Naturally, I thought of tampons.
So I began filling in bubble D while the young girl and a woman I assumed to be her mother continued their walk through a field of flowers. As the girl listened intently to her mother, you could see her face gradually relax, finally breaking into a wide smile of understanding and relief, and, quite confident now, I ground my #2 HB pencil into the bubble, darkening every peripheral sliver, then slid my hand down unhurried to the next question when the girl suddenly took a beverage can out of her bag and said something to her mom, whereupon they both began to laugh hysterically. I returned to the previous question and frantically erased bubble D, in my rush smearing graphite over “tampons” next to it so it now read “am on,” and broke the tip of my pencil racing to fill in bubble C, “soft drink,” but then the mother clutched her chest and dropped out of site into the flowers, so in a desperate attempt to fill in A for “life insurance” I rubbed the heel of my graphite-covered palm across the little bubble, leaving something that looked like a fingerprint for a porpoise. Finally, after the girl threw aside her can and began to sing while three long-legged potato chips twirled and danced the cancan in the background, everything went black and I would have toppled out of my chair but because both the chair and its accompanying desk were built for elementary school students, and, furthermore, built by a manufacturer that stubbornly clung to the delusion that the size of Japanese elementary school students had not tripled over the past 100 years, me, the chair and the desk had become one, so that I did not topple out of or off anything but rather simply tipped heavily over with, my legs jammed, clamped and possibly forever trapped in what had become a metal and wooden jaw of death, while the very students whose size had originally determined the dimensions of this desk and chair were, incredibly, still alive and kicking, literally, on the other side of the wall, in the adjoining room at this Miyakojima-ku community center working their way through a 90-minute aerobics class for those 100 or older.
I was at the community center not for this “aerobics for ancients” class, nor the Business Yoruba class on the other side of my tiny windowless classroom, nor the yoga class across the hall in the massive room with an instructor up on a platform before a crowd of more than 200 people tiled in there mat-to-mat, a microphone taped to the side of her mouth to powerfully amplify her breathy, sometimes whispered instructions so that it sounded like an obscene phone call from god. No, I was an inflexible 32-year-old without corporate interests in Nigeria. Or more to the point, I was an American back in Japan for the second time after having kicked an especially bad Japanese vitamin-drink addiction by returning to my hometown of Chicago and working for the City of Chicago Mental Health Services and its associated White Power Structure, distributing anti-depressants in economically challenged areas of the city that would have benefitted more from a solid job creation program, or, failing that, radical community organizing and small weapons training (see, if you must, previous posts).
And the classroom I was in that afternoon, buffeted by bouncing centenarians, reverberating with overly enthusiastic attempts at capturing the high and low tones of Yoruba, and fragrant with the gas of more than 200 people relaxing into the downward dog pose, this particular classroom was given over for 90 minutes every Saturday afternoon to a Japanese language class taught by a young Canadian man who introduced himself as Aozora Rokettoshippu, or Blue-sky Rocketship, and then he’d laugh to let you know this was a joke, or maybe to warn you that he had lost his mind.
I was hoping it was not the latter because I had already paid for six months of these Japanese classes based on an ad in the Kansai Time Out magazine with a picture of Aozora levitating cross-legged over the words, “Rise Above Studying,” and then in smaller print below, “Learn Japanese effortlessly through guided unfocusing,” and then below that something I remember from my drug dealing days and the occasional encounter with a Scientologist, “First one’s free!”
According to Aozora, the trouble with traditional ways of studying language is they focus too much on language–words, meanings, stuff like that–when they should be tapping into something else, like tampon commercials (or whatever kind of commercial it was that featured a field of flowers, a girl, a dead mother, a discarded beverage can, and anthropomorphized cancan-dancing potato chips). Aozora said his approach was, on the other hand, a natural, organic “top down” approach. “Whole grain,” he added, sensing my confusion and exponentially adding to it at the same time.
“Let me illustrate,” he said, then pointing to his naked wrist he began babbling away in the most foreign language I had ever heard. He paused and waited like he expected me to say something. When I didn’t, he pointed again at his wrist and babbled some more. He paused again, but this time kept pointing at his wrist, waiting impatiently for me to say something.
“3:30?” I offered weakly.
He smiled wide and said, “see?” just as the Yoruba instructor, who had come into the room halfway through this demonstration, spun Aozora around and punched him in the stomach.
“Why did you say 3:30?” Aozora wheezed, doubled over but still smiling. The Nigerian fellow brought his knee up directly into Aozora’s face.
“I thought you were asking me the time.”
“Why did you think that?” he gurgled through his blood-filled mouth.
“You were pointing at your wrist.”
“But what he was really saying,” the Nigerian continued for Aozora, who had now collapsed onto the floor, “was that your mother is so ugly . . .” He gave the prostrate Aozora a hard kick to the ribs, “. . . they push her face into dough to make gorilla cookies.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that,” I said, fearing for Aozora’s life, despite his unkind remarks about my sainted mother.
“Then he said your mother is so fat . . .” he kicked Aozora in the stomach this time, “. . . she jumped up into the air . . .” another kick to the ribs, “. . . and got stuck.”
Okay, that one hurt. My mother had always struggled with her weight.
“The Yoruba language is a beautiful, poetic language. It should not be used to say these things about anyone’s mother.” He went back to the ribs. “Nice pronunciation, though,” the incensed language teacher finished, and, with one final kick to Aozora’s kidneys, left the room.
“You see,” Aozora groaned, “you must not focus on words and meaning when learning a language. You must tune into the social vibrations, absorb the supralinguistic manifestationary artifacts. You must unfocus, or de-attentionalize, and inwardly meld with the communicatory environment.”
But it would seem, I thought to myself what would have been cruel to say out loud to someone who had just received such an unpleasant beating, that the very beating Aozora had received seemed to suggest that words mattered too. A lot.
Later, regaining consciousness half an hour after the Japanese proficiency test had ended, the broken tip of my pencil came slowly into view, on the floor just a few inches from my face. I reached out, retrieved the small bit of graphite, and went to fill in the only remaining selection, bubble B, which oddly enough was not “potato chips” or even “dance lessons,” but was instead “instant noodles.”* I shrugged my shoulders, which made the desk to which I was still attached scrape along the floor, and filled in this final bubble.
“Correct!” Aozora yelled as best he could through a wired jaw.
*Studies have shown that every commercial in Japan is, basically, an instant noodles commercial.