This morning I flew into Tokyo. Okay, it was afternoon by Tokyo standards, and night by my home standards, but I slept on the plane so it was morning. Or something.
I know just enough Japanese to make it seem like I know more. I can’t understand much of the airplane announcements, but I know enough of routine airplane announcements to fill in the gaps. I cannot have a conversation about the specifics of a hobby, but I can exchange a rail pass and get directions and be generally civil.
I caught the Narita Express out of the airport — let me say again how much I like trains as a form of transportation nearly anywhere but man Japan does them well — and everything was great until I changed lines at Shinagawa Station.
Let me say that I had no problems with the change. I knew exactly where I was going and had excellent directions. While I’m bad at most kanji, the Yamanote line is the one with the distinctive yama 山 up front, and it’s also the green line, and green signs with 山 first are easy to follow. Also it’s Tokyo, and there’s a lot of English subtitles. The whole system is built for ease and efficiency, and it’s an order of magnitude easier to navigate Tokyo’s train system than the public transit of many cities where I am fluent in the signage language (I’m looking at you, Boston). I made it to my new platform without hesitation or error.
But as I lined up with my suitcases for the next train, a man spoke to me.
This shouldn’t have been a problem. There were a limited number of topics to come up on a train platform and he was probably asking if I needed help with my suitcases or something. But he was extremely soft-spoken, we were in a busy Tokyo train station under regular announcements, and most devastating, he was wearing a mask. (It’s very common for Japanese to wear surgical masks at times, to keep out pollen allergens or to avoid spreading airborne illness.)
With it being so hard to hear and no visual clues, I was at a complete loss. I asked him to repeat himself, and it didn’t help. We went back and forth, and I tried to say that I couldn’t hear him, and I gestured for him to remove the mask, but of course like the considerate gentleman he was he would not remove the mask he was using to keep his cold to himself. I managed to pick out a few key words among all that I was missing.
“Country? Yes, I’m American. Shibuya? No, [another station].”
Then he said something else, and the only word I got was “come.” But that didn’t make sense, so I must have misunderstood. The train arrived and we boarded.
Nope, the nice man had meant that he was coming with me to help what he assumed was the clueless lost American, as I learned when he tapped me on the shoulder to indicate that my station was next. Our station.
He showed me to the elevator, helped me with a suitcase, and then stopped with me at the ground floor. “Where do you want to go?”
And that led to several minutes of the most painful courtesy I have ever experienced, as I tried to explain that I was meeting a friend who was looking for me, but I couldn’t explain exactly where, while he tried patiently and kindly to suggest options to help me, none of which I could make out, and I told him he didn’t have to wait, but he only smiled (his eyes crinkled) and kept on trying to help me. Meanwhile I couldn’t find it in me to just walk away from this genuine assistance, trying to be as courteous to him as he was to me.
We were caught in a vicious downward spiral of niceness, and there was no hope of salvation for either of us.
Under this stress of this continuous onslaught of kind helpfulness, my Japanese began to break down, and the words started coming to me in Spanish. Thanks, brain, you’re a real pal. He only smiled again, a little less crinkly, and suggested, “Nihongo de.” Japanese, lady.
Finally my treacherous brain was able to remember that my greeter was near the ticket office, and so I asked where that was, and we went that way. As I exited the trains area, he disappeared back into the crowd, to catch his own train to go on with his day he’d interrupted to take care of a lost American. Who wasn’t actually lost, but had indeed proven unable to understand (inaudible invisible) Japanese.
Arigato gozaimasu, unknown Japanese gentleman who took time to help someone he was sure was in need. You gave me a wonderful, if stressful, welcome and I really do appreciate your kind intent.