As my third year in Japan draws to a close, and I pack things up for the semi-circumferential flight back to eastern Canada for the summer, I find myself hoping strongly that my economy-class seatmate is not a sumo wrestler, as was the case on my last flight. I am not making this up. He had the full-on samurai hairdo, and wore a purple silk jacket depicting a sumo ring on the back. He was so big that he had to lean forward the entire fourteen-hour flight because he literally could not fit between the shoulders of the people on either side. I would have felt badly for him, had I not been heavily concentrating on feeling sorry for myself. Fortunately, I had an aisle seat, but I had to do contortions every time the flight attendants came through with their carts. I was pretty seriously cranky by the end of the trip, and not looking forward to the two-hour standing-room-only train ride from Narita airport to my apartment in Saitama. Now, though, with the passage of time, I realize that it makes for a pretty good story. It would not have been nearly so compelling a tale had my companion been, say, a porky businessman or a chubby housewife. It took a sumo wrestler to make the story pop.
Similarly, I went to the bank the other day with my Japanese assistant and a shopkeeper friend, getting a largish amount of cash for an art purchase (no business is done in Japan by credit card, but that’s another story for another time). My assistant handed all the appropriate withdrawal paperwork along with the passbook to the teller, then called my friend and me (in English) to the wicket when the money had been brought up from the safe. The teller was momentarily taken aback at the sight of two scruffy-blue-jean-and-t-shirt clad kinda big guys about to take charge of the recently dispensed funds. When she realized that we were all friends, she heaved a sigh of relief so palpable that we all laughed aloud, the teller included. Later, I was recounting the story to another friend, and he made the observation that it would have been even funnier had we been wearing the ubiquitous Japanese surgical masks that were so prominently on display during the recent swine flu scare. Imagine how the scene would have played out if two masked men had descended upon the hapless teller! I thought about it for a moment, grinned, and said “Wow… that’s great; that’s really really funny. I imagine as the story matures, that detail will likely get added in the retelling.” So don’t be surprised if, next time you hear the story (and as all my friends will tell you, you’ll never hear my stories just once), it has been tweaked ever so slightly. And that, after all, is what fiction writing is all about: you take a scenario from your life, or that of an acquaintance, or a story you read in the newspaper, and spin a what-if tale around the event.
For a writer, a major plus of living in a foreign country is that everything is potentially a story, because so many things are so different from what you think you know at home. Have you ever noticed, for instance, how much sesame oil resembles maple syrup, or motor oil for that matter? I know there is somebody out there who came to Japan, couldn’t read the writing on the label, made that mistake, and who now has a killer anecdote about sesame pancakes (or, heaven help us, Quaker State waffles), ready to be trotted out at the first opportunity. So, stay tuned for stories, and stories about stories, Tom Swifties, mangled English in Asia, scads of amateur (and amateurish) photos, Japanese mysteries, bizarre foodstuffs that make haggis or head cheese look positively mainstream, Okinawan folk music, Chinese herbal medicines, book reviews that didn’t fit into my BookPage column (whether because of subject or space limitations), and anything else I might think of along the way.
Oh, and by the way, that guy really was a sumo wrestler, not just a porky businessman. I didn’t embellish that part. Honest.