were in was quite deceiving: on the outside, it's mundane 1970s architecture, but on the inside, the theater was beautiful. Molded wooden waves on the ceiling, tapestry curtain, rough hewn wood walls. It was a breathtaking blend of modern and traditional Japanese esthetics and utterly captivating.

I ate my Burger King in my seat because I am nothing if not classy.

As Eiko-san took her seat a couple sections away, the older Japanese women around me took me under their wing in the ultimate older-Japanese-woman-way: they watched me out of the corner of their eye and if I even hesitated even for a second, they gently made gestures and suggestions. If my eyes scanned the program, she would gently point out which dance we were at. When Eiko-san would bound over during an intermission, they would confer with her online dictionary for the precise word to describe the ancient dance.

All this, and we had just met each other.

- - -

People told us that the Japanese are polite, but not especially warm. While I do think that is a bit true, I've noticed that it doesn't take much to scratch that surface and find a wealth of warmth, wanting and excited to show you their life and culture.

There's my Sensei Noriko-san, who invites a host of expat women over to her house every other week to show us how to sew yukatas (summer kimonos). No payment, no nothing. She does it simply to share her craft. She also calls doctors' offices, helps read Japanese notices, and answers question upon question that we bring to her. She and her husband, Daiichiro-san, constantly put together events, shuttling us from maguro (tuna) cutting demonstrations and fish market tours, to calligraphy classes, to fireworks shows and walking tours, all things we would miss should it not be for them. (For my friend Anna's take on Noriko, read this. It's beautiful.)

There's Ted-San, my new coworker, who just happened to have two extra tickets to an Ikebana Exhibit, and would Amos and I like to attend? And, if I don't mind him asking, what does the phrase "you betcha" mean?

The kindness I have met in this country -- the generosity of spirit from people who open their arms and welcome me in, even though my Japanese is terrible and I am simply a visitor -- is astounding. Humbling. I hope that I would do the same should I ever find myself in that position, though, to be honest, it seems like people here make the opportunity for kindness. My experience has created a little section in my heart that beams with love and loyalty for Nagoya and Japan, who, when I arrived, asked me to come in, take off my shoes, and stay awhile. For that I am truly grateful.

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