After all these years, I have pretty much gotten used to being gawked at in Japan. Mind you, I no longer draw crowds of giggling schoolgirls when I step onto a train (like I used to on the Kintetsu Line, c. 1990), and people in diners no longer stop in mid-sentence with a friend to see if I can use the chopsticks properly, and grandfathers no longer hold up their infant grandchildren and say, “Look, a gaijin – scary isn’t he (kowai desune),” but I still get looked at from time to time. And that’s life.
Two Sundays ago, though, K. and I stopped by for dinner at Asiyana, the Indian restaurant in Namba. As we sat down, I noticed that the man at the table across the way was staring at me. I mean full on staring. And so were his family: wife, three kids. The middle child, a girl, was muttering in her dad’s ear. Then she stared again. I looked back, attempted to smile, nodded, turned back to my menu. But they were still looking, I could feel it. I looked again, nodded. When the time came to order and they were still gawking at me, it was past the point of getting on my nerves. I was about to tell them to stop their gawking (じろじろ, jiro-jiro), when the father, a large man in his 30s, who might have been athletic once, said to me, “Do you live at Sun Valley Estates, Building No. 2?”
Since I had never seen him before in my life, I was a bit stunned to hear my address recited to me. “Y-yes,” I answered, “do you?”
“Oh, we used to live there, but we moved,” he said. “My daughter recognized you.”
“How nice of her to remember me!” was the most courteous Japanese thing I could think to say, “I’m glad to hear that.” Actually, I hadn’t a clue who the kid was either – a lot of kids play in the courtyard between the two buildings. But I’m not exactly invisible in that neighbourhood. So of course she’d notice me.
Then everyone went back to eating. No “sorry for staring,” no “where are you from,”no “do you come here often?” Nothing. When they left, nobody even said goodbye (they had to walk past our table to leave). Only the mother, who looked a bit tired and long-suffering, offered a quiet “sumimasen,” (either “pardon us” or “sorry”) as the family, led by the father barking into his cell-phone, trooped out.
“You’re famous,”said K.
“Whoopee,” said I. We drank our chai in silence.