By Heather Mallett
It was a cool look. Not the “cool look” I teach my students, a “hip clothes choice”. This was another kind of look, a glance that turned into more careful scrutiny as I walked downhill toward her, and she walked up. A cool look on a warm day. I was an obvious outsider, dressed differently from the others going to work. As we neared each other she began to focus more closely on me, rattling to the station with my portable teachers’ office of a wheelie bag in tow.
My thoughts were rambling. What might I recognize in the supermarket that I could cook for dinner? What was that verb I had just been taught at my Japanese lesson, then promptly forgotten? What was the approaching woman now grinning about? How desperately alone I felt in my new life after five months in Kobe. My sense of otherness was strong that morning.
We reached speaking distance. She pointed cheerfully to something behind me, over my right shoulder, as if I would be delighted to see it if I would only turn to look. Apart from our differences of nationality, we might have had things in common: we were about the same age, old enough to have forgotten much of our formal education, to have grown families and regrettably busy existences. We were likely both at a time in our lives when we counted the things we still didn’t know.
I did turn, just briefly. At that moment, haltingly, she said in English, “This is a house.” Well of course. We both recognized it instantly. It wasn’t a pen or a bag or a key. Straightforward textbook English. A house. Foursquare. We smiled at our common understanding: a point of connection between two strangers. She smiled because she had got it right, perhaps practiced it under her breath as she walked uphill. I smiled because I understood her caution: she had gauged her audience and decided to take the risk. She had said that strange vocabulary out loud. I understood because I rehearse Japanese obsessively in my head before posting a letter, before entering the bank, before buying vegetables. Sometimes I rehearse Japanese in front of my students to demonstrate my solidarity with them in language learning. Always the anxiety of using the wrong word, of stringing the vocabulary back-to-front.
“Hai, so desu,” (Yes, it is.) I said as I paused momentarily to smile again, wondering if I should engage her in my shockingly bad Japanese. Then I kept walking. I recollected the fingers reaching in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. On an ordinary Kobe morning, there was an electric moment. I was no longer alone.