Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I developed a keen affection for impersonations, an avocation that kept me in front of the television during commercial breaks awaiting a particular 15-second Skin Bracer spot featuring Jack Palance. “I don’t need some fancy cologne to tell me I’m a man,” I’d say, same as Jack Palance said, and I’d say it again and again, practicing the septuagenarian growl, that perfect mix of refinement and menace. And once I’d gotten it just right, I recited this monologue to pretty much anyone who’d listen, and indeed many who didn’t. I mimicked the commercial to my elementary school teachers and my friends. I trotted it out once or twice at my parents’ house parties. I remember once reciting the commercial on a Little League diamond, after a pitching change; it was issued as advice to a relief pitcher, fresh into the game: “Confidence is very sexy. Don’t you think?”

In retrospect, Pittsburgh, my hometown, proved the perfect incubator for my hobby, this joy for talking the way others talk. Pittsburghers have their own set of mannerisms and their own provincial vocabulary, which includes some words that are entirely made up. “Yinz,” for instance, is a Pittsburgh word. It’s the plural version of “you.” My grandmother once heard two Pittsburghers discussing “yinz” — the etymology n’at — and one companion told her friend that “yinz” was in fact incorrect, by the dictionary definition. Proper English required one to say “yous.”

At 13 and 14, I spent so much time honing the Pittsburgh dialect — the wholesalers and auto mechanics are its true curators — that “yinz” actually (briefly) slipped full-time into my vocabulary, its use no longer ironic. I went out of state to summer camp one year and people thought I was crazy. On the flip side, I was perfect for wicked smart-assery during the 11 p.m. news, where just about every house fire prompted a three-news truck race to the scene, invariably ending with an interview on the neighbor’s front porch, where the neighbor would dutifully testify to the home owner’s character, and oh yeah he’s a huge Stillers fan n’ at. Just as a general rule, Pittsburghers standing on their front porches don’t see much utility in the plural use of “you.”

Pittsburgh’s most famous voice belonged, of course, to a football broadcaster, Myron Cope, who sounded a little like an audio recorder on fast-forward. It was almost a civic responsibility to imitate him, not than many could. (I could never do it quite right.) It’s strange, I know, to retrace one’s life by following the thread of mimicked mannerisms, but this is what happens to a middle schooler who imitated Larry Beil (obscure SportsCenter anchor) during intramural basketball games. In college I watched HBO’s “Real Sports” not so much for the journalism but for the hyper-taut hilarity of its host. (I can still do a spot-on Bryant Gumbel.) A few years later I moved to Australia, and though I didn’t quite go there because of the great accents, I left eight months later with profound regret about not having one to borrow for myself. And not for lacking of trying.

I should mention, before going too far, that a lot has happened since the previous blog entry. (In related news, a lot of time has passed.) I spent about a week in Indonesia in early November. I spent a few days in Okinawa after that. Then I went home for an awesome two-week holiday, originally timed for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately it was also timed perfectly for Kim Jong Il’s carpet bombing of a South Korean island, meaning I was 14 time zones away from a huge story I should have been — and wanted to be — covering. For a brief time I thought my editors would send me straight from Pittsburgh to Seoul, and indeed I talked about it with my main supervisor, Holly. But in the end Holly instructed me to just enjoy the vacation and forget about the news, which cleared about half of my guilt and gave me the chance to take a five-day trip-within-a-trip to Montana, which might be as far away from Tokyo as you can get, especially judged by the density of yous.

But now I’m back. And I sort of started thinking about speech patterns and mannerisms more intently a few days days ago, when walking back to my apartment in Tokyo. And OK, full disclosure: I wasn’t just walking. I was talking to myself. I was repeating a sentence fragment, the Japanese equivalent of “Um… recently I.” On and on I went — あの... 最近 は (Ano… saikin wa) — practicing without shame, trying to copy a particularly terrific habit shared among expressive Japanese men, who often begin sentences with all the eye-twinkling glory of a magician whisking away the cover from a rabbit cage. These Japanese men start their sentences with a long, pensive Annoooouuu, letting the vowel warble just so, and then — clash! No warning, there’s this spectacular crescendo; the voice jumps a full octave, and maybe their folded hands separate and rise like the sun itself, and clearly one of the top 20 ideas in human history has just been hatched.

Right now I’m lucky. If you’re somebody who enjoys mannerisms, Japan is your Louvre. Not sayin’ my cologne doesn’t stink, but at this point I’ve traveled a fair part of the world, and I’ve never been to a country with such a hilarious, preposterous set of idiosyncrasies. The body language here matches none other on the planet. It’s almost like there’s a certain element of Japanese-ness that reaches into the musculature: There’s a straightness in the back; there’s a rigidity around the neck and the shoulders; there’s a perpetual stiff bend in the knees, as if every citizen has been positioned on the hot corner, awaiting a ground ball.

Some Japanese habits I find absolutely delightful, and like particular bird species, they can only be found here. Almost all Japanese women, for instance, have this particular restrained set of hand gestures, as if they’ve been told to keep their hands within a space no larger than a shoebox. When I sit in coffee shops and do my writing, I get a small sense of giddiness, watching these amiable women and their conversations. Oh, those refined, obedient hand motions! They can be seen everywhere — at this very moment in three conversations to my right, in two to my left, with women sorting things into imaginary piles; tracing the unseen perimeters of round and warm objects; inscribing little curlicues on the underside of their palms. And of course there’s lots and lots and lots of vigorous head-nodding.

Here’s another one: When I go on morning runs, I tend to pass a surprising number of police officers, all helmeted and uniformed in blue, decked out in yellow vests, frozen in perfect posture like Lego characters writ large. Anyway, it’s a great thrill to pass by these officers. That’s because almost every one of them responds to the sight of a runner in identical fashion: He raises his left arm, extending it to the road ahead, as if to say, “Good morning sir. I strongly approve of your aerobic workout. And I will approve even more so if you continue along this advisable route.”

For the most part, what I describe here is my idle, ugly brainvoice — a projection of my biases, proof of my inability to see a new society in all of its shades. I offer only one defense, then, for why I fixate on these societal quirks. For a foreigner, imitation is a survival skill. It is a means to adapt. It is the only reasonable option, here in this strange place where you’re suddenly self-aware of all the minute things you do that make you strange. And clearly I still have some work to do.

Late last week, I attended a business meeting. It took place at, let’s say, a Big Japanese Office Building (BJOB). I guess you could call it an interview appointment, excusing the facts that 1.) I had not requested an interview, and 2.) The company had invited me, and 3.) It was altogether unclear, even once I was seated at a massive conference table with many BJOB employees, that I was supposed to ask questions of some sort. And here I thought we’d just grab lunch.

Oh goodness. I was lost. There were seven men in the room, all experts in the same code of quirks, and they were handing business cards, rising and bowing, rising and bowing, arranging business cards on the table space in front of them, dispensing a flurry of documents and pamphlets and spreadsheets, requesting tea, pointing out the significance of the chart on Page 14, expressing their great pleasure about the outcome of the recent study — and here I’d already lost track of the men and their names because my business card lineup had just been blown into disarray, dealt a fatal strike by a wind gust from Pages 1-13. For a moment — with all the charts and cards and graphics in front of me — my personal space resembled the cockpit of a 767. I started sweating. I didn’t quite know what to say. I stammered and eeked out a few feeble questions. I wanted to kick myself, because shotgun meetings like this are sort of Japan 101 — and I should have been better equipped. But sometimes, even now, Japan moves about two times faster than I can handle, and I am left saying あの (Um…) with no idea of what to say next.

No comments:

Post a Comment