I tried playing it cool, but Malik knew I was pretending. We pulled out onto the highway at his usual speed, churning up a cloud of sandy dust. After a few minutes, he said, “You enjoyed that.” I said nothing. He looked at me, which was rare. So, I said, “I know you did.” Silence. I felt myself pulling a face, my childhood pout. I tried to stop. A good ten minutes later, Malik slowed considerably. I actually thought something was wrong with the car. Then, he began talking in a voice I hadn’t heard before. He started confiding in me.
“My mother’s family is from a village near Al-Hassa. You know it, I think. Her people … I lived out there as a child. My father left for the city; he left us there. When I was the same age as that boy my father paid for my brothers and me to study with the local imam, to learn to read. I studied and was a good student. I was a good boy, but one day, I don’t remember why, I arrived very late for my lesson and I lied. I told the teacher my father’s camel was sick and I had to clean its stall that morning.”
He looked over at me again. He continued driving but at a dangerously slow speed. I listened.
“The imam came to my grandmother’s house to ask after the camel. He said he was concerned. He knew, of course, the value of a good camel. It was like a racehorse in Kentucky, you know. It was very valuable. My father happened to be there, in town; he stayed with us from time to time. He didn’t say anything. He covered for me, but when the teacher left, he became irate. My mother begged him to show mercy. He promised not to whip me but he dragged me from my bed to the stall with the camel and he made me sit naked beneath it. He tied one hand, threw the cord up and over the back of the camel, and tied my other hand so that both arms were extended high above my head. I was left sitting in the animal’s waste facing forward. He left me there until morning.
“When the animal had to urinate, his great dangling penis grew and stretched itself until it rested on top of my head. It was two feet long! And his steaming, stinky piss flowed out onto me, all over my body and puddled up in front and behind, so, when the beast moved about within the stall, I had to sort of scoot on my bare bottom and make like a crab to keep up. He pissed on me three times over the course of the night.
“In the morning my brothers found me almost completely covered in a mixture of piss and mud, straw and camel shit. I had a big family. The boards of the stall were spaced so that we boys could easily slip in and out without opening the gate. They saw me there and laughed and then the oldest took out his penis and aimed it at me. He promised to wash off the shit. This inspired the others so that the entire crew stood about pissing. One aimed at my head, while the others shot for my dick. They chanted ‘pisspot,’ broke up laughing, and pissed on each other. They named me ‘Pisspot,’ and I remained that throughout my childhood. Even the imam called me this. The other men in the village. Even today, if I were to visit, there are those who might repeat this name and say it in front of their wives. We all have nicknames, you see, ‘Fox,’ ‘Blackie,’ ‘Fatso.’ This is our custom. My mother scolded my father for this. She blamed him, but all he said was, ‘At least he is not called ‘Liar.’’ My brother, the one who started it all, he was called ‘Nose’ his entire life, until he died several years ago. One thing I admired about America was that my teacher in Wisconsin would not allow the students to tease and ridicule each other. She wouldn’t have it, and no one defied her, no one.”
I remained perfectly still throughout this telling. Just hearing about the disgrace of it chilled me. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but my brain was firing on all cylinders. Questions were piling up almost as fast as they could be sorted, in the first case between answerable and unanswerable. There were many things to say, of course, and I thought of a few at the time, and many more since, but I kept my thoughts to myself. I figured if I blew it now, he would never forgive me.
There was no denying the fact that the man had suffered and had been made to suffer by people tasked with caring for him. I couldn’t help tracing Malik’s impulses back to his father’s brutal cruelty. It was long ago, but he was scarred for life. He almost seemed to break down over the memory of this trauma. I assumed that he would just as soon forget it, so I didn’t ask him anything. I did reach out to him; I touched him. I just touched him, not sexually, of course. I mean, I simply held his hand for a moment. It was important that he not be made to feel sorry he told me this. It also proved how true it can be that touching can be touching.
