38. Culture Grind

His head turned slowly from side to side as he spoke, as if both neck and voice were driven by the same tiny motor, a motor that would occasionally stop, causing his head to abruptly freeze and his manicured ponytail to then dance for a moment in the ensuing silence during which time he would gaze absently at a point above someone’s head, an invisible horizontal plane just beneath his chin preventing him from bending his neck to look down at another, lower horizontal plane, on which sat in metal folding chairs 17 Japanese people who had come to hear this special evening lecture at Joyfull English. The lecture was free, like those pocket tissues kids handed out on the street but less useful. It was titled, “You Are All Doing It All Wrong.”

The guest lecturer was this ponytailed prophet, participant in a program run by the Japanese government that brought young foreign English speakers to Japan to spread English, Internationalism, and Warm Feelings to the nation by occasionally standing in front of English classes at junior and senior high schools so the students in these classes, their teachers, and eventually through a kind of osmosis the rest of the Japanese population, might at some point become less fearful of foreigners. It was based on a program pioneered by graduate students at Okinawa University to help people overcome their fear of snakes.

According to the business cards he was provided with upon arriving in Japan, this young man was a “Language Consultant.” He had never had business cards before, had never had a proper job title, and had, in fact, previously worked at only one job since his graduation from the University of Iowa, and that was at a Chevrolet dealership trying to talk people into buying “deodorizing carpets” and rustproofing for their new cars, two features that were not simply unnecessary but in fact counterproductive, as the rustproofing actually promoted rust by clogging holes put there to drain water from car bodies, and the “deodorizing carpets” caused skin cancer. So teaching English in Japan was, in comparison, if not more productive, at least less destructive.

There was a small problem, however, and that lay in the effect the business cards had on the young man. Like the electric pencil sharpener he stole from a salesman’s desk at the Chevy dealer and put on a small folding table he had set up near the restrooms to keep his rustproofing leaflets on, these business cards allowed him to create a dreamlike state, an alternative reality in which the stolen pencil sharpener was his, the wobbly folding table was a desk, he was the “Language Consultant” that his business card said he was (whatever that was), and he would someday soon reveal to the world the talent his English and Music teachers at the University of Iowa never appreciated by writing a rock opera based on a six-month relationship he had with a kind-hearted girl who would for a while afterwards remember this more accurately as a two-week relationship before forgetting about it entirely until one afternoon coming across a picture of the young man while she was packing to move to a retirement home and tossing it onto the fourth in a hierarchy of piles divided into those things she would take with her to the home, those she would put in storage, those that would be given to her son, and things that would be put out for garbage collection. The young man smiled up at the ceiling from this final pile for a brief time before being first shrouded by a partially unraveled macramé handbag, and then completely blanketed by a 2-year-old, 2039 calendar featuring underwater photographs of Manhattan.

“Rules,” the speaker continued in a world that still had manageable sea levels, “are” The tiny motor slowly turning his head to the right now also lifted both eyebrows and one corner of his mouth. “for fools.”

And his head came to a stop. His ponytail jiggled briefly, then fell slack in what first appeared to be simple dramatic pause but now stretched into confusing and uncomfortable silence. He looked off blankly at a point just above everyone’s heads and well beyond their comprehension. Then, as some people began to gather their belongings, he began again, as if someone had pulled an invisible string from his neck to hear what would come out next.

“You are all doing it all wrong,” he let the assembled know, one of whom had come into Joyfull English that evening to, literally, get out of the rain.

“You are all doing it all wrong.”

“You are all doing it all wrong.”

“You are all doing it all wrong.”

“You are all doing it all wrong.”

Mr. Inoue, Head Manager of Joyfull English, stretched out one leg and kicked the speaker in the ankle.

“You are focusing on rules,” the next track began. “when language has no rules.”


“You must all toss off your silly cultural inhibitions, your obsession with rules, logic, analysis. Loosen up, and English will simply flow from you.”

More silence.

“I am a Language Consultant.”

Still more silence.

“Let me tell you about my incredible journey to Language Consultancy. Let me share with you the Amazing Story of My Life.”

Speaker and audience were locked into a Culture Grind. This is like a Culture Clash, but more prolonged and agonizing. A slow, awful grinding against one another of two disparate cultural assumptions, in this case the Japanese assumption that, if you sit quietly and wait long enough, the other person will eventually stop talking, and the American belief that, if someone is looking at you while you are talking, they are listening.

