Communication Problem: Buying Ointment for Ji

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This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, June  1996. Ji is the word for “hemorrhoid.” I looked it up. The sound is identical to chi, which means “blood,” and only the Japanese can distinguish between them. My problem is that I’ve run out of hemorrhoid ointment. Hemorrhoids only get worse, and ointments don’t work. They’re merely one more way for big pharma to transfer wealth from you to them. And to keep that stream of wealth flowing in the right direction, they brainwash you with their ads. It’s called marketing.

Hemorrhoid ointments have one positive side effect, however: they give you the illusory satisfaction of doing something. Thus, they help your mind more than your anus. Like plain Vaseline, they also make it easier to stuff your hemorrhoids back in after you get off the john. And so I’ve looked up the vocabulary necessary to buy ointment for ji, and I’ve practiced my phrases for several hours.

A wiry lady in a lab coat, the only person in the small pharmacy, greets me apprehensively. I greet her in my best Japanese.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I add, a fixed expression used in front of a question. It comes out smoothly, and I feel more confident.

Her apprehension grows.

“Do you have ointment for ji?”

Instead of bustling off to get it, she asks me something in return.

I apologize. Did I just ask for ointment for blood, and it didn’t make sense to her? Or maybe she has ointment for blood and wants to know which brand I want? Or which size? I repeat my question, slightly changing the sound of ji, hoping to get it right. She asks me something different in return. God, I wish I understood real Japanese. I apologize and repeat my question. Now she apologizes and says several long sentences.

This isn’t what I expected. I scratch my head. She looks at my hair, thinks I have lice. I stop scratching my head. I have three options. I can continue until one of us runs out of patience. I can put my finger on the spot where the ointment for ji is to be applied and hope for the best. Or, I can come back with Izumi. I select option three, though it poses its own set of challenges—the very challenges I specifically wanted to avoid. I smile, apologize, bow, and humbly back out the door.

The next morning, I ask Izumi to help me with buying hemorrhoid ointment. She’s bent over the TV to get closer to the mirror on the wall. She doesn’t know hemorrhoid. I explain it. It doesn’t make sense to her.

Ji in Japanese,” I say.

“What?”

“Ji.”

“How do you spell it?”

“J-I.”

“No, the hemmolloid thing.” She puts her mascara brush down.

I spell it. She pulls her 1,340-page Bible-paper dictionary out of her purse and looks it up.

“Oh, ji!” she exclaims.

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you said ji.”

“Anyway, you know what it is?”

“I’ve heard of it. Something old people get.” And that launches a thought process that is so intense it permeates her skull and becomes visible as micro-wrinkles across her forehead. She’s grasping something. Until this very moment, I’ve been able to masquerade as a physically flawless male specimen. But now the truth has been revealed: I’m a man of a certain age with a mounting tab for having been alive this long. Not a pleasant thought for a girl her age.

“I tried to buy some, but the pharmacist kept asking me questions I didn’t understand.”

“I can tell you what to say.”

“It won’t work. She’ll ask me to death again. Can’t you come with me?”

“Is it really necessary?”

At lunchtime, we meet for a quick bite to eat then scurry to the pharmacy. The pharmacist is relieved I’ve summoned competent help. Instead of requesting ointment for ji, as I did, Izumi embarks on a long-winded discourse. Her voice is high-pitched and subservient from twenty-six years of training and hundreds of years of breeding. The pharmacist whispers several sentences. Izumi responds, also in a whisper. Yarikata, the way to do. Back and forth. They nod with increasing intensity. A consensus develops. The pharmacist disappears between the shelves and reappears with three products. I choose a box based on its familiar color scheme. She wraps it in plain paper, Scotch-tapes the paper, slips it into a paper bag, folds and tapes the bag, and slips it into a plastic bag. In her normal voice, now that the offending object has been concealed, she names the price. I pay, and all of us are thrilled the situation has been successfully brought behind us.

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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