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‘Senior moments’ for foreigners — they could start in your 20s

by Amy Chavez

“How do you know if you have Alzheimer’s?” said the front of the pamphlet. The answer inside was: “If you can’t remember what you ate for lunch, you don’t have Alzheimer’s. If you can’t remember whether you ate lunch or not, that’s Alzheimer’s.”

But I have a hunch that such “old timer’s” diseases start much earlier in life than we think. I’m convinced that senility starts in your 20s, when you wake up with a hangover and can’t remember the last bar you went to the night before. That is followed by years of “Where did I leave my car keys?” and “I completely forgot about that pizza in the back of the fridge that is now covered in mold,” and then to “I came into this room to get something — what was it?!”

The only reason these things don’t start happening earlier than in your 20s is because when you were younger, you didn’t drink, have a car, have your own fridge or own anything in the next room.

Should you follow the above progression and then also move to Japan, you’re set up for even more early onset of senility and premature “senior moments.” This is because living in a foreign country requires you to learn a whole new subset of skills for communication and survival, and thus you will have that many more things to forget or skills to deteriorate at some point in your life.

The following are some types of old timer’s diseases specific to foreigners in Japan. You may have experienced these symptoms already, even if you’re only in your 20s:

Japanese name Alzheimer’s

Despite having been told many times before, you still can’t remember if that guy’s name is Nishina-san or Nishida-san. Yamakawa, or Yamagawa? Or perhaps it’s actually Yamaguchi? No, no, come to think of it, it was Yamazaki. Yes, definitely maybe Yamazaki. And his wife is Kumiko. Or was it Yumiko? Or maybe it was Keiko. Mamiko? Sigh.

Language Alzheimer’s

If you’re having trouble finding the right word to use in your native language, try finding it when speaking a second language. You say, “It starts with a fu, or mu . . .” as you rifle through the Japanese prefixes. Or maybe you remember the kanji but not the pronunciation, so you say, “Starts with the sanzui radical!” If you learned kanji via mnemonics, you’re really screwed: “The first kanji looks like a turkey sitting on the top of a tree!” you say, while all your Japanese friends go running. Let’s face it, there will be a point when your second language deteriorates so much that only your Japanese teacher will be able to understand you. God bless her!

Another sure sign of Language Alzheimer’s is when you start substituting words from other languages when you can’t remember the appropriate Japanese word.

Rather than your brain defaulting back to your native language, however, it stays in foreign language mode, and substitutes a word from one of the other foreign languages you know. This hijacking of your Japanese skills causes consternation among listeners because the substituted word from that language will surely be a word that also exists in Japanese, but with a completely different, and inappropriate, meaning.

Gomi Alzheimer’s

You awake to clinking and clanging sounds which causes you to bolt out of bed screaming: Oh my God! Today is recyclable garbage day! You look at your watch — it’s just now 8 a.m.. You think, maybe possibly you can still catch the truck. If you can’t, you’ll have to wait until this time next month to put out those bags of garbage you’ve been harboring in the corner of the house or on the balcony.

You put on your running shoes, grab two large bags: one of beer cans and the other of convenience store plastic bento boxes, and run after the recycling truck. Even after they have politely stopped to accept your bags, you have to beg them to wait while you retrieve the last several months worth of recyclable garbage because you missed last month due to a business trip, the month before that due to a hangover and the month before that because of Gomi Alzheimer’s.

Currency Alzheimer’s

The inability to remember the current exchange rate. Even if you happen to remember that the current rate is 98 cents, you’ll be stumped as to whether that is 98 cents to ¥100 or ¥98 to one dollar. This results in a brain default to a straight one Australian, Canadian or U.S. dollar to ¥100 in order to allow the brain to stay on holidays a little longer.

Driving Alzheimer’s

When you go home to your native country, there are going to be times when you forget the driving rules. If you’re back home in Australia, you may find yourself stopping too far back from the traffic lights at the intersection due to their different placement. If you go back home to the U.S. or Canada, you will catch yourself trying to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Then when you come back to Japan, you may even get into your car and sit there for a moment before you realize something’s really wrong — there is no steering wheel in front of you! You have climbed into the passenger seat by mistake! You look around sheepishly, and if no one is watching, casually slide out of the car and walk around to the driver’s side and get in. If people are watching, however, you fumble around in the glove box for something important, even if it’s just the user’s manual (which actually, you could really use right now). You get out, with the manual firmly in hand, and walk around and get into the driver’s seat, after which you put that user’s manual away in the glove box again. Whew — no one noticed!

Now that I’m finished with this column, I am off to the immigration office to renew my visa before it expires. Now, where did I put that damn passport? I’ve looked in the fridge and the glove box but can’t find it anywhere!

  • Christina T.

    I never comment on articles, but something about this one struck me as odd, so these are simply my two cents.
    Although humorous in its use of the word “Alzheimer’s,” the article seems to disregard the seriousness of the actual disease, which is a much larger struggle than simple forgetfulness. I would also argue that while learning a new skill set in adapting to a foreign culture can indeed be a sometimes frustrating or confusing experience, it does not lead to senility, nor anything akin to it. Such a claim conflates two entirely different social and mental processes. Learning of any kind (social, linguistic, etc) creates opportunities not to have premature “senior moments,” but rather to grow and better ourselves, perhaps much like a baby would. While I understand and appreciate that the article seeks to take a light, funny approach to many daily and very real scenarios that ex-pats encounter in Japan, I would have enjoyed seeing a different analogy, especially one not linked to a disease, used to express them.

    • Esther

      Thank you, I was also thinking the same thing and found the potential for humor lost and turned into a most unenlightened article.

    • gnirol

      I’m an English teacher. so I am sure to die of cancer of the colon, or at least the semi-colon. Ba-da-boom. Not acceptable? Both my parents, my favorite aunt and numerous other people I love have died of cancer after terrible suffering that I witnessed or are fighting it right now. I’m not supposed to make that joke about my own eventual demise? One of my favorite uncles (and his family) suffered for more than half a decade from Alzheimer’s until he died at 90. Would I make an Alzheimer’s joke directly to those people? No. It would seem like an intentional slight. But Ms. Chavez was not directing her column towards Alzheimer sufferers. How about ethnic jokes? About one’s own ethnic group? Not acceptable because someone else in the group somewhere in the world might find it offensive? What in the world is left to make a joke about? Lumpy oatmeal? (That sounds re-e-e-e-e-al funny, Beaver.) What about the parent who just that morning got criticized for making lumpy oatmeal and now gets it from some humorist in the paper as well as her/ his children? As for the medical connection between not finding one’s keys and the actual onset of Alzheimer’s, this column is called “Japan Lite”, not “Disease of the Week: a medical discussion.” Anyone who takes what Ms. Chavez has been saying for decades completely seriously needs to look for the absurdity in life, and it’s not hard to find. Not everything makes sense, nor is there any reason it should. I have listened to and sung along with the song “Dead Puppies” I don’t know how many times and never once thought of an actual dead puppy, which would be sad, not absurd and funny. If you read the column, you will note that Ms. Chavez was not writing about Alzheimer’s at all; she was, as usual, writing about the incongruities that many Westerners face living in Japan because life is subtly or greatly different from wherever they grew up.

  • luke

    I just love article starting with ‘when you wake up with a hang over’ well its 630am here and that is what I have and the first thing I do is read your article lol. Keep it up young lady, I enjoying reading your articles. Now, I think I need a coffee. :-)