When we arrived back at the house, he stopped, put the car in park, but didn’t turn off the engine. He turned to me and said, “Maybe you would like that, wouldn’t you? I could tie you beneath a camel so you could experience being urinated on.”
“I have heard it is a cure for baldness. That’s what they say.”
“It seems to have worked for you.” I said this with my best poker face.
“Yes, it did. It did, didn’t it?”
This amused Malik and he laughed.
“There you go.”
We laughed together. Wasn’t it said by Graham Greene that he was only frightened of people who couldn’t laugh? I felt exactly the same way.
All this came rushing back to me as I stood there, pissing into the ceramic toilet on the floor at the back of the Japanese cinema. I spent a lot of time there, all alone, watching the same movies over and over. Beyond an occasional encounter, I met few Japanese. In fact, I could find few willing to respond to my greetings. I learned eventually that saying hi to strangers is seen in Japan as a sign of retardation.
My conclusion was that there must’ve been something in the soy sauce. It caused blindness or something, because when I waved at the locals, they never waved back. When I smiled, they didn’t react. When I whistled, they ran. Perhaps it was something in the sake. I asked around. Someone suggested the water. It rains every day, but they fine residents for running their taps. My best guess was that they’d sold their water to the Chinese. They said that was why there were so many in Hokkaido. They were buying up all the land.
I did love Kumamoto, a small city on the island of Kyushu, a world apart from Kyoto and Tokyo, where people are too stuck up to say hello. Southern Japan or western Japan depending on how you read a map, is unique in the same way towns and cities in Florida belong to a world apart from Philly or Boston. The rhythms are different. Kumamoto has its own beat, not at all like that of the great cities in the east. Informal, friendly, even warm: not at all like the bigger and more famous cities filled with strangers.
I ate out all the time. I shopped every day at a spot recommended by Anthony Bourdain, the now-deceased foodie extraordinaire: Family Mart, which served ready-meals for 300 yen, 24-hours a day. My apartment only had a camp stove and a barman’s refrigerator, big enough for a single slice of pizza, not two. There was barely enough room for a summer zucchini. When people buy a full-sized pizza at Domino’s or Costco, they often cut the thing up and stack the slices so they’ll fit on the refrigerator shelf.
I had coffee at a funny little place that sold espresso and ten-dollar pancakes, four inches thick. The chef stirred the pancake mix and stirred me, too. I loved her masculine bowtie. She looked like a soda fountain clerk circa 1959. I went in every afternoon to watch her. I wanted to be her. She kept her hair cut smart and wore slacks. She had a flat chest and worked at a brisk pace. If she were a boy, she’d have made me laugh. As it was, she made me swoon.
It was not that I was into ogling chicks. Good Lord, no. I just appreciated her great effort, the development of a caring soul who obviously knew how to use a whisk. She didn’t simply throw things together. She was not just killing time. Efficiency and excellence are so rarely found, particularly in America. It was a thrill to see a girl embody both. The Japanese understood these things. It was not just the sushi; it was in the way she bent over, in the way she moved.
One of my observations was that women are not well thought of in Japan. They are not appreciated, and for all the talk of Saudi misogyny as evidenced by their unequal treatment of women, women in the Middle East, I think, are much better off than they are in Japan. Men in Japan generally speaking have some sort of antipathy toward them. They are not honored; they are not worshipped, and they are not respected. Certainly not. In every way, I observed, they are secondary.
This really hit home in my ladies’ class for advanced English learners. I had six women who met twice a week, all with advanced degrees from abroad, who just wanted conversation practice so they wouldn’t forget their English. They were all in their late-twenties to mid-thirties. One had been in Australia for several years. Another had a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. They had taken time out to travel, met and fell in love, and lived abroad for too many years to make a successful return to Japan with decent job prospects.
In fact, they were unemployable. No one would even grant them an interview. Living abroad was not seen as an asset, and the fact that they were fluent in English was interpreted as a problem by their prospective male supervisors. No woman with a higher test score than a male supervisor could be tolerated. A woman hired to serve tea were not expected to speak English and certainly not well enough to embarrass her superiors.
