Thursday, September 02, 2004

Nervous in Nagahama

Tomorrow The Man and I are going to Nagahama. Family business. I don't really need to be there, but I decided that I might as well get one little trip in before the vacation ends and I'm back at work and can't go anywhere.

There's not a lot to see in Nagahama, despite the various attractions listed on its web site. It's historical, sure, but so is practically every place in Japan. Amagasaki is historical, for goodness' sakes. (Truly. Before we became the armpit of the universe we were famous for growing sweet potatoes, apparently.) Nagahama has an ancient (built in 1983) castle, and some very nice temples and shrines.

Anyway, I like Nagahama. It makes me nervous, but I like it.

One of the reasons I like it is that it is an old town, and although they've spruced it up for tourists it still has that inaka (small town, rural, old-country) feeling. Also, there are some interesting antique shops, which I intend to insist on visiting tomorrow while The Man protests loudly.

I will, however, get nervous when we visit his uncle's house. This is The Man's family's ancestral home. (His father was the oldest son, but an iconoclast, the black sheep of the family, and didn't take over the family business. It went to a younger brother instead.) I met Uncle, who is 80-ish but looks about fifty, for the first time shortly after I met The Man. This was before I knew about his sense of humour. Yes, I know it's silly, but I fell in love with a man who didn't, as far as I knew, have much of a sense of humour. This bothered me, too, enormously. I hadn't yet figured out that my judgement was not entirely deficient - The Man did in fact have a sense of humour but it was not quite getting through the language barrier. Also, he tended to be funny in ways I wasn't getting yet because he never explained. When I didn't get it (because I put it down to language problems) he just let it go, probably thinking that I didn't have a sense of humour. Boy, we were in for some surprises.

Anyway, the first time we met this uncle he was immensely curious about me but didn't speak a word of English and I had no Japanese yet. He is a very sweet man, very inaka (this word has multiple applications that do not translate well), and expected The Man to translate all his questions. When we got to the house, we were taken to the special room, the one with the tokonoma, and given tea and fruit and sweets, and we sat there for hours being polite as The Man's uncle asked me endless questions, expecting The Man to translate. Which he did, until he got tired of it, at which point he turned to me and said, after yet another question from Uncle,

"Wha blit bohtantka shimputma adahlti camalt und bullshit?"

Or something like that. (You don't expect me to actually remember a made-up language, do you?)

I stared at him.

"Just say something," he said, completely seriously and looking at me intently. "Anything will do."

I glanced at Uncle, who was watching our exchange with alert and friendly interest.

"But what did he say?" I asked.

"Never mind," said The Man. "I'm tired of translating, and it was nothing anyway. I'll make up an answer."

"That's not fair" I said. "I don't think I can do this. You'll have to tell me."

"Gumtok is prossing," he said, and turned to Uncle. He explained my 'answer' at great length. Uncle nodded seriously and responded with another question. The Man turned back to me.

"Umgh gotocho shimanting dis naked waffles?" he asked.

"Will you stop doing that?" I said, smiling for Uncle's benefit and trying not to spit green tea out my nose. Uncle was watching me closely. "What did he say?"

"Combluckted bunfunk!" said The Man.

"Just stop it, OK?" I said.

The Man turned back to Uncle and 'translated'. Another question followed.

"Depristed unk crumpet?"

"You horrible little yellow Nip," I said smilingly, and watched The Man's face twitch as he almost lost it. "Tell me what he said, dammit!"

And so on.

This went on for what felt like forever, with it getting harder and harder for me to keep a straight face. When we finally left I felt like I was holding an unexploded bomb, and as soon as we were out of earshot I erupted.

"What was that naked waffles bullshit?" I demanded. "Why didn't you translate?"

"Well, you have to admit it was funny," said The Man, dodging nimbly. "You should have seen your face when I did it the first time!" He hooted, remembering.

"I was trying to make a good impression!" I said, somewhat alarmed. "Did it show that much?"

"Only to me," he said, and laughed harder.

Then he added, more seriously, "It's tiring, translating, and the questions were all rubbish anyway. 'Do you have four seasons in New Zealand? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like Japanese food?' You know, the usual thing. If it was something important I would have told you."

I had to laugh, but I was still mad. Even when he told me how impressed he was by how I managed to keep my face straight and look as though I was answering the questions I didn't quite forgive him.

Well, would you? There I was, trying so hard to make a good impression at my first meeting with his family (aside from Okaasan), and he sabotaged me with mad gibberish. And he chose the worst moment - while dear old Uncle, consumed with curiosity about this weird new foreign girlfriend of the eldest son of the eldest son, was watching me like a hawk. It was a mean trick. Funny, but mean.

At least I got him with the horrible little yellow Nip answer. I never told him how impressed I was by how he kept his cool over that.

I'm not going to, either.


tinyhands said...

Excellent story, not unlike my meeting my ex-wife's extended family for the first time. However, instead of translation, I was entirely left out of the conversation about me and relegated to just smiling politely every time a wild gesture in my general direction was made. In fact, it became quite the joke for me to just laugh when everyone else was laughing about something said in whatever gypsy-gibberish they claimed to have been speaking.

Satori Sam said...

Kafa leemish whantez be himlest?

Badaunt said...

To FT: Don't you just hate that? (Especially when they all suddenly look at you and laugh heartily.)

Which impossible language were they using to slander you with?

To SatoriSam: Bonkfluffle!

tinyhands said...

They actually have a great American success story. On their honeymoon, they fled Czechoslovakia (from what is now Slovakia) in 1968 with the Soviets closing in on them. They both actually had good jobs, which is how they were able to get a visa to Austria - no job meant they would be unlikely to return. They landed in New Jersey not speaking a word of English. He had an engineering degree and started out sweeping floors. She had a high-school education and, among other things, worked in a saccharine factory and usually came home with a crystal-candy shell. Cut to 30 years later, two very successful, college-educated daughters, a home they own outright, several cars, and now a grandson. Admirable, from where I sit, but they tortured me (with love) in Slovak.

Badaunt said...

I love that sort of story.

The mother of a guy I used to know left Latvia when she was 14 or 15. Her parents sent her - alone - across the world to Indonesia to stay with an uncle she'd never met, who worked for an oil company. They thought they'd follow later, but left it too late and she never saw them again.

Her parents had been landowners, demoted to peasants, and saw another purge coming so sent her away. They had educated her secretly. She told me she had only ever seen one or two cars before she left Latvia.

She eventually became a nurse, worked for the oil company for a few years in various places around the world and picking up languages like crazy, married a Scotsman, and lived in several other parts of the world with him. They eventually settled in NZ when she had a baby, but her husband died shortly after that and she brought up their son alone. She worked to support them, carried on with her education and eventually became a university professor.

Amazing woman. She was the kind of person who made you wonder whether casting kids out on their own when they hit puberty might be a good thing.