A little less east of Eden


John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, “East of Eden,” is a tale of two families and one city — Salinas, Calif. — with the plot hinging on the sibling rivalry of a pair of brothers. The movie came along in 1955, winning James Dean a posthumous Academy Award nomination in the role of more convoluted brother.

But Steinbeck’s most convoluted character never made the screen. He was cut from the script, possibly because — with a 600-page novel — you have to cut something. And possibly because he was just too convoluted.

He was Lee — the Chinese servant to the father of Caleb Trask, the young man portrayed by Dean. Not a minor character either. Lee’s actions and speech claim almost as many words in Steinbeck’s book as those of troubled Caleb.

The twist in Lee’s gut? Something foreign residents in Japan might well understand, even though we live a little less east of Eden: fitting in with the surrounding culture.

As a second-generation Chinese-American, Lee possesses native-speaker English, plus a top-notch education from the University of California. Yet, he can communicate with “other” Americans better if he . . . Well, in his own words:

“Me talkee Chinese talk.”

Lee later explains — with professorial eloquence — that he preferred to live out the cultural stereotype partly because if he didn’t speak as people expected him, no one would understand.

Sure enough, Steinbeck soon introduces a character befuddled by Lee’s erudite English. Lee then reverts to broken, servant-boy talk and the man follows at once — the sort of personality switch that is the stuff of cheap sitcoms today. Yet, there is nothing cheap and not much comical about “East of Eden.”

There is not much cheap about Japan either. As for comedy, that might well depend on your mood.

I once sauntered up to a receptionist at a concert hall and asked what time the program began. The woman fixed me with a grin and at the same time squeaked to her partner on the left.

“Help! I can’t speak English!”

Of course, I had addressed her in Japanese. My wife, hanging on my arm at the moment, found the experience surreal.

“It’s like she saw your foreign face and froze.”

It wasn’t my first such experience either. A face that can freeze a thousand lips?

Maybe. My Japanese works sort of like a lick-on tattoo — not very well. And the face, some might say, sort of looks like a lick-on tattoo.

But asking the time is rather simple trick. No, my wife was correct. The woman saw “foreigner” and refused to hear my Japanese, shades of Lee’s conundrum in “East of Eden.”

While the experience is not so common, it still happens. The cultural knots draw tighter, however, in the notion — often stated — that some Japanese prefer to communicate with outsiders in English and are uncomfortable if a foreigner displays language skills too keenly developed.

A friend with almost 20 years here and language ability much sharper than a lick-on tattoo tells me he prefers to work in English. He believes he gets better results that way, even if his Japanese might communicate faster. He thinks people are friendlier and more eager to help if he comes off like a babe in the woods. English thus open doors for his business, while the response to his Japanese seems always more tentative.

So he doesn’t mind playing the babe. He says people must use whatever tools they have to get along. Ends justify means.

Steinbeck’s Lee eventually threw off his stereotype, an approach tried here by another friend who for several years taught at a Japanese high school. He worked to blend in and is certain his efforts were appreciated. But he had this experience . . .

The school received a visitor, an American woman — young and vivacious — and with “Me talkee” level Japanese skills. Yet, she was outgoing and flamboyant and, even though she was just there for part of a one-day cultural program, the principal arranged for her to address the faculty after school.

“But what do I say?” she asked.

“Tell us about America,” came the answer.

The foreign teacher — also an American — sat in silence as the faculty fawned over the guest’s impromptu presentation, delivered half in English, half in hacksawed Japanese.

They glorified her with question after question, some from people who had never spoken to their longtime American colleague even once. The meeting ended with a rush of applause.

The man later fumed that if they really wanted to know about America, why hadn’t they asked him? He had worked there for years and could have given a much finer talk.

“She was a guest, you are not,” he was told.

“She fits the stereotype, I don’t,” came his response.

Sour grapes? Well, sure. Yet, anyone who has struggled to fit in can understand the convolutions.

Wait . . . Grapes? Steinbeck? Hmm . . . There might be another novel in here somewhere.