I Am Bob

Our Visas say we’re English teachers but we’re not; not really. He’s an engineer. She’s a photographer. Him over there? He’s having a little adventure before he starts med school. Yet we’re parsing the sentences. We’re highlighting the difference between “l” and “r.” We’re wearing the suits, cracking the textbooks, bribing children into behaving by offering candy, stickers and prizes. It’s not really our life and yet, for the moment, it is. Sometimes, when thinking about unpleasant things like the lousy economy back home, it’s a comforting thing. Other times, it’s supremely frustrating. This isn’t me. This isn’t what I’m good at. This isn’t what I’m supposed to do. But as long as you’re in Japan you do it, and you do it as best as you can.

When you do get a rare taste of your real life, though, it’s bliss. The positive responses I’ve gotten to this here blog have given me the courage to pitch travel articles to various magazines, based in both Japan and the U.S.. To date, I will have 2 stories coming out in November and 1 in December. For the first time in a long while, I feel like me … or the me I want to be. So thank you very, very much for your support.

It’s just as exciting when I get to watch friends experience a bit of their real lives, too.

Bob is a musician. When we were neighbors in Osaka, I considered the apartment building’s cardboard walls a boon each time I was able to eavesdrop on his practice, serenaded one day by the strums of his guitar and the next by the ghostly wails of the oboe. When he moved across town, he took up shamisen and has, in the past few months, become part of the local Philharmonic Orchestra as well. Every couple of months, they give a concert, which I always eagerly anticipate: a Bob concert means that Sean and I put on clean clothes and hit the town in style for a welcome afternoon of beautiful music.

Bob’s name always leaps out from the sea of Kanji in the program; the only name written in Romaji. His is the only non-Asian face in the orchestra, too, and as if to further highlight this, oboe players are seated at center stage. He shuffles in with the rest of the orchestra in their tuxedos and whispering black dresses. The moment before the musicians raise the instruments is fraught with tension. They play Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Sean and I grin at each other in the dark; proud and happy. We’re usually the only Western audience members – if anyone cared to look at us, they’d probably guess we were here to see Bob perform. They’d be right, but not just because he’s a fellow homie. He’s terrific.

The other week, Bob had a shamisen concert. I’d missed his last one due to work and regretted it bitterly ever since so there was no way I’d miss this one, too. Sean had a class he couldn’t get out of so I went stag, humming to myself with excitement. It was to be my first traditional Japanese art concert; it seemed only fitting that the path to the venue was flanked by a large, glowering temple surrounded by perfectly manicured bonsai.

I was greeted at the entrance by two little girls, curled up in the laps of their mothers. They were precious in their red and blue kimonos, their hair in pigtails.

“Welcome to our show!” they chanted sunnily, no doubt relentlessly schooled by their mothers to recite the phrase with just the right mix of propriety and cuteness.

“Hello,” I said. “Your kimonos are beautiful.”

They were instantly shy; their mothers hadn’t told them what to say when getting a compliment from a big-nosed stranger.

“Say ‘thank you!'” came the whisper behind them.

“Arigatou Gozaimasu!” they bleated.

Their mothers handed me a paper bag full of treats for the concert intermission and I went inside. The concert was held inside Bob’s teacher’s home and the living room had been transformed by swathes of gold fabric and rows of small chairs covered with cushions. I arranged myself among the parents and siblings and caught a glimpse of Bob behind the kitchen’s swinging door. He was resplendent in a navy blue yukata – the only non-Japanese student. It was a recital for family and friends and, once again, it was pretty obvious who I had come to see. Nonetheless, all of the other people in the audience weren’t so easily identifiable. This was why, after the students had assembled on the small stage in their gorgeous kaleidoscope of kimono colors and the teacher had made her opening remarks, she passed the microphone to the first parent on her left. The parent spoke and then passed the microphone to the next person in the row. That person spoke, too, and passed the microphone on. Through my dawning horror that everybody in the audience would have to speak, I struggled to understand what each person was saying. After the 6th person had spoken, I understood that everyone was saying who they had come to see. Simple enough. All I’d have to do was repeat what everyone was saying. And say as little as possible. Yes. If I said as little as possible I’d be less prone to making mistakes and it would be over that much sooner. I would remain in one piece.

