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When worlds collide

by Thomas Dillon

My Japanese language skills mostly stink. And always have.

Yet it’s an odor to which I’ve grown accustomed.

My excuse is that I came here to work, had little time for study and when I found I could get by, that’s just what I did. I got by.

Now, as excuses go, that’s fairly lame. But it passes. I did not spend six years or more of intensive classroom study, as do almost all Japanese with English. If I had done that, and then found myself lost on language nuances beyond my grasp, I might feel a bit stupid.

Especially if I had confidence. And that is introduction enough for this tale of a proud ship of Japanese-English . . . about to be sunk.

Meet Etsuko.

She is prim. She is proper. She is polite.

She has graduated from the best schools her daddy could afford and she has a world vision set in sharp focus by NHK television and JAL package tours.

Typically, she stays at home and helps her mother. And takes courses in flower-arranging, tea ceremony and so on.

And she is altogether nice. For Etsuko, to communicate with others adds garnish to her bento-boxed life.

And to communicate in English adds more than mere garnish. It is the cherry atop the sweetest sundae around. She would rather try her schoolbook English than anything.

You will not meet Caroline. For Etsuko already has and is done with her. She has the runny mascara to prove it.

Caroline is an older woman on her first journey abroad. It’s one of those friend-of-a-friend connections, and Etsuko has ended up as Caroline’s guide for a day.

Caroline is also altogether nice. But she has never been out of “Kansas” before. And she talks like it.

Etsuko’s tour plan called for Asakusa, Ginza and the Meiji Shrine. But . . . they only got as far as Asakusa.

Where Caroline announced — in swift, uncompromising English — she had already been “all over hell and half of Georgia.”

And thus their worlds collided. Think of Etsuko as Earth. And Caroline as the Tunguska meteor.

Estuko blinked back. “No . . . this is Sumida Ward.” Quite far from Georgia. Not to mention hell.

“Who cares? Stick a fork in me. I’m done.”

Etsuko surmised that “fork” meant “hungry.” So they piled into a Japanese-style coffee shop, where Etsuko proposed Caroline try green tea and yokan — a sweet bean confection.

“Honey . . . that dog ain’t gonna hunt.”

Etsuko twisted her head front and back, but — just as she suspected — no dogs. Then the answer hit her. How could she be so dumb?! Her eyes swept the menu in vain.

“Sorry, they don’t have honey dogs.”

Caroline jumped. “I would guess not! That’s as nutty as a soup sandwich!”

Another scan of the menu. No soup sandwiches either, with or without nuts. Just what did people eat in Kansas?

“But they have sweet bean soup with rice cake.”

“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit!”

Etsuko smiled. Uncomfortably. And fumbled her electronic dictionary out from her bag.

Butter, butt, biscuit. . . . She must have misheard. She consulted with the waitress and ordered “chinsuko.” It wasn’t a biscuit, but not so far off.

Caroline ate the entire order. In under a minute.

“Ah!” said Caroline. “I feel so happy I could slap my grandma.”

Etsuko’s own 90-year-old grandmother wore kimono and walked with a cane. She pictured slapping her. Then changed the topic.

“Tell me about your family,” she asked. To learn that Caroline had a husband back home.

“Do you miss him?”

“Well, it’s not like there’s a lot to miss. As a kid, his face caught fire and someone beat it out with a wet chair.”

Gosh!

“But it’s the perfect face for radio.”

“He works on radio?”

“The only thing Walt works on is beauty sleep.”

Was this English? Or some lost dialect from another dimension?

“I’m sorry. My English is terrible!”

“Sounds right as rain to me. And you’re cuter than a bug’s ear!”

“Are you joking?” Etsuko was nearing tears.

Caroline patted her hand. “Honey, I never joke. I mean what I say every time.”

“I studied English for 10 years in junior high, high school and college!”

“You did! Well hit me on the head and call me Fred!”

“She had such a warm smile,” Etsuko explains later. “And she said she never joked. So . . . I did it. I called her ‘Fred.’ And hit her.”

Gently. To earn a large laugh from Caroline. Who said . . .

“I’m as full as a fat lady’s socks. Let’s piss on the fire and call in those honey dogs.”

Thus the day was a failure only in Etsuko’s proud vision. Caroline even invited her to Kansas.

“But I never want to see her again. Ever.”

Was she sure?

“As sure as a goose goes barefoot.”

And you can’t get any surer than that.