It’s been over four months since I quit my job, and a few people have asked for updates on my book-writing endeavor. Here’s an update: writing a book is really hard and time-consuming. But I swear I’m still doing it. I will not have a first draft complete before needing to find a day job.
Anyway, a few people have even asked to see drafts of what I’ve been working on, so I thought I’d go ahead and share a passage. What follows is a little rough, and also removed from its greater context so you may find it a bit hard to…oh, never mind, I’m sure you all know how an excerpt works. Here goes muffin.
The instant you set foot outside the numbed atmosphere of the airplane chrysalis, you will be swept away in a current of people eager to finalize their arrivals and settle into their destinations with their clothes and toothbrushes and, if returning from someplace, souvenirs.
I was not propelled by such immediate eagerness; my anticipation had been tempered by the knowledge that Nagoya and my grand return to the Rosetta Stone were still a day away. And yet, I’d already made it. In the eight-month malaise of post-college life, Japan had become a fictional setting—a backdrop to ancient romance and adventure. I’d longed for it to be real again, physical, alive with new potential instead of fossilized in time. And now I had my wish. I could feel it against my soles. I could breathe it into my lungs.
It’s silly to think about. There was nothing more fulfilling or distinctly “Japanese” about the space I occupied there in the immigration line than there had been in the airplane (to be sure, the stern bureaucracy of the immigration checkpoint suits Japan very well, but is obviously not unique to Japan). Still, my gratification was palpable. I once again occupied the thing called “Japan,” and the sheer applicability of that word mattered more than what I was experiencing in the moment. This is the funny thing about words. They preserve statuses to which reality is indifferent.
I grinned my way through immigration, looked the immigration officer dead in the eye and addressed him in overachieving Japanese, and he returned eye contact knowingly as though some important secret had been successfully conveyed. He waved me through to customs, where I retrieved my rolling suitcase and got in line.
I recalled the first Japanese lesson I ever had, a written dialogue in a textbook depicting a fictitious American man, “Michael Webb,” going through Japanese customs. The customs agent went through a number of his packed belongings, asking what each thing was. Michael Webb obediently identified each item, thereby teaching the reader a small set of basic vocabulary, as well as introducing the concept of desu, the verb to be. The dialogue took a dramatic twist when the agent’s attention fell upon an unlikely item: a giant, glazed ham hock.
“That right there. What is that?”
“That? Um, it’s a ham.”
“Hamu desu ka? Hamu wa dame desu.” A ham? Ham is not allowed.
An effective primer in the most elementary of Japanese grammatical structures? Certainly. But also a stern warning of the humorless Japanese customs process. And thanks to it, I was ready. Life had come full circle. I would triumph where Michael Webb had floundered.
“Your Japanese is very good,” the agent said after we’d gone through the first few scripted questions. The compliment was well appreciated. In the restless months after college, my speaking had grown rusty. In the fall, a friend from the Rosetta Stone was in Texas visiting a mutual friend from the Nanzan days. He used the opportunity to phone me and say hello, and I could barely string together a sentence. Finally, in exasperation he passed the phone back to our friend without so much as a goodbye. Language atrophy can occur massively in just a short time if you get it in your head that it’s begun, like a Looney Toon who’s just noticed he’s walked off a cliff. To speak a second language, especially one you learned after childhood, especially one as different from your first language as Japanese is from English, requires some fairly extensive mental rewiring. But once you have the raw knowledge in your head—the vocab, the grammar, the ers and ums that help build the natural cadence—maintaining fluency is just a matter of keeping that mental conduit clear. Lack of practice creates rust, but self-doubt is like corrosive acid. Get it in your head that you can’t, and you can’t. It’s really no different than those phantom heart attacks—a false ailment, made real by your mind. Over the course of my eight-month slump, I’d devolved from a confident, capital-lettered Japanese Speaker whose thing was Speaking Japanese, to a catatonic ball of nerves, unsure if I ever wanted to go back or utter the words hamu desu again. But now that I’d taken the plunge, for fear of phantoms and phantom heart attacks, I was ready and eager to own it all again. Back on Japanese soil now, priority one was reestablishing that capital-lettered identity, and the Japanese spilled out of me more fluently than my fluentest day of life at Nanzan.
I squoze through the security checkpoint, the un-ham-cumbered master of my own destiny, and spilled out with a hundred other triumphant travelers before an audience of Osakan greeters, a crowd outnumbering us two-to-one, eagerly assembled to meet their guests or returning loved ones. I surveyed the sea of attentive faces, mostly black-topped but peppered here and there with an outrageous bouffant or tea-colored Bon Jovi perm. My cheeks involuntarily bloomed into a grin. This was a few years short of the emergence of the custom of declaring on social media, “I am in you” upon arriving at a new place, so instead I just whispered: “Tadaima.” Honey—I’m home.
I think the above equates roughly to a “chapter,” but I may end up making longer chapters with multiple scenes separated by ornate asterisk formations.
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