This article originally appeared in TCD Miscellany, September 2009, as part of the magazine’s “Diary of a Graduate” series.
Before describing the life lesson I recently learned after a run-in with a middle-aged Japanese housewife, it is perhaps necessary to explain how such an encounter came about. Last year, like most of my fellow soon-to-be-graduates, I was faced with the horrifying prospect of having to finally enter the real world after several years of arseing about in college. Again, like many of my peers, I chose to avoid this most undesirable fate and high-tail it out of the country. Since Japan is pretty much as far away on Earth as you can get from Ireland (and they give away free jet-packs upon arrival), it seemed like the ideal location for such a retreat from responsibility. At the moment, then, I am teaching English to high school students in Kitakyushu City on the west coast ofJapan. It certainly beats queuing for the dole in the rain.
So, there I was, on my first visit to Kitakyushu’s central district, having a bit of a read outside a coffee shop, when a pleasant, homely-looking Japanese lady approached my table and sat down. We exchanged friendly glances – all that my lamentably limited Japanese would allow – and I returned to my book. Taking out a packet of menthols, my new companion puffed away contentedly for a minute or two before she ventured to offer me a greeting in English.
“Ah, lovely,” I thought to myself, “this nice lady would like to try out some of her eigo on me” – and who was I to prevent her getting a bit of practice in? We exchanged (or, rather, attempted to exchange) the usual banter – what is your name, where are you from etc. – and I rolled her a cigarette (a source of much intrigue) in exchange for one of hers. All very pleasant. After about ten minutes, I decided that it was probably time for me to move on. Before I could say anything, though, my new friend asked me to wait and disappeared off inside. Not wanting to be rude, I sat there and after a few minutes she returned with a fresh cup of coffee. It was clear that our little natter was not over.
At home, striking up a conversation with a stranger in a café in the cold light of day is not something people do very often. I was somewhat taken aback, then, by this lady’s desire to speak to me at such great length, especially when our conversation was less than scintillating. I was even more surprised when she asked me to be her new English conversation teacher and inquired into whether I would be around the following weekend for our first lesson. My initial reaction was one of considerable discomfort and I agreed to meet her again partly so I could run away as soon as possible.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong about a stranger asking you to help them improve their language skills in a safe, easy-going manner. Undeniably, this lady didn’t fail to ask me some awkward questions – such as the predictable (in Japan, at least) “do you have a girlfriend?” and, when coupled with that, the slightly more unsettling “how old do you think I look?” However, there was nothing sinister (or, indeed, amorous) in her intent. She was merely attempting to communicate with me as much as her limited capacity would allow and within social parameters perfectly acceptable in her own culture.
Afterwards, I described the encounter to friends in a smug, detached sort of way. This crazy woman asked me to teach her English the other day. Oh my GAWD! During the week, I toyed with the idea of not turning up to our first language lesson. Thinking that a little rude, though, I arrived punctually, if a little reluctantly, at our rendezvous point the following weekend. After a lengthy wait, it became clear to me that either there had been a serious miscommunication or I had been ruthlessly stood up. Since we never exchanged contact details, I’ll never know, but I like to think that my would-be student just wanted to teach me a little lesson about cultural humility. That or she found another impressionable young man to abduct.