There’s a folksy saying about the common cold that goes something like this: you can take cold medicine and get better in three days, or, if you don’t like that, you can skip the medicine and just wait the three days.
You can live an examined one and die at 71, or not, and die at 71. Meanwhile, in the latter scenario, you’ve probably had a more relaxing time, watching Gilligan’s Island and eating corn chips, than you would have had otherwise, writing operas and thinking about things.
I can’t believe I have to actually point this out.
But apparently I do because there are still people in libraries and classrooms, at pianos and computers. There are otherwise perfectly healthy men and women, boys and girls pensively chewing on pencils, furrowing brows, looking inward, and generally reflecting on things. There are people still, in other words, hopelessly lost in thought.
You don’t see telethons for these lost souls, though. Schoolchildren do not go door to door collecting pennies for these poor unfortunates. Their cause has not been taken up by any famous actor or singer. They are the forgotten, these people of the examined lives, and it would bother me more, would keep me up nights, if I were one of them, which blissfully I’m not and therefore sleep like a baby, but instead of in a crib, propped up on one of those Japanese floor-chairs, the pretty colors from the TV dancing across my face.
These were the thoughts that slipped through the slick, uncluttered passages of my mind when I looked up and noticed a foreigner seated across from me on the subway, reading Japanese for Busy People. I smiled smugly. “Fool!” I cried inside my head, then, after the echo faded, “sucker!” but this, by mistake, I actually said outside my head, right into the narrow space between the protruding bellies of two pregnant women hanging from subway straps in front of me. The foreigner looked up.
“Hi,” he chirped between fetuses.
I ignored him. After all, how could I know he was talking to me? He may have been addressing the old lady on my left, who, having collapsed into a deep sleep four stations ago, now leaned like a sack of wet cement against my arm and drooled down my shirtsleeve. Or maybe he was greeting the child on my right, who got on the train at the previous station and had without blinking or breathing since then been staring slack-jawed at the tip of my nose, his embarrassed mother tapping his shoulder every 30 seconds.
Yes, this gaijin could have been talking to either of these people. And where is it written I have to engage in conversation with every foreigner I see? I am, after all, part of this country now. The obaasan next to me suddenly snorted in her sleep and began to slide slowly down my arm. This is my country, I thought to myself, bending my elbow and catching her head just before it fell into my lap. I am, in a sense that years later would be in my opinion misdiagnosed as “delusional” by some fancy psychologist, Japanese. Just then, the child next to me took his first breath in two minutes, and cried at the top of his lungs, “Gaijin!” I suppose talking about the fellow sitting across from us.
I smiled even more smugly, nearly pulling a muscle in my upper lip.
“Konnichiwa,” I said slowly, reproaching this foreign interloper for the linguistically imperialist “Hi!”
“As it happens,” I continued, “I am capable of understanding your language. But I must tell you something.”
The kid next to me started prattling on in Japanese about something. His friend’s cat? Or cat’s friend? Or whiskers? Or a warm bottle of . . . sad . . . butterfly . . . whiskers? I dunno.
I leaned forward, unwittingly pulling the drooling obaasan next to me off her seat and depositing her with a heavy thud onto the floor of the subway car. The pregnant woman on the left moved down a few straps, nearly knocking off his crutch a man who had his entire left leg in a cast. He steadied himself at the last minute by grabbing onto the comic book of a high school student seated directly in front of him.
“You should spend less time with your head in your fancy Japanese textbook, and more time paying attention to the humanity all around you,” I scolded the tourist.
The kid on my right started to creep me out, so with the toe of my shoe I gently slid along the floor the obaasan snoring softy at my feet, and leaned further forward.
“These are people,” I said, pretending it was just an accident when I hit the kid with my elbow to get him back in his seat. “My people,” I said again, with trembling emphasis, and the obaasan on the floor groaned in what I’d like to think was agreement but might have been just a stroke.
Then, suddenly overcome with emotion, I leapt to my feet, taking care to lay my USA Today newspaper behind me so nobody would take my seat.
“Immerse yourself in the living Japanese all around you,” I cried like John the Baptist might’ve in the same situation, though that obviously requires a bit of imagination, “and cast off the burden, the vanity, the arrogance of your fancy textbooks, dictionaries, cassette tapes. And most of all, leave on the river bank that which you cling to so foolishly, leave outside the cleansing waters the heavy anchor of your native tongue.” I pointed high above my head and heard the crack, not of thunder, but of my index finger breaking on the roof of the subway car. Undeterred, but with tears of pain welling in my eyes and glinting in the fluorescent subway glow, I finished, “Begone vile English!”
The gaijin’s jaw dropped. His eyes widened. Trembling, he leaned back in terror.
“English not so good!” he cried. “Brazil! I am from Brazil!”
The train stopped, the obaasan rose from the floor and pushed her way out the door, and the pregnant woman on the right had her baby.
“Hai,” he replied.
“Oh,” I said, and sat back down. “Then . . . hi.”
He took a deep breath and settled back in his seat.
“Hi,” he sighed.
The kid next to me pushed his little blue umbrella into my ribs.
“Hai!” he shrieked directly into my right ear, then tumbled off his seat laughing.