Having somehow segued from a 40-minute story about his first time at a Taco Bell to his work now in Japan helping to free the Japanese people of their cultural burden, the speaker raised his hands slowly before the assembled, and said unto them, “Believe in me, and allow English to wash over you like a cleansing rain.”

Jesus, the Messiah. Died for our sins. (archive by Kikuchi)

The string ran out again and he froze like that, looking at the ceiling, arms outstretched and spread wide, palms up. Like a very bad outfielder or, you know, Jesus. Christ, that is, not the Jesus from the Dominican Republic who played half a season for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1970s, who was, ironically, a very bad outfielder, and who died in 1987, also somewhat ironically, at the hands of ethnically Italian gangsters. He was killed for failing to repay a local loan shark, which was not particularly ironic, except the mob was alerted to Jesus’s location by the rabbi brother-in-law of one of its members, which was a little ironic.

Mrs. Fujimoto coughed politely and without irony into her hand, and Mr. Saito reached under his chair for his folding umbrella, but then someone pulled the string and it started again.

Jesus, the outfielder. Just died (archive by Kikuchi)

“I hope I have brought some light to your world,” the speaker said, smiling broadly, his eyes glistening, like one either supremely at peace or possessing a biochemical brain imbalance. “Now, if you have any questions for me, anything else I can illuminate . . .”

And there followed a silence so profound it absorbed sound from neighboring prefectures, like some sort of aural black hole, silencing for the first time in seven months a yappy Akita dog in a Wakayama Prefecture backyard and in doing so allowing its neighbor Mr. Nakamura to finally fall asleep and forget, at least temporarily, about the piece of inexpensive beef marinating in a dish of rat poison on his kitchen counter that he had planned on throwing over the fence that evening.

I raised my hand, then raised it higher so that it entered the speaker’s field of vision.


“I, like you, have . . .”

“Thank you,” he beamed.


“Thank you. For your affection. After a while, I might grow to like you.”

“No, no. I mean, like you, I . . .”

“No,” he cut me off again, “not, ‘Like you I.’” Then loud and slow, like how you might speak to someone with a head injury, “I . . . like . . . you.”

“I speak English,” I told him.

“Yes, of course you do. We all do. It’s inside all of us, and my job as a Language Consultant is to help you discover it and . . .”

“What I am trying to say is . . .”

“Take your time.”

“Thank you. What I am trying to say is, I have also decided to avoid textbooks and their burdensome analytical insights.”

“Good for you!”

“But I am still having trouble learning the language.”

“Well, except for some small mistakes in your pronunciation, you seem to be speaking English pretty good.”

“No, Japanese.”

“No,” he said, then, loud and slow again, “English.”

“No. I mean, I am trying to learn Japanese. I am trying to teach myself Japanese.”

He was either confused or the string had run out again. I continued.

“I have tried to do this just as you recommend, not through textbooks and the crutch of literacy, but by relaxing and waiting for the language to come to me naturally, organically . . .”

“Sugar-free,” Mr. Saito whispered to Mrs. Fujimoto as he reached under his chair again for his folding umbrella. Mrs. Fujimoto laughed, then covered her mouth quickly and faked a cough.

“I have completely immersed myself in the culture,” I continued, as, one by one, the audience members filed out of the room. “Do you know how hard it was to find a bamboo lamp?”

Just then, as one of the audience members brushed by me in what was becoming a bit of a rush for the door, I felt him push a small paperback into my hand.

“I am from Vietnam,” he said with a warm smile. “This book helped me very much.” He slipped into the crowd pushing through the door. “Please return it when you are done,” he called out from the crowd. “Hai Phong City Library. Near the statue.”

I looked down at my hand and froze. The very same book. Possibly the same copy.

Teach Yourself Japanese.

There was no escape.

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5 Responses to 38. Culture Grind

  1. Mark Renusch says:

    Snickers and chuckles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Matt says:

    Wow. This was great. This means I have to read your entire backlog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. staff says:

    Well, if you insist. But I must tell you this Trombone fellow is NOT the image of Americans we here at the consulate like to promote. His snide comments on America, Japan, and non-conformity should be read with great suspicion. Read at your own risk, sir.
    -Gerard K. Dirkins, consular officer


  4. bmw (@antybabs) says:

    Q. What was the last thing Jesus said to the Chicago Cubs
    before he went up to Heaven ?

    A. Don’t do anything until I come back

    Liked by 1 person

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