Instead, these gals worked shit jobs like serving drinks after hours to drunk salary men. They cleaned up, washed dishes, and disinfected toilet bowls. My students didn’t put their advanced degrees on their job applications. They pretended to have had no college. They were considered part/time even if they worked forty hours a week. If they told their colleagues they had once lived in Sydney, Los Angeles, or London, they would be seen as weird, unless their colleagues were eighteen-year-old cool-cats without a care in the world. When they told Japanese men that they had once had foreign boyfriends, they were rejected or treated as nothing more than playthings. No one saw them as possible partners. Living abroad had somehow sullied them.
These students and I got to know each other. We moved quickly from “How was your day?” to “Have you ever considered killing yourself?” More than once someone in the group burst out in tears. Class was like a therapy session. They had kept these things to themselves for too long. They felt hopeless at twenty-seven. They had gone abroad at twenty with so many expectations. They had fallen in love, had had the time of their lives, and now it was falling apart.
They returned to Japan hoping to use the one skill they’d acquired, only to find that it was useless. An English-speaking Japanese woman is of no use to corporate Japan, unless she lives in Tokyo, can pass the translator’s exam, or has the qualifications to join the State Department. For my students, it was too late. They would never get a full-time job. They were ineligible. They had veered too far off course, and had no way of finding their way back. Their years abroad counted for nothing. Their job experience meant nothing. They could just as have spent the time cruising the Mediterranean.
But the saddest story was Taeko’s. She had found a part-time job in a travel agency. It paid 1000 yen per hour but as she lived at home in her childhood bedroom, she could swing it. One day one of the guys at work asked her to lunch and before she knew it, she had the chance to marry. He was a tour guide. His salary was higher than hers but he was not executive material. Still, they were in love and it looked like she might make a life back in Japan after all.
Her parents hired a detective to check his background, which is standard procedure in Japan. He would have to be vetted. His credit and salary history were obtained. His genealogy was checked out to make sure he really was pure Japanese. Her parents feared he might be Korean. In the end, her parents did not offer approval. They would not support the marriage. They would not give permission. They would not fund the wedding, offer money for a house, or give their blessings. The guy from their point of view was a loser and more than likely a gold-digger. He had no prospects. He hadn’t even graduated college. He was a second-son and would not inherit property. Forget him. He wasn’t good enough for their little girl. He wasn’t any better than that hairy guy she’d been with in England.
Taeko-san was a bright woman. An American would say she should have run away. The thing is, Taeko-san couldn’t face all that. She told her father instead she would marry him. Her father could be her new husband. She would give up her boyfriend and she would refuse to see other men. She would never marry, so her father would have to support her. Her parents knew she meant it. She would stay in her childhood bedroom for the rest of her life. Her parents hired a match-maker, but she never accepted a date. She was thirty-seven. She was the oldest in my class. She’s the one who graduated from the London School of Economics and had been forced to leave when her visa expired.
One thing seems clear: in Japan, women are seen as workers. Without a job, a woman is nothing. In the Middle-East it was different. In Saudi Arabia, women are thought of as family members. Cynically, they are sex objects, especially to prospective husbands. Women are not seen as potential workers. Their value is not measured by their ability to earn money. In Japan, things are different and, of course, there are women who have fulfilling lives, but…it isn’t easy. My students have it rough. They are likely to have to live at home for the rest of their lives. They will be expected to help their aging parents. If that parent is sick, this can mean working day and night. If there is a son, the property would more than likely go to him. She could be put out when the parents die or, if invited to stay, she might have to work as a servant for her brother’s family as a baby-sitter or a maid.
The first thing I zeroed in on in Japan was the fact that when I said, “Ladies first,” my students always laughed. I made a special point of saying it in class when I called on the students. I felt like a stand-up comic. They’d crack up, but they weren’t laughing at themselves. They weren’t laughing at the ladies. They were laughing at me, the ignorant foreigner. Didn’t I know? In Japan, ladies are never first.