The book advises: “Japanese people tend to avoid saying things directly… When declining a proposal, for example, Japanese people might say, ‘I’ll think about it.’ ”
The books, if nothing else, are pretty direct about the importance of indirectness.
Also, for the last few weeks, they’ve been sitting in dusty piles on my floor.
So anyway, after taking a lap around the store, I spotted a fine bookshelf. I stared at it, kind of in that “Antiques Roadshow” sort of way, as if to appraise its craftsmanship and storage capacity. Really, I was just trying to remember a few Japanese vocab words, so I could ask an employee for help.
Too soon, as my brain sputtered, a smiling female employee came by — and just to be clear, this is not the girl I am now writing about. In fact, our conversation went badly, and it really wasn’t a conversation at all; just some stammering on my end, which had the effect of a buckshot, sending her off into the deep recesses of the furniture store, scampering to retrieve a fellow employee who could speak English.
And it was moments later that I caught sight of this English-speaking employee, selected to lend some help with the bookshelf. In reality this was the moment when my preoccupation with the bookshelf hit its terminal point.
I don’t want to say too much, because the adjectives will just run together — plus, even now I’m struggling to remember things too precisely. I just remember a little dimple on her chin. An inviting smile. A certain body language that suggested confidence, self-assuredness. She was just beautiful. I remember feeling, at least for a second, almost weightless. I see many beautiful women, of course, but something here had an almost chemical effect on my mood, my feelings about the future and the afterlife and the life after that. All the world’s riddles had just been solved. And yes, I bought the bookshelf.
Of course, the story does not end here — and though indeed I walked out of the furniture store without even the slightest effort to ask her out or propose marriage, this was not some instance where Anxiety conquered Courage. I just needed some time to figure things out. To plan something appropriate — even by the guidelines of a culture I’m still learning. I’d read that, because Japanese language works on various levels of formality — salespeople talk to customers as if to revere them — it’s almost impossible for a customer and a salesperson to broach that gap. In other words: It’s pretty darn impossible for a guy to walk into a store, meet a woman who works there, and talk to her as an equal.
But then I pondered it some more — the mechanics of how my bookshelf purchase might someday be the story I could tell our six cute children. She had given me her name, Ayako. And we’d talked briefly about things other than furniture. (Where I was living. How long I’d been in Japan. Etc.) Plus, and maybe most important, we had been speaking English. I suppose each language offers its own conversational entrance signs and passageways — cues for what’s acceptable and what is not. Japan works with subtleties and innuendo, messages delivered at 45-degree angles, like the tacking of a sailboat. English works more like a speedboat — straight at the point. So what the hell. I took out my Johnson 45. I decided, irreversibly, to return to the store the next afternoon and ask her out.
In some ways, living as a foreigner in East Asia (that is, when traveling outside Japan) invites directness. I’ve found that people in Vietnam and South Korea, for instance, will often talk about my physical traits as if examining a cantaloupe. Sometimes it’s flattering. A teenager in South Korea once told me, “I admire your nose.” (Huhh!?) A woman, days later, unsolicited, told me I was handsome. But I’ve also been told that I wear my socks like a teenager (Why? Don’t know) and that I’m small for a Westerner. (Well, that I knew.) I’m often asked — even during interviews — if I’m 1.) married or 2.) looking for a South Korean wife. Often, after I answer “No” and “Umm, well, I don’t know,” some sort of match-making ensues.
On the day of the big return trip to Francfranc, I had some business to first take care of — a lunch interview/meeting, and some reporting with Tokyo assistant Akiko Yamamoto. I told Akiko (or Ako, as she prefers) about my plan — the plan to walk in there, keep it simple, but make it clear what I wanted.
“To me,” I said, “that feels very natural. I just don’t want to embarrass her.”
“Well,” Ako said, “it definitely will shock her. You know, not many Japanese would do something like that. But I think she’d be flattered. I think you can get away with it.”
So off I went. Back into the store. Up the escalator to the third floor. Over to the area where she works. I spun through a few reminders: Take a deep breath. Smile. Enjoy it. And truth is, I felt good. Nervous, but not in a way that made this hard.
I spotted her at the same time she spotted me, and there was immediate recognition — a good sign. I told her, “I know I was in the store yesterday to buy a bookshelf. But I didn’t come here today to buy anything.”
Some sort of trace recognition spread across her face.
And I continued, “I really really don’t want to embarrass you. So I’m really sorry about this. But I just moved to Tokyo two months ago. And I think you’re absolutely beautiful. And I was wondering if sometime in the next few days when you finish work if we could meet up for some drinks or dinner.”
Now, time for a tangent — ahh yes, top of the rollercoaster. In Asia, I have a weakness. I’m more or less unable to measure somebody’s age. Girls/women between, say, 18 and 30 look the same to me. That is to say: Everybody looks young. Somehow I’ve heard it’s true in reverse as well: Westerners look young to Asians, but that leaves me suspicious. Suffice to say, I thought Ayako, if anything, was too young — maybe even a student.
Well, she wasn’t too young.
Here’s what she told me:
“I don’t quite know how to say this,” she said. “But I’m… um… married.”
“Ahhhh,” I said. “Oh my goodness. I am so sorry. I am really really sorry.”
And she told me not to worry. She really was flattered. We talked for another one or two minutes, just so the conversation didn’t end with a cold smackdown — but I gotta admit, I walked away a little shellshocked. I might have even muttered something out loud. Only in retrospect did I realize how my mind had run wild, building an imaginary future with Ayako at its center, and I realized this when I returned that night to my apartment. My fridge was empty. I hadn’t bought groceries, assuming I’d have a dinner date with Ayako.
And so it was. I settled back into the regularly scheduled embarrassment of everyday life. Ako, our Tokyo assistant, had been curious to hear the resolution, so I e-mailed her with the news of rejection — though heck, it did come directly. I added that at least I found my bookshelf, which I would have bought even without the influence of an adorable girl.
“Oh, I am sure you would have bought it, no doubt :) :) :),” Ako wrote in reply.