The other day I was on the Toyoko Line, headed home to Yokohama, enjoying the extra space I’m given often by my fainthearted fellow commuters. The car was full but the seat beside mine was empty. I noticed but on any given day the amount of attention I pay it varies from too much to as little as possible. This was one of those as little as possible days, for I had my iPad on my lap and was reading (and responding) to some of the comments I’d gotten on my ongoing series, Why Do Gaijin Clash…?
One comment in particular was from this guy hypothesizing that racism in Japan is mostly being perpetrated by extroverted members of the Master Race incapable of adjusting to and accepting life in an introverted country…yeah, fascinating stuff, right? Yeah, I was about to respond and tell the writer what I thought about his attempts at derailing the topic when I decided it could wait…
But, life, as it has a habit of doing, intervened.
I looked up to see that the train had pulled into Jiyugaoka station. The person sitting on the opposite side of the empty space beside me got up, collected himself and got off the train along with a good number of the other passengers. As the boarding passengers filed in, I told myself not to pay them any mind. I hate that spat on feeling I get when I see Japanese people, clearly eager to sit down, spot the empty seat near me, actually make an instinctual move toward it, then once their eyes scrape over me, abruptly alter their trajectory and scurry away. Almost as much as I hate the magnetism this behavior possesses, that of a 20 car pile up on the highway, with bloodied corpses hanging out of shattered windshields.
I closed my eyes, nodded my head downward towards my iPad, and re-opened them…only to read some sycophantic drivel about how I’m to blame for the behavior I was avoiding watching, with my loud, obnoxious, and extroverted nature in a country where the introverts have the power.
I took a deep breath, and before I could exhale, I noticed two tiny legs standing before me. I looked up to see a mother and daughter that had boarded the train. The mother pointed and aimed her daughter at the seat beside mine– frankly shocking the shit outta me. The youngster, all of 4 or 5, resisted, and cried, “Kowai!!” with eyes brimming with fear, grabbed and clung to her mother’s leg for dear life, eyes transfixed on me. This response, however, restored order to my world.
I looked up at the mother. She was genuinely dumbfounded by her daughter’s reaction, and would have died of an overdose if embarrassment was made of aspirin. But there was something else there in her eyes and expression. Something I couldn’t get a read on.
Generally when this kind of thing happens, if I’m acknowledged at all, the parent will adopt a mien that suggests she/he is thinking, “thank god he’s a foreigner and has no idea what my child said…” It’s almost cute, like this fear generated is some well kept secret, like the body language of the child doesn’t scream the meaning of the word.
At least I tell myself it’s almost cute.
I braced myself for the next move. How will Mama address this? Reinforce the fear? Ignore it, as if it’s to be expected and nothing can be done about it? These are the two most popular options, and I expected nothing less now. I tried to turn away, but the rubbernecker in me seized control of my neck, and commanded, “You extroverted minion of the master race, take it like a man!”
But, this woman did nothing of the sort.
Instead, she took the seat beside me and her daughter took the seat on the other side of her.
She glanced my way, smiled warmly, and said, “Sumimasen…” (Sorry about that…kids, whatchagonnado). I shook my head and waved it off, with a sympathetic and indulgent “iie” (Don’t sweat it, love. I work with kids every day and they say the damnedest things).
My mind couldn’t immediately wrap around what had just transpired.
Instead, I slid away from her as far as I could, which was about half an inch or so. I do this instinctively now, whenever people sit down beside me. I’ve found that this gesture tends to alleviate some of their discomfort (and there is almost always discomfort.) I’m not talking about physical discomfort. Generally there is sufficient space for a person to sit beside me without having to squeeze in. Besides I really don’t care about anyone’s physical comfort. It’s a crowded train. Nobody is supposed to be truly comfortable, and to expect to be comfortable, particularly here in Yokohama, would seem to me to be irrational. I’m talking about mental discomfort, evidenced by the persistent appearance of constant shifting, fidgeting, inching away, sometimes even scratching and an inability to remember what to do with their hands or to sit still and relax.
She must have noticed me sliding away, for she looked at me sideways, then down at the little sliver of seat that appeared between us as a result of my scooching, and kind of smile/bowed.
I just grinned.
I returned my attention to the foolishness on the iPad, the comment accusing me of being the problem…a most tiresome platitude, actually. I responded that his comment was boring, and moved on to to the next comment.
Every so often, I noticed peripherally, a tiny head poking out from the other side of mom. It was the little girl. Whenever I would turn my head her way she’d duck back behind her mother, in that peek-a-boo way children do. Her face was still sour, though, like she hadn’t made up her mind whether I was Kowai-worthy or not, and was wondering what the hell was her Mom thinking trying to seat her beside me.
Around the third or fourth time she peek-a-boo’d me, I waited with my face in her direction for her to re-emerge. When she did, I turned away. And waited for her to duck her head back behind her mother before I turned her way again and waited. When she re-emerged this time, before I turned away, I caught a glimpse of a smile on her face.
Then, I noticed we were pulling into my station, so I packed up my iPad and stood to disembark. As I made my way for the door, I turned one last time. The little girl was looking at me. Her fear was gone replaced by what could have been glee. She waved at me and said, “bye bye.”
I waved back, glancing at her mother.
This time I could read the expression on her face.
It was gratitude!
I knew exactly how she felt, for I felt the same.
PS: If you haven’t already, please check out my critically-acclaimed book, Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist, available here on Amazon. You’ll be glad you did! Ask any reader or peep the reviews on the Amazon page!