All day long I hear people speaking a language that isn’t my own. I know I should be picking more of it up, like my peers I should be attending classes and using books and podcasts to brush up on my knowledge. I have been here for six months and am yet to get beyond the ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ stage. It is typical English laziness to expect people to speak your language wherever you go. Not to mention a real shame to be missing out on all the possible interactions. Yet, I confess to sometimes liking the lack of having a clue. Enjoying the floating along in a river of sounds that I can neither decipher nor respond to, so do not have to tune into. I can bathe in them, lost in my own thoughts, without risk of overhearing something that might jolt me out of the reverie.
So I was walking out of the toilets in the shopping centre, heading back to work and musing on something and nothing, when a tiny old lady grabbed my arm and said something in rapid Japanese that I didn’t catch a word of. She had intruded so completely into my daydream that I wondered how much shock was etched across my face. We were passing the outer room of the toilet, a place of brown tiles and endless mirrors reflecting back at themselves. Other women were walking through, washing their hands or touching up their make-up, while trying in a very Japanese way not to look at the possible scene that the old lady and I were about to create.
I took all this in within a second then glanced back at her. I almost had to bend double to get my face close to hers, she was so little. Her face was a web of lines, crinkling up from the eyes and curving all around her mouth. Looking at her I felt reassured in my determination to be not as afraid of the ravages of old age as the skin care adverts want me to be. It was clear the lines had been worn by the laughter of a lifetime’s good experiences rather than by its cares. It was a comforting thought, knowing that one day I will be the older lady in this scene, speaking to a younger girl who will maybe understand, maybe won’t. The young are always too self-absorbed to hear the wisdom of the old, even when there is the benefit of a shared language.
Perhaps that is as it should be.
She clutched my arm again, with a firm but warm grip. Her eyes as they met mine gleamed and sparkled so much that it almost made the years melt away so that I could see the cheeky young girl she must have been once, back when the Showa Emperor was young. Japanese people’s ages are impossible to guess with any accuracy, I am always at least 10 or 20 years out when I try. So when I say that she looked like she could be anywhere between 80 and 90, you know that she was of a good age. As her hand touched me I got a sense of all the years and events that had passed between her time and mine. Then it dawned on me.
Given that her head was about level with my waist, the only thing she could have been saying was something along the lines of ‘look at how tall you are and how little I am, what on earth have they been feeding you in your country to let you grow so big!’ She grinned and I smiled down at her from my great – if only for Japan – height, before we nodded and went our separate ways.