Japanese Interlude

Two nights ago on the long subway ride home there was an interesting sight: a man reading a small book with old, faded pages, brown and soft and musty like vellum—in a land where only new things are good—with text that had been printed vertically. Out of the corner of my eye (the most important weapon on a subway) I glanced ever harder, and discovered Chinese hieroglyphics dripping with the signature curving squiggles of Japanese kana.

This was a rare and interesting thing; he was some kind of businessman, but he dressed himself in silver-gray slacks and shirt, almost like a futuristic Buddhist monk. There was obviously something curious and different about him. He must be a foreigner, a novelty, a man from Japan; here was one of the few people who take advantage of the occasional announcements in Japanese on the Busan metro.

He was also somewhat unique in that he was not mortally frightened of sitting next to me as most people are, which is understandable because physically I am very intimidating, standing at five foot ten and one hundred sixty pounds, with a scraggly beard, big, loathsome eyebrows, and pasty, fleshy white arms.

But the effect was ruined when he answered his phone: the same rough, gruff, and rather unattractive Korean growlings, and not a hint of the refinement of Japanese. Perhaps he spoke both languages. Perhaps he was a racial interloper! And perhaps I should have just asked him. But my curiosity is never overwhelming enough to commit such a radical faux pas. Instead I got off the subway, my myriad juvenile questions unanswered, and never saw him again.

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