The microphone was passed to me and I caught the expectant lift of Bob’s cocked eyebrow. As little as possible. Just repeat what everyone else has said but say as little as possible. Ladies and gentlemen, in my performance anxiety, I managed to follow 50% of my own advice. That is, the “say as little as possible” part.

“Konnichiwa,” I said. “Bobbu desu.”

“What?” Bob yelped from the stage. Of course – in my determination to say as little as possible I’d said, “I am Bobbu” instead of “I am Bobbu’s friend.”

“Pardon me,” Bob told the audience hurriedly. “This is my friend.”

“Ahhhh …” breathed the crowd.

And the microphone was passed on. As the people after me droned, all I could think was: Konnichiwa. Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu. Ganbatte kudasai!!!! Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu. Bobbu no tomodachi ni narimasu!! Over and over, the right thing to say reverberated in my head, through the first clusters of students hunched over their kotos, picking notes awkwardly to form Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Worse than embarrassing myself, I was afraid I’d embarrassed Bob. Bob, unlike me, has studied Japanese long enough to be capable and confident; not continually making stupid rookie mistakes. He’s worked hard to make sure he isn’t always playing the role of the bumbling, clueless foreigner. Well, give me a few seconds and I play the part for all of us.

Bob came on stage with the other shamisen students. They picked and plucked; I could barely watch. Was he angry with me? Did he regret inviting me?

When intermission started, I slumped into my seat. Around me, mothers, fathers and siblings shifted and dipped into their treat boxes. Behind me, a toddler – the one who had kicked my seat and loudly announced, “I want to sleep!” during the first performancewhined that he wanted to hear his sister play the Ponya anime theme.

Bob slipped into the performance area.

“Hey!” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“I’m sorry – I didn’t know they were going to have everyone introduce themselves. I would have warned you.” he said.

“No, I’m sorry!” I said. “It was so simple; I should have just repeated what everyone else was saying but I was so nervous I wanted to say as little as possible. I hope I didn’t embarrass you.”

“What? No.” said Bob. “Not at all.”

And just like that, it was better.

After we discussed his performance – and the oddity of hearing “When You Wish Upon a Star” played on the koto – Bob ducked backstage, his voluminous yukata swishing with each movement.

I opened my paper bag of treats and found mini Crunky bars, mini baumkuchens and a Piknik drink box. I stuck its pointed straw inside and began to suck on it like a pacifier. All was right in the world.

0 Replies to “I Am Bob”

  1. Congratulations on your articles, keep on submitting! Your posts are always so enjoyable, not just because they are well written but because you are so generous with your self and we get a real glimpse of your life here – thank you!

    I have noticed that so many gaijin here in Nagoya are pursuing their creative paths on some level and, often, when I ask if they did the same things back home they say they didn’t. I think there is something about picking up and starting a new life in another country that makes you realize that you can find a way to do anything if you want to. That all those little things that stopped you from doing things back home – not having the “right” contacts or the “right” whatever – are really pretty arbitrary and probably shouldn’t stop you at home either lol!

  2. I lost track a long time ago of the number of times smiled and nodded like an idiot, only to think of exactly what I should have said the second it’s too late to say it.

    Don’t let those moments get you down. They happen all the time, no matter what you’re learning. It’s a good sign that you know what you should have said!

  3. That was so much fun to read.

    Also, check out this article on types of creative development in the New Yorker:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/20/081020fa_fact_gladwell

    One of the things Gladwell talks about is the patronage many artist recieve to support their art. You might want to think of your Japanese job as your patron in the sense that it allows you to put a roof over your head and food on the table while you pursue your writing.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Also, here’s the audio where the writer talks about the piece: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2008/10/20/081020on_audio_gladwell

  5. Thank you for your responses, everyone; it’s positivity like this that has given me the courage to ganbare! Danielle, I noticed almost as soon as I moved here that as soon as I was out of the New York City scene, I felt infinitely less insignificant. Nonetheless, it still took me over a year to try getting published again. And Stan, I’m glad you take pleasure in my humiliation 🙂 I have to admit, though, that even though doing a job I’m not suited for is a cash cow, I wonder how much longer I can continue doing jobs I’m not good at. We shall have to see …

    Nate, nice to meet you! It’s always the way, isn’t it? I can converse so brilliantly … in my head. If only my inner monologue and my outer monologue could join up once in a while …

  6. nice story. you have talent.

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