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Who wants to know what’s where?

by Thomas Dillon

One problem I have with the phrase “language struggles” is the image.

For the picture is one of a contest. Of a wrestling match or a sweaty uphill climb. A never-ending tussle in which there are both gains and losses, but gradually — oh so gradually — more victories than defeats.

While the image that better fits my own language journey is more like a collision.

Me . . . bug. Japanese language . . . windshield.

I haven’t struggled much at all. I’ve been smashed. Again and again. Especially in the early days.

And I admit I wax nostalgic whenever I see someone else knocked to smithereens. Like the other day, when I heard this fellow ask directions to “Ikebukuro.”

Only it came out as, “Icky-buckaroo.”

Reminding me of my own train misadventures of yesteryear, completely lost in both the language and railway system.

I needed help, but had no idea how to ask. Not that it mattered. I couldn’t understand any answer anyway.

I felt like Lou Costello, all bent up over “Who’s on First?” In fact, Abbott and Costello could have aimed their routine at the Tokyo trains with similar results to baseball.

All it takes is a little Icky-Buckaroo-style imagination and a bit of suspended belief as to names. Here we go . . .

The train roars on while the lost foreigner blinks at the map plastered on the wall. It’s a spider’s web of crisscrosses that seems to blur the more he stares. So he girds himself and turns to the businessman standing alongside.

“Excuse me? Do you speak English?”

The man jumps, either with the shock of being approached or at a perceived slight to his education.

“But of course!”

So the foreigner blurts his question. “Great! So what’s the next station?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

A pause. Then . . . “Excuse me?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

“I want to know.”

Now a pause in return. “Know what?” says the businessman. His eyes flick right and left.

“What’s the next station?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

“Me. My name is Tom. OK?”

“. . . OK. Nice to meet you. I’m Hiro.” They shake hands.

“Now, Hiro? What’s the next station?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

“Tom does!”

“Tom does what?”

“Tom wants to know!”

“Know what?

“What’s the next station!?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know!”

Now the foreigner puts his arm around the businessman’s neck. He moves in close and whispers.

“Listen, Hiro. I don’t care about the next station. It’s true. What I really want to know is where I can change trains to head south. Can you tell me that? Please?”

Hiro whispers back. “Sure. No problem. I know all the trains. Just ask.”

“OK. So . . . Where do I change trains?”

“I-Have-No-Idea.”

“But . . . I thought you said you knew?”

“Knew what?”

“Where to change trains.”

“I do.”

“OK.” The train rocks on. Tom stares at Hiro. “Where is it?”

Hiro stares at Tom. “Where is what?”

“The place to change trains.”

“I-Have-No-Idea.”

“Arrgh! Tell me!”

“Tell you what?”

“The place to change trains!”

“I-Have-No-Idea!”

“And the name of the next station!?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know!”

“OK.” Tom the Foreigner backs away and paces around. “Let me put it this way. Say I get off at the next stop and I ask someone where I am. What will they tell me?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

“OK. And if I get off in a few stops and ask where I am and some guy tells me, ‘I have no idea,’ then I should change trains.”

“Exactly! You’ve got it.”

“What I’ve got is a headache.”

“I’m only glad I could help.”

“Oh you helped. Believe me.”

“Because soon I’ll have to get off. It will be my stop.”

“Which is?”

“You-Won’t-Believe-It.”

“Oh I might. Just tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“The name of your stop.”

“You-Won’t-Believe-It.”

“For Pete’s sakes, just try me and see!”

“See what?”

“Whether I believe you!”

“About what?”

“The name of your stop!”

“Oh. You-Won’t-Believe-It.”

“Just tell me! I have no idea!”

“No, that’s your stop.”

“What’s my stop?”

“I-Have-No-Idea.”

Now the foreigner buries his face in his hands. “Forget my stop. I think I’m gonna be ill. Where’s the closest hospital?”

“Who-Wants-To-Know.”

“I do! Didn’t I just ask you!?”

“Ask me what?”

“The location of the closest hospital!”

“Who-Wants-To-Know!”

“OK. I’m not getting off at all. I’ll just ride on till the final stop. What’s it called?”

“We-Never-Tell.”

“Well, why not?”

“Why not what?”

“Tell me the name of the last station?!”

“Oh. We-Never-Tell.”

“Please! Just for me. Your new train friend! Tell me the name of the last station!”

“We-Never-Tell!”

“I’ll keep it a secret, I promise!”

“Keep what a secret?”

“The name of the last station!”

“But it’s OK. Everyone knows.”

“Then what is it!?”

“We-Never-Tell!”

Now Tom grabs Hiro by the lapels. “Hiro, I’m wondering . . . Have you ever been punched in the nose?”

“Excuse me?”

“I said . . . ‘Have-You-Ever-Been-Punched-In-The-Nose!?’”

To which Hiro shakes his head and answers . . . “Sorry. You’re on the wrong line for that.”

Now, Bud Abbott was a much better straightman than Hiro and Tom the Foreigner is a pale shadow of Lou Costello. Yet, the two funnymen never had material like this.

Which, in hindsight, is the best upside to “language struggle.” If you’re going to get KO’d, you might at least smile.