Once, on a warm Tokyo night, as we sat with drinks at a bar in Shibuya, my Japanese date asked me something I had never considered before.
“When you watch TV by yourself, do you laugh when there is something funny?”
Conversation hadn’t been smooth. She was intelligent and spoke good English, yet my thoughts on Japan’s foreign policy had met little response, if any.
She wouldn’t be drawn on her job. I’ve nothing to say about food. Sensing at last an opening, I asked if she watched much TV.
The woman kept holding my gaze. Her eyes checked into mine, assessing reception, and then seemed to be sending a message full of deep emotion and thought — a telepathic appeal too private, too obscurely complex, to be left to syntax and words.
If only you knew, they appeared to say. And my eyes asked: What happened?
A man of language, I had no way to decode, no clue what she tried to express. Tiring of guesswork, I sat in polite confusion.
“Sometimes,” she answered at last, her eyes warming mine in apology.
What kind of a weird date was this? Weren’t we here to be interesting people? To show what we thought and knew, and hint at the tortured pasts that had made us sexy, if complicated?
You see it often in Tokyo: the attentive Japanese woman and the Western man filling silence. In fact, a lot of them end up married, sharing a house and 1,000 meals, albeit hardly a life of the mind.
There are degrees of despair and fulfillment. Some guys learn the hard way that “the mysterious Asian” is Orientalist hooey. Others enjoy holding forth, like expat versions of Professor Higgins enlightening an Asian Eliza. In fact, a Japanese woman once told me that dating a Western guy is like watching TV. “Once he is on,” she said, laughing, “you just sit back and watch. No need to pay constant attention!”
But I refused to be a TV. I have an unspeakable fear of being bored — and more fearful yet, of boring others. This in turn fueled my fear of marriage, of what I saw as two people locked into characters they dislike, breeding contempt through their familiarity. I’d see a woman who finishes my sentences and be shaken by morbid fantasies.
The only chance to escape this fate, I thought, was to marry a pretty talker who could offer a lifetime of stimulation. Let’s call her simply The Most Interesting Woman in the World (who is also a Fox).
Yet that is not who I dated in Tokyo. The women I met here were foxy, but after intros and small talk, they had different ways of conversing: less give-and-take, less intellectual expanse and disclosure; instead, more agreeing monosyllables.
As I adjusted to new ways of fellowship, I became drawn beyond looks to a type of woman I probably wouldn’t have dated in America. Outside of my native environment, I seemed to rethink what I look for in a mate.
Still, for a Western male like myself — opinionated to the gills, ever excited or steamed and dying to share, ever thrilled to be in the same room as the English language — loving a quiet woman without frustration would mean adjusting expectations.
How can you truly connect without talking all night? And when you do talk, about what? The changes in the weather?
The Shibuya date became my wife, and my reservations were all about words.
Years ago, back Stateside in San Francisco, my college sweetheart had swallowed a radio. Or so they say in the Middle East when someone outraged, ebullient or full of gossip is unable to stop talking.
It was love at first fight: She was Arabic and we met in an English class, defending ideas against the teacher. At that time, defending ideas — against authority, any authority! — was the sexiest thing in the world. It meant passion and personhood, espoused by a person you wanted to sleep with. Throw in banter and snarky zingers and some people hear wedding bells.
Relentlessly we opined, in predawn kitchens and bars and taxicabs, about history and race and misogyny in Italian movies, about America and our colorful circle of friends — and again and again, with a fervor bordering the obsessive, the politics of our time (the Iraq War was raging). We ached with the need to be part of the world, and we needed speech to shape and engage it.
But this is not who I married. One day, all exchange fell silent.
So then what, I wondered, is the meaning of talking in love?
In the course of a summer, the eye-talking date from Shibuya became my girlfriend. Her name was Mai and she worked for a science university.
Our talks featured no books or current events, no psychoanalysis of Donald Trump. Culture wars and identity politics, two of my former talkathon staples, were now, literally, foreign concepts. My sarcasm was wasted; she does snark like I talk about food.
It took time to embrace this absence. I didn’t immerse myself in the study of Zen and the truth beyond language; I just shut up where I used to talk.
One day as we entered a convenience store, the three clerks chimed their welcome in unison, without actually looking our way. Annoyed, I whispered: “Sometimes I want to shake them and yell, ‘You are robots! All of you!’ ”
She looked at the clerks and considered. “Perhaps they will answer” — her voice turned cheerily mechanic — ” ‘Of course! We are enjoying being robots!’ ”
I have much to say on the subject — the way humanoid robots fuse the animate and inanimate, a concept from the Shinto religion. I’ve observed …
Instead, I held back and waited. After a moment, Mai shared a memory from college, when she had worked part-time in a convenience store. I learned it was back-breaking work and that between 7 and 8 in the morning, a row of middle-aged men on their way to work would come in and each stay in the bathroom forever.
I ended up skipping the lecture, which was fine. I already knew everything that was in it.
With no expertise to prove, I dodged the curse of the thinking man’s love life — taking yourself too seriously. Throughout the talking years, my fear was, partly, to become a cliche: the stressed intellectual who starts arguments over dinner, fact-checking his wife on Google and dreading secretly he might be wrong, defending opinions as an identity and then getting accused of mansplaining.
My Japanese wife never shared these fears, and this helped me relax into presence. There are silences now, of course, often longer than 20 seconds. But they don’t alarm Mai as dead air, and I stopped seeing them as a failing — of myself, of my lover, of love.
As I am typing this, my former date from Shibuya comes up to the desk and looks over my shoulder. She sees her name — a Japanese word standing out on the page — and she knows I am writing about us.
She gives me a smile and I smile back. I have no idea what she is thinking. She leaves the room and closes the sliding door, humming a song from a morning TV show. She doesn’t think anything has to be said.
Nicolas Gattig is a writer and intercultural communication coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His short story “The Rain in Nagoya” was published recently by The Font magazine: www.thefontjournal.com/the-rain-in-nagoya/. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for views about life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: email@example.com