“What do you think? Am I nuts?”
Ah, what a question! The possible comebacks line up in my brain like goodies in a box of chocolates. From which I select: “Who are you talking to? There’s nobody here but you.”
Yet he insists he is not alone. And that I — and thousands more — are with him.
“The Japanese aren’t the only ones who have grayed. There is a huge population of foreign residents that is inching its way towards its golden years. Many of these are ‘married’ to Japan and will end up retiring here.”
OK, so I’m not just an invisible friend. I am an aging invisible friend. I have a Japanese wife, a Japanese house and a Japanese future — all of them perfectly visible.
“Here, then, is something else you should see: Aging foreigners are all going to go through the Japanese health care system — which is aimed at Japanese.”
Not breaking news. This is Japan. For whom else should the Japanese tailor their health care? Martians?
“Well, we are aliens. And when I get old and worn out, I bet the first thing to go won’t be my appetite nor my sex drive — it will be my language skills. And right after that will go my patience.”
OK. So what he wants, then, is nursing care in Japan, but in the English language.
So I tell him, yes, he’s nuts.
He then paints some nutty scenarios.
“I’m lying in need of a bedpan and don’t know what to say in Japanese, so I make gestures. And the home helper brings me a wok.”
“And every day, she exercises her schoolgirl English — ‘How are you? Are you fine?’ — but she has no chance of following the words I use to describe how I truly feel, all four-lettered.”
“Or she keeps trying to spoon Japanese rice porridge down my throat, when I can’t stand the stuff. But she has no inkling of any Western substitute.”
“All I will wish,” he says, “is to go out on my own terms, communicating my needs in my own language.”
And while he’s at it, I tell him, why doesn’t he wish for the moon? Or the winning number in the Japanese lotto? Or a more sympathetic invisible friend?
“Why in English?” I ask. “There are oodles of other foreigners. Why not in French or German? Or Swedish? Or Xhosa?”
This last I add with a click. And he clicks back: “Japan yearns to fit into the world. Well, the world should fit here too. And English, like it or not, is the key. You don’t need to host the Olympics to show an open spirit. All you need is some flexibility. “
And he says, as if I haven’t noticed, that Japan is packed with English teachers, many of whom have spent decades not only hammering out L’s and R’s, but also paying taxes.
But inquiries at his local city office and even at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building have led him to believe that “Foreigners are overlooked. In all the brainstorms about how to handle aging Japan, we are not yet a cloud in the distance.”
Ah, but there’s a flip side, which is that Japan can’t even take care of its own. There is not enough youth to go around. Besides, Japanese youths are mostly focused on smartphones, not people.
“So there is talk of bringing in Asian nurses, from the Philippines and so on, right? To care for Japanese. They would be more apt to speak English, too. There is your solution.”
Maybe his solution, but not his dream. He envisions a private-sector facility. Well, more than a facility: a city.
“A Silver City, for families like ours: internationals, with one spouse Japanese — but including Japanese who might prefer English-language health care as well.”
Old men will dream dreams. And this one’s biblical: “With a tennis court. And a pool. And a dance hall. And bingo, too, of course. With everyone — doctors and nurses and patients and even cleaning ladies — speaking English.”
I tell him there already is such a retirement place. It’s called Florida.
He tells me back that the Silver City may have a shiny future. In Kobe, he’s heard, there is a multilingual old folks home already — one using Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.
“So the idea has legs. One day it will stand up and walk.”
All he has to do is live that long. Besides, I add, more than legs, the idea needs trousers — ones with deep pockets.
“The kind of home you envision would be sky-high, cost-wise. You, me and all of us would do better to hope for bilingual home-helpers. They must be out there, somewhere.”
No tennis court? No pool? No dance hall? But there is always bingo.
After that, we just have to face it: We will go through the system like everyone else.
He pouts, not yet in resignation. And then says, “Oh, be quiet!”
So I say, sure. That’s what invisible friends are for.
When East Marries West usually appears in print on the third Thursday of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org