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The pot of gold and the expat rainbow

by Thomas Dillon

Life as a foreign resident has its trials. Some problems are giant-size, such as issues with communication, while others are more mundane, like how to deal with bugs. Which in Japan can also be giant-size.

And then these matters can cross, like the time at a late summer festival when I watched a gigantic praying mantis creep up a parade watcher’s shoe and into his slacks. I could see it crawling upward under the fabric.

My Japanese skills froze and I could think of no other way to communicate other than to make a “three-inch” gesture with my fingers and then point at the man’s pants. Luckily, before I did, he walked away.

But being a foreign resident also has giant-size pluses. One of which is merely the joy of meeting other expats.

For what a rainbow we are. And we shine with a lot more colors than the traditional seven. True — the spectrum is cracked, as we are a wacky group. Yet my Japanese experience has been made much richer by my rainbow of international friends.

Here is an incomplete list of the hailing spots of people who have crisscrossed closely over my life in the last many decades . . .

Rwanda . . . Manila . . . Lisbon . . . Glasgow . . . Katmandu . . . Adelaide . . . Canton . . . Toronto . . . Bangkok . . . Karachi . . . Liverpool . . . Helsinki . . .

Give us gavels and we might form our own United Nations. Except we are not so united. We are more like runaways from the Funny Pages, as diverse as Dilbert, Doonesbury and Drabble.

Yet, we all share those “Been there/done that” moments, like . . .

My friend from Mumbai who swallowed a full spoon of what he thought was chutney. When it was really wasabi.

Or my friend from Dallas who, when asked by her hairdresser why she was weeping, replied that she always cried when she thought about “pirates.” Mixing up kaizoku and kazoku, the latter meaning “family.”

Or my Prussian-proper friend from Berlin who, as the only foreigner in room, was asked to stand and lead the group in an English song, one already selected for her . . . Camptown Races. Oh doodah day!

We have all huddled in the same foxhole in the battle with cultural adjustment. And this creates an almost instant link with other gaijin, no matter where his/her home.

In my first Japanese lessons back in the mid-1970s my classmates came from Zaire, Nepal, Pakistan and Taiwan. For communication tools all we had were goodwill and giggles, slowly augmented by broken Japanese.

I could talk to those guys for hours and not understand a single word . . . and yet understand everything. The old saying is that you don’t really know another person until you have walked a mile in his or her shoes.

Well, we were all young and thousands of miles from home. We shared our shoes.

And I often think that experience — and numerous more like it over the years — is the most precious aspect of my entire time in Japan.

People are people. And those back in my Midwest home are as fine as those anywhere.

But once at a bar a few years back on a visit during the (what was then) height of U.S. troubles overseas, a friend poked his finger in my chest and said, “Those people over there aren’t like us.”

I argued back they were. He argued back I was nuts. I argued back that all you need do was peek under the garments of language and culture. He argued back I was really nuts. And it went on and on.

In the end we compromised and agreed that I was partially nuts and partially drunk.

But I was convinced that — extremists aside — I was also right. At the time I had 25 years overseas telling me it was so. My drinking buddy had only traveled the world via television — with images as distant and alien to him as Star Wars. That’s a view too universal with too many people.

For my strangest zap of expat culture shock came with a woman from Scotland. I had no idea where she was from and thought she was trying to converse in some odd mixture of Esperanto and dry heaves.

Turns out it was English, or her brogue-ish version. Until my ears attuned, we did much better speaking Japanese. The point being that common linguistic and cultural background might not be so common at all.

And the closest cross-cultural moment came with a friend from Dhaka, a medical researcher. My wife was his wife’s Japanese language teacher and our two couples often socialized together.

I bumped into him at the hospital one day when I came in for a check-up. He was only seconds from a phone call in which he learned his father had died.

He didn’t speak in English or Japanese, even though he was superb at both. He communicated with tears.

People are people. When you meet them, you know.

And that, I have found, is the true pot of gold at the expat rainbow.