11. A Common Language


Americans (archive by Kikuchi)

people from England

people from England (archive by Kikuchi)

Two countries separated by a common language.

“And the Atlantic Ocean.”

“No, I meant . . . “

“I know what you meant,” my host interrupted. “I’m English.”

I didn’t understand.

“I’m English. I have a subtler sense of humor than you. I’m also more intelligent.”

I was lost for words.

“You’re lost for words, aren’t you?”


“You’re lost for words, and even when you find these words they will be very common ones, and you’ll say them badly.”

“No,” I started, then not so much stopped as just didn’t continue.

“You’ll say them badly in your American accent.”

“I won’t,” I said, finishing my previous thought.

“And no matter what I say, even if it is the most common drivel, it will always sound better than what you say because I will say it properly, with proper English pronunciation, and this will leave you feeling small and worthless.”


I was burning up. He reached down and turned the dial.

I was in the smallest apartment I had ever been in. It wasn’t so much an apartment as it was a space between two walls that could just as easily have been the result of a bad architect’s careless miscalculations.

It was my friend’s place, though I hesitate to call Owen my friend because I didn’t really like him and I don’t think he liked me but it was hard to tell because he didn’t seem to like anyone so maybe he did like me but I just didn’t realize it. We nevertheless had come to feel a certain kinship with one another, having both been recently suspended for two weeks from our teaching jobs at Joyfull English.


I made a show of fanning myself with Owen’s annotated copy of “Happy Joyfull Life: Teacher Support and Guidelines for Dismissal,” but he went ahead and turned the dial anyway.

I had been suspended for a week for what my boss Mr. Inoue called cultural insensitivity, and I laughed a little at his funny pronunciation of “insensitivity.” That’s when he made it two weeks. On my way out, I met Owen for the first time. He was waiting to see Mr. Inoue, as it turns out to receive his two-week suspension. Not realizing that he had already been working for Joyfull for nearly six months, making him the second most senior teacher there next to the 16-year-old son of Christian missionaries who sold amphetamines to both Joyfull teachers and students, I asked if he was there to interview for a job.

“I have a job,” he said without looking at me.

“Where?” I asked, also looking somewhere else just in case it turned out we were not actually in a conversation.

He suddenly turned and glared at me as if I was something unpleasant that had landed and begun to crawl across his windshield.

“Windscreen,” he snapped.

Truly incredible.


“Do you know what windscreen means?”

“It’s . . . well . . . no, I don’t . . . unless . . . no.”

“Well, I know what windshield means. Why don’t you know what windscreen means?”

“Lift!” I piped. “Lift means . . . “

“Elevator, yes, congratulations. You now know one English word.”

I smiled.

“I just insulted you.”

My smile disappeared.


“I just insulted you. I am English, and I’ve just insulted you. I made a joke, and I insulted you at the same time.”


“I work here.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“No, I’m the tea boy.”

I didn’t know what to say. He rolled his eyes at a spot on the wall behind me.

“That is a joke.”


The noise pulled me out of my little flashback and dropped me back in the tiny space where someone who might be my very first friend in Japan sat on a futon he rescued from one of the garbage piles famous among foreigners in Japan for the treasures they held. Futons, furniture, bicycles, electronics. This futon had to be folded lengthwise several times in order to fit in the small space, and this gave it such height that Owen’s head nearly touched the ceiling. Up there, he looked just like one of those pictures you see of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower, except here the lotus flower was a sagging, gray futon, and Buddha was a tall, slightly gangly, sandy-haired young man from northern England who could either not smile or smiled in a way that went undetected by most people. I sat in the roughly two- by three-foot open space at the foot of the futon. Next to me, on a small folding table the color of a human liver, sat another treasure Owen had found in the garbage pile, one he had been using to heat the room.


He reached down and turned the dial again on the small toaster oven that, with its door open like that, kept the room exceptionally . . . well, toasty. The only downside that I could see, besides the obvious fire hazard, was the strong smell of cheese that emanated from the black lumps at the bottom of the toaster. Otherwise, it was doing a fantastic job. Too much of a good job actually, and I took off my shirt, and used it to mop the sweat that now freely rolled down my face.

“Why did you make those children cry?” Owen asked suddenly.

Yes, I had made the children cry. I had been teaching a children’s class at the headquarters of Joyfull English, and I had made the children cry, which is what led to my meeting with Mr. Inoue where I was first suspended for one week, then two because Mr. Inoue says “insensitivity” funny.

It all began at the end of our 12th rendition of the ABC song only 15 minutes into the lesson, when I heard one of the children assembled in the small airless room say in a weary voice, “zed.” I pushed my way through the waist-high bodies, and planted myself before the offender. Crouching down to get a better look at the child’s face, I sang, “X, Y . . .” then stopped. The child, trembling now, said in a barely audible voice, “zed.” Not knowing at the time that this was a British variation of “zee,” and having neither an extensive background in child psychology nor a command of Japanese that allowed for nuance or complexity, I looked into the soft, delicate features of this young boy and said, “Anata ga warui desu,” or “You are bad/inferior/evil.”

The child’s wails brought Mr. Inoue from the office next door. After finally calming the child down and speaking to him for a bit, Mr. Inoue turned to me and said that his mother, who had lived in England for many years, had taught him this “zed.” I apologized profusely, and leaned down to speak to the boy again. I paused to consider how exactly I would say this in Japanese, then began, “You are not bad.” The child’s face lit up, and I had never seen such pure, innocent joy. I continued, “Your mother, she is bad/inferior/evil,” and again the child returned to his incessant wailing, which got the other children to wailing, which got Mr. Inoue to physically pull me out of the room and into his office, where I was suspended, first for one week and then for another because Mr. Inoue talks funny.

(I have just minutes ago received a phone call from Mrs. Doyle, calling to say she has returned to Osaka and will be back at the office in two or three days. I reminded her that as she had been away from the office for almost two months she might want to get back to her cubicle a bit sooner, but my voice was drowned out by what Mrs. Doyle claimed was the neighbor’s TV but what sounded to me like an airport announcement in a variety of English particular to Chicago in which the vowel sound found in words like “hot” or “job” is not unlike that sound the doctor makes you say just before he jams a popsicle stick into your throat. At any rate, Mrs. Doyle’s return does seem imminent, even if not as imminent as I would like, and it is hoped she will have a report for us shortly thereafter. –Ofc. Dirkins)

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