Jade’s Escape from Japan: Desk Partners/Neighbors
Every day I sat at my somewhat-cluttered work desk, I sat next to the gentlest gentlemen I had ever met. He always marched to his desk gripping a black briefcase. When he reached the desk, he’d say cheerfully as if the first greeting in the morning would chase away those dreadful Monday blues, “Good morning!” If he were late, marching into the teacher’s room with his briefcase and huff on his breath, he’d still get out a cheerful, “Good morning!” before tossing his stuff onto his desk and jogging to the meeting room. It didn’t take long for us to become good friends. He was curious about everything and everyone in the same way children asked, “Where do babies come from?” I wanted to laugh and answer as honestly as possible.
The one thing I loved about sitting next to this teacher was the way he spoke. He had a soft voice, and whenever I taught him a new English word, he would weigh the word with his tongue, sounding each syllable out and rolling it around in his mouth. By the time he committed the word to memory, I’d sense his pride in the new vocabulary, and I’d find myself wanting to teach him more words. In exchange, he taught me Japanese, correcting my clumsy sentences and checking my worksheets. He was usually the first person to tell me what was going on, even before my coordinators.
What surprised me the most about him was his devotion to his family. Before returning to teaching, he was essentially a house husband, making meals for his daughter and wife, cleaning the home, and taking care of his child. “I went to a cooking school to make better lunches,” he told me one day. “But I had to learn the cooking words first.” After this admission, I respected him more. As gentle as he seemed, this man did things with resolve, something that many young people didn’t do nowadays.
Soon, I brought my homemade lunches and bagels and healthy sweets with me for him to try. He told me honestly what he liked the most about each item and what I could do to make them better. None of his words discouraged me, only made me smile even if the criticism wasn’t positive. One day, I brought him an oatmeal muffin, and he shyly admitted, “I’ve never had oatmeal. Is it good?” I think my eyebrows lifted to the ceiling because he laughed. “Is that strange?”
“OK, wait right here.” I went to the fridge, put an oatmeal muffin on a paper plate, and warmed it up in the microwave. I watched him eat it slowly, eating in the same way he learned new English words. He took a small bite, chewed it carefully, and this time, his eyebrows went up.
“Mmm, it’s good!” And he went on to finish the rest of the oatmeal muffin with gusto. What I realized about him was that he lacked any concept of ill intentions. Most people I met, they had some desire to be cutthroat, to be uncaring, to be superior to someone else, but not this man. He simply accepted everyone and everything, and if he needed something to happen, he made sure to make it happen in the simplest way possible. He was a man of zero drama.
And when it was one of my last times to sit next to him, he looked at me and asked, “Did you eat lunch?” I told I hadn’t, and he invited me to lunch. I was ecstatic. In the last two weeks of leaving Japan, I had forgotten when to eat, abandoning food for drives to different towns and post offices to mail boxes. I think he saw my body shrink and my energy diminish under the weight of work, and as a good older brother or cousin or father would do, help me regain at least one meal of normality.
So we went to eat Chinese food at a small but clean restaurant near the school where customers took off their shoes next to tatami mats and traditional floor tables. I learned that being away from school and the prying eyes and ears of the staff and students let me and my companion be ourselves. After eating the lunch special, we started telling each other stories. “When I was leaving America,” I told him over a cup of coffee, “some guys told me they liked me. I thought, ‘Why are you telling me now?’ And that’s how I got closer to my husband. He said, ‘If you weren’t going to Japan, I’d ask you to be my girlfriend.’ I was really happy, but nothing was going to stop me from going to Japan. It was my dream, you know?”
Watching his black eyes light up behind his glasses always made me want to say everything I thought. It was one of the reasons why, despite being the gentlest person in my lifetime, he was also the most dangerous. I wanted to say everything I felt at the moment my husband confessed to me, how happy yet unsure I felt about actually leaving the States, how uncertain my future felt without an anchor holding my old habits together. I kept that part out, let my tongue say the tip of my mind, and told him a funny story about a guy who wanted a date to be a date. He, in turn, told me a similar story, his spanning from mainland Okinawa to his time in Miyako, a popular outer islander with an Okinawan dialect completely different from Okinawan dialect.
When we went back to the office, the shells of ourselves folded over us, and we returned to being working neighbors. While I remembered everyone in my English department as people filled with personality, I felt that my neighbor and I fit together as desk partners in our somewhat-cluttered work area.