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When generations pass on the street

by Thomas Dillon

I see him first. The new guy in town. He’s just popped out of a convenience store and has turned in my direction. The walkway pinches in and the only way he can avoid me is to freeze in his tracks and spin around. We are destined to pass.

Uh oh. It’s that old-timer with the beard. The one who always eyes me. He’s eying me now. He’s gonna stop and introduce himself. I know it. And I can’t get away.

Look at him. It’s like he’s in a bubble. He’s carried his air with him, all the way from New York or Los Angeles or St. Louis or wherever. It’s not like he’s in Japan at all. He’s where he always is. And he expects Japan to adjust to him, not vice-versa.

Look at him. It’s like he owns the place. He doesn’t look Japanese. He doesn’t act Japanese. But you can tell he’s been here forever. He oozes entitlement, like a barnyard rooster. And like a rooster, the barnyard is the extent of his knowledge.

He’s the greenest banana in the entire boat. And that’s right from where he’s come. Inside his shopping bag, he’s probably got a Snickers bar and a bottle of Diet Coke. Tonight he’ll blog home about all the odd stuff he’s seen at the convenience store and wax eloquent on Japanese culture. About which he now considers himself an expert.

He’s survived here. That’s his only talent. He markets a language he was born speaking and gets by due to the good graces of a Japanese wife. Still, he fits in like a sore thumb. And now, after all these years, he’s got no home to which to return. He’s trapped here. And he clings to anyone with whom he can speak a little English.

Or maybe he’s one of those guys who grew up a Japanophile. Had seen “Akira” 20 times before he was 10. Began learning Japanese in high school and speaks it like a buzz saw. Knows every manga or anime character ever drawn. Feels Japan is his heartland. Yet to talk to him about the war, the economic miracle, the bubble, the post-bubble is like discussing some foreign country. For him, if it’s not now, it never was.

Or maybe he’s one of those guys who has soaked up Japan like a sponge. He knows every nuance of every word and can recite Japanese history like the ABCs. But you can’t turn him off. He always wants to gab about the way things were. About how tough foreign residents had it back in the day and how easy things are now. For guys like me.

He thinks he’s the only one who’s ever had an adventure like his. The only one who has ever fallen in love with another land. He considers Japan to be a pretty girl who has never been kissed. And here he is all ready to pucker. He’s convinced he’s in virgin territory. He’s absolutely certain that he’s special.

He thinks he invented the wheel. That there is nothing new under the sun. That nothing worth knowing has happened in the last twenty years. At the same time, he realizes the world is zipping past. The change in technology is pelting him like hard rain. Contemporary music and film and literature are flooding in with currents he doesn’t know how to navigate. He’s drowning. And he’s hoping to latch on to something, anything. Which is why he wants to talk.

Of course he’s headed for trouble. He’s moving a mile a minute and the future is a brick wall dead ahead. He won’t see it till it’s too late. It’ll be 20 years before he wakes up dazed and wonders what happened to him. That’ll be the time to meet him. When he’s picked up some moss. When he’s earned a few wrinkles. Right now he’s just a kid. Which is why he doesn’t want to talk.

Not that he wouldn’t be interesting. Some of these old guys are full of vinegar. Funny and friendly, with a pocketful of stories. And he’ll have some tricks to teach, about how to get by in Japan. Probably he’s a smart guy to know. Gosh, he could be me, 30 years from now. The problem is not making conversation. The problem is escaping it once we’ve started.

Not that he wouldn’t be interesting. With energy and brains and insights that I would benefit from. He’d add some needed spice to my life. I’m sure he’s a smart guy to know. And, gosh, he could be me 30 years ago. The problem isn’t getting him to take some time. The problem is how much time.

And so there we are, on the walkway, almost face to face. If we were ships and it was night we would not pass by. We would collide.

I raise my brows and say . . . “Hey.”

His head bends in a nod.

And, like that, the encounter is over. We both move on.