Jan/Feb 2007 Nonfiction

One Evening, on a Tokyo Train

by Mary E. Whitsell

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

My friend Kazuko and I boarded a crowded rush hour train one evening in Tokyo on our way back to our respective homes. We'd just had dinner together for the first time in over a decade.

We'd become friends in Manhattan ten years earlier when I'd decided to take a job as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. I'd never worked as a waitress before, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. One, I needed the money. Two, I needed Japanese practice if I was going to go live in Japan, which I had every intention of doing as soon as I'd accumulated the funds. Waitressing was known to be lucrative, and it couldn't be hard, I told myself—look at all the idiots who did it!

Kazuko had done it before, so she knew better. She knew how hard being a good waitress was even when you didn't have a huge language problem. Until Kazuko showed up, I left that job every single day marveling at what an idiot I'd been to think that waitressing was easy money. And with the firm resolution not to show up at work the next morning. It was hellish, and I'm not sure I'd have stuck it as long as I did if it hadn't been for Kazuko.

Yodo was one of the busiest Japanese restaurants in New York, and I had never worked so hard in my life. As a waitress you start to do one thing, and before you can finish it, ten other scenarios have suddenly popped up. You unload a whole tray full of burning-hot platters, replenish drinks, take the orders of twelve people who can't speak either English or Japanese, go and collect cigarettes for someone, fight your way through the crowded restaurant to place your orders, show someone where the toilets are, pick up four more orders, deliver those, take more orders for drinks and food, place your orders, go to take more, fend off a couple of men who want to flirt and one who tries to put his hand up your skirt—and you just keep doing that all day long until your feet are throbbing and your legs are aching and your back is killing you and you are nurturing deep feelings of resentment.

My Japanese was woefully inadequate at the time, and Kazuko, who spoke English that was flawed but fluent, was a tremendous help. She covered for me when possible, and discretely corrected my Japanese when I mixed up "pee" (oshikko) and "pickles" (oshinko). But best of all, she was my friend. Most of the staff quite understandably saw me as a hindrance and an anomaly, and few of them had any time for me. Kazuko and I had plenty in common, not the least of which being a keen interest in each other's native tongue and the tendency to talk non-stop when indulged, and we had only grown closer over the months we worked together.

Now I had been in Japan for seven years, and my Japanese had almost caught up with Kazuko's English. And although we had been corresponding since we parted in New York, there was almost too much to talk about. Kazuko had split up with her American husband and acquired a French lover. I had broken up with my New York boyfriend, acquired a Japanese boyfriend and broken up with him, and was currently engaged to marry an Englishman. That alone was enough to keep us going for a couple of days, but then there were all our ex co-workers to catch up on: Yukiko, the shy, sweet girl married to the jerk from the Bronx, Mikiyo, a Nagasaki survivor married to a Korean, Nobue, who didn't have the English language skills to take her crooked landlord to Small Claims Court.

We talked non-stop on the train platform and as we boarded the packed rush-hour train. We were planning on seeing a lot of each other over the next week, but both of us were conscious that even a week wasn't going to be nearly enough time to catch up. Had I heard that the sushi chef had gotten married to an advertising executive from Puerto Rico? Never! Had she written to me about Keigo, the fellow waiter who'd been beaten up and had his camera stolen in Sweden? Yes, but did that happen before or after he got meningitis?

Kazuko is one of the few Japanese women I know who gestures as wildly and as often as I do when speaking, who incorporates her whole body into a conversation. She will jump up and down to make a point, grab you, clap, wring her hands, shriek. I tend to be a little theatrical myself, but I am no match for Kazuko.

At some point during our conversation, I became aware of an elderly woman who seemed to be watching us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was, if not following our conversation, certainly intrigued by it. Kazuko would start out in English, then finish up in Japanese. I would do the opposite. With most of my Japanese friends, I tend to either speak only Japanese or English, depending on whose skills are superior. But Kazuko and I were now so nearly matched, that it seemed perfectly natural for both of us to flick back and forth.

Finally, it was Kazuko's stop, and in a frenzy of last-minute exchanges—Don't forget—WEST exit of Shinjuku Station—10:30 if I don't call you first, right? Right—she got off. Because Kazuko shared my weird sense of humor, she remained on the track waving frantically back to me, making ridiculous faces, and I waved and grimaced maniacally right back at her. The train pulled out, and I could still see her there, wildly gesticulating. I stood watching and grinning until I could no longer see her. When I finally looked away, my eyes met those of the elderly woman who had been watching us. Hers were brimming with tears.

I looked away in some embarrassment. What could be wrong with her? Had Kazuko reminded her of someone? A long-lost daughter, perhaps? Could she be mentally unstable? Depressed? The train roared along for three or four minutes, then screeched to a stop as we entered the next station. The elderly woman prepared to get off, her eyes still full of tears. She looked at me and, smiling tremulously, reached out and patted my arm.

"I am so glad," she began, "so glad to see this. When I was young, it was unthinkable—the idea of having an American friend! This—international friendship—I have truly seen international friendship tonight, real international friendship..." Still smiling at me, tears streaming down her face, the woman got off the train.


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