By Heather Mallett
We’re late, as usual, though my husband never admits to that.
“When we get to the shop, you wait outside for Mr Oji, and I’ll run ahead to pick up the things, before coming back to get you both,” he says. “I don’t want to keep Mr Oji waiting.”
Problem 1: I have met Mr Oji only once before. I don’t remember what he looks like. “He’s sixtyish, short and slight, with thinning hair. He smiles a lot. He wears glasses.”
Problem 2: The front of the shop is choked with people, a meeting place for half of Sannomiya, adjacent as it is to many popular restaurants and above the subway entrance. “Heather, for god’s sake! You’re conspicuously foreign. He’ll find you.”
Problem 3: My Japanese language skills are very poor even after six months of lessons. “Mr Oji. Mr Oji.” What do I remember from Japanese class about “oji”? I am snagged on a branch of forgetfulness, a frequent occurrence in the woods of new learning. And, I am a chronic misuser of honorifics. Sometimes I leave them out entirely, thereby insulting people. What comes after the name? Is it “sensei”, “san”, “sama”, or “chan”? I decide on “san”, “sama” being too formal for someone I have met once, and “chan” being too familiar and too young. “Sensei” is the doctor/professor/mentor honorific, I remember. Then there is something about low intonation at the beginning and high in the middle. No — the other way around.
I wait, looking appropriately expectant. I rotate my thoughts to “Japanese Language”. Snap them into place. Twist. Click! Greeting first, using the appropriate honorific and a bow. Ask about health. After that, ask about the health of the family. Then it is usual to say the weather is too hot or too cold — the Japanese believe it is either extreme — so some mild complaint about the weather should come next. After that my conversational Japanese will be exhausted, and I will pray my husband is back. After that, I will feel daft grasping for vocabulary that is hovering on the edge of my memory, fashioning conversation from single words.
At 15 minutes after the appointed time, I begin to approach men who might be Mr Oji. They are hanging around at the meeting place in front of the shop, so they must be looking for someone. In a squeaky voice, entirely beginner Japanese, I inquire, “Ojiisan desu ka?” “Are you Mr Oji?” The first man looks me up and down and doesn’t reply. He turns away.
Perhaps that was unintelligible. The pronunciation wrong. I try another sixtyish man, “Shitsure shimasu ga, Ojisan desu ka?” “Excuse me but are you Mr Oji?” Where is my husband? He should be helping. Another stare.
On the fifth or sixth try “Ojiisan desu ka?”, I receive an affirmative response. Great! I sit down beside the man I have been waiting to meet. He looks just as my husband said. No wonder I didn’t see him earlier though: he is is occupying a wooden bench outside the shop. My Japanese lessons and practice have got me this far, but Mr Oji is not very welcoming. He doesn’t shuffle over to make room so I squeeze between him and the adjacent flower baskets. I must show my enthusiasm for my new life in this new environment by meeting him on his own terms. I begin my rehearsed Japanese conversation.
“Long time, no see … Are you well? Is your family well? Kyo wa atsui desu, ne?” I am wiping my brow to demonstrate how hot it is. Mr Oji answers in a series of grunts, a rather reluctant Mr Oji, but then I have met him only once. Mr Oji looks at me oddly. Mr Oji seems rather distant, not really interested in my questions and, despite my husband’s assurances, Mr Oji doesn’t speak any English. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to recognise me. I stand. I walk away. I hang about for my Mr Oji to materialise. When he doesn’t appear after 45 minutes, and my husband doesn’t return either, I go home alone.
The dictionary in the cupboard is the one my husband bought me when I arrived in Kobe, Japan. A good publisher. I scan the entries.
“ojisan” (Noun. Pronounced with a short vowel.) “Uncle.”
“ojisan” (Noun. Pronounced with a short vowel. Damn, a homonym.) “Old man.”
“ojiisan” (Noun. Pronounced with a long vowel. Oh no!) “Grandfather.”
I sit contemplating the various pronunciations realising — what? I had been asking old men about their old manly status: uncle, grandfather or just plain old!
When my husband arrives home, I query why he didn’t backtrack to meet me. “Oh, I met Mr Oji just after I left you. We had a lovely chat.”