The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop
March 21st, 2017JapanTravel Writing Award
The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop
June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.
I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.
With Kenji I am a different person.
“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”
Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.
The businessmen look on curiously.
“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.
Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”
“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”
“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”
But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.
The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.
“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”
I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.
“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”
I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.
But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.
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Joshua teaches abroad and writes when he can. In the interim, he seeks out new adventures. He is currently riding a motorcycle through the Himalayas, starting from eastern Bhutan and ending in Indian Kashmir. You can read his stories from that adventure and others at jcook-onthemove.blogspot.com.