Crazy American

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

I sit on my tatami, Japanese textbook in my lap. Mr. Song is starting his morning routine—cooking rice, chopping veggies, and frying meat. I get up at 5 a.m. every day to enjoy daylight for a couple of hours before he ruins it with his revolting grease vapors. Mr. Kim emerges from the toilet and turns on the TV. But before he sits down to watch it, which he does every morning to improve his listening comprehension, he makes one step toward my tatami and stops at the edge.

“Mr. Wolf, please eat breakfast with us,” he says in English.

“Thank you, but I already ate.”

He nods, and they have a brief exchange in Korean then continue with their routine: Mr. Song cooking, Mr. Kim watching TV. It’s Sunday, and there’s a soupçon of leisure in their movements. Mr. Song serves rice, meat, vegetables, and kimchi, and they eat and watch TV together.

“Do you understand?” I ask Mr. Song in Japanese and point at the TV.

“Not much,” he says in Japanese.

It’s our first complete conversation where each said something that the other actually understood, and we grin and are so proud of ourselves.

When they’re done eating, Mr. Kim continues watching TV. Mr. Song clears the table and stacks the dirty bowls on top of the frying pan and saucepan in the sink. Then he joins Mr. Kim, and they both watch TV. It’s all part of their hierarchy.

“I’m going running,” I tell Mr. Kim in English. My Japanese is still insufficient to express anything of this complexity.

“Running?” he says, baffled.

And I know what he’s thinking, from the way he looks at me. He’s thinking, Another crazy American!

My plan is to run on Mejiro-dōri toward the suburbs for thirty minutes and then run back the same way to avoid getting lost in the tangle of nameless alleys on both sides of the street. Fifteen minutes into my run, a Ferris wheel and treetops appear above the low buildings to the right, signs of a possible oasis amid this urban ugliness.

I cut through the neighborhood toward the Ferris wheel, past houses with three-foot wide gardens, rusting fences, Japanese black pines that protrude above perimeter walls, and junk. A lot of junk. Every house has a collection of it stacked against a wall—don’t they ever throw anything away? The Ferris wheel, however, has vanished.

Alleys curve, end in T-intersections, or split into Ys. Due to the thick cloud cover, I can’t even orient myself by the sun. The Ferris wheel pops up again, behind me. I adjust my course, follow the alleys this way and that way. The Ferris wheel disappears. When it reappears, it’s on the left, though it should be on the right.

Okay. I’m lost. I’ve been running in a circle.

And there isn’t a soul on the street I can ask. Forget the fucking Ferris wheel. I just want to get back to Mejiro-dōri.

At an intersection, a middle-aged woman comes out of an alley. I slow down to an unthreatening walk. I’m humongous compared to her. I stop at a polite distance, excuse myself in Japanese, and ask where Mejiro-dōri is. It comes out very smoothly, almost flawlessly. All she has to do is point in the right direction.

Panic fills her eyes. She makes a strange gurgle, raises her forearms into an X in front of her face, and skedaddles. That’s how advanced my Japanese communication skills are.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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