For foreign residents, life in Japan can be a roller coaster of ups and downs — quite often at the exact same time.
Now, if you’re paradoxed out by that clear absurdity, it means two things: 1. You haven’t been here long enough; and 2. You don’t yet know what true absurdity means.
So let me show you. Here are just a few cases of when life in Japan becomes both as good — and as bad — as it gets.
You hear the whistle for the train. Between you and the soon-to-be-shut door lies a plunging flight of stairs, a herd of grazing high school girls (each lugging a cello) and a pack of inchworming old ladies, led by a man with a white cane. There is no way under the rising sun that you will make that train, meaning you will be late for work . . . again!
But you decide to try.
You leap, spin, grab the railing and fling yourself over the edge of the staircase feet-first for the closing door. The good news is . . .
You make it! Unbelievable! The bad news is . . .
It’s the wrong train. And it’s heading in the opposite direction, with its first express stop due in 30 minutes.
Or . . . Your girlfriend’s parents have invited you to supper and she has issued strict orders to make a good impression — or else! This despite the fact that Japanese meals have often coached your large and small intestines into synchronized swimming. You wrench on a smile and approach the table with trepidation. The good news is . . .
It’s pizza! The food of the gods! Hallelujah! The bad news is . . .
It’s been topped with raw squid.
Or . . . Later that very evening your stomach demands an emergency session in the can. Your girlfriend’s parents own a traditional home, and you dread the pit toilet adventure before you. The good news is . . .
Joy of joys, they have a Western john! Let the good times roll! The bad news is . . .
How could it plug and overflow so easily?
Or . . . You’ve been invited to a formal dance party and see this as your chance to make a real impact on Japanese girls. But you don’t have appropriate footwear and have no time to waste. So you dash off in your gunboat feet hoping against hope that the local store will have something that fits. The good news is . . .
What luck! The store has one pair of 12 EE men’s dress shoes! The perfect size! The bad news is . . .
The shoes are pink and adorned with little bells.
Or . . . You’re asked to give an English speech at the town civic center. You decide to talk on the current political climate and your own experience in the electoral process. You spend weeks preparing. The good news is . . .
On the night of the speech, the civic center is packed. With a newspaper photographer right up front! The bad news is . . .
The center promoters have goofed your title. The mistake hangs on a banner behind the podium and reads, “My Life and Erections!” Printed, with your face, in the local paper in the morning.
Or . . . You run to the doctor with a pesky rash. The doctor conducts an examination and then pronounces his diagnosis. But his language slips out too fast and you are instantly lost. So you beg him to explain in English. The good news is . . .
He says, “That WAS English!” Which is better than the bad news, which is . . .
He next writes out, “Herpes.”
Or . . . You vow that this time — no matter how much you drink — you will not confuse the house and toilet slippers at your boss’s party. You will not fail, you tell yourself, you will not fail, you will not fail. The good news is . . .
Even though you soon lose yourself in chatter and both overeat and drink . . . you do not fail! The bad news is . . .
To be more precise, only your right foot does not fail.
Or . . . You’ve got a major case of cabin fever and feel that if you can’t escape from the cramped box of your apartment and the elbow-to-elbow crowds of the city, you will soon lose your mind. The good news is . . .
A friend from work invites you to go camping with his family in the country. Just in the nick of time! The bad news is . . .
You end up trapped inside your friend’s minivan in bumper-to-bumper traffic . . . for 12 hours. Your friend and his wife try to ease the boredom by singing Beatles songs while their two kids scream and their dog barks.
Or . . . Every winter, you spend a small fortune buying high-priced Japanese Christmas cards to send overseas. This year you decide to use your noodle and order cards from the States. The good news is . . .
Yippee! The price of the foreign cards is less than half of anything you can find in Japanese stores, including the postage it required to get them here. The bad news is . . .
When you mail the addressed cards, you find the size does not fit Japanese regulations. A centimeter here, a centimeter there and it all adds up . . . until you pay three times the regular price.
Or . . . You find a mouse in your futon closet. This is disturbing enough, but how can you ever communicate this event to your English-deaf landlord? So you phone a Japanese friend and take down his translation word for word: “Help! I have a mouse in my closet!” This you practice and practice so that you can deliver the words with impact. The good news is . . .
Your landlord is both stunned and impressed by your Japanese. His eyes almost explode from his head with wonder. The bad news is . . .
Instead of the word for closet — “oshiire” — you said “oshiri,” which means . . . buttocks.
But the king of all absurdities comes when he tries to help. That’s when you abandon the roller coaster and run.