This morning I was running late. The subway train pulled into Umeda Station and I made a dash up the stairs. No time for my usual slug of coffee before work at Tully’s, Starbucks’ poor relation, in Chayamachi. As I hung an uncustomary left instead of a right at Kinokuniya Bookstore, below the Hankyu Line (both will get you where I was going, just force of habit keeps me turning right), I heard a voice behind me. “Excuse me. Excuse me!”
I looked around. A man in perhaps his early 20s was running behind me. Had I dropped something? I slowed my pace but didn’t stop; he trotted alongside me. “Do you have a few minutes, sir?” he asked. I was honest: “No.” I didn’t want to be late for work (again) and I also didn’t want to be told about the Second Coming (again).
But he persisted: “Oh, please, just read this for me, it’s very short.” He reached into his backpack and brought out a typed sheet of paper. I took it:
“What is it?”
“Is this written all right, sir? Are there mistakes?” He handed me a red pen.
I kept walking, and quickly read it. I realized he was actually guiding me by the elbow as we crossed the street so I wouldn’t have to look up – a profoundly Japanese gesture of thoughtfulness, it occurs to me now.
“Are there mistakes?” Yes, it was full of mistakes, but minor ones, mostly of syntax or clause order. It was perfectly understandable, though. It was actually rather funny and – all the more remarkable – intentionally so. I would like to have had time to fix it up a bit – I was intrigued. I also had two minutes to clock in, so –
” Well, it’s not bad.”
“Really? Is it all OK?”
” Er, no. But fix this. It should be a question.” The opening sentence.
“You have a question?”
“No, that‘s a question.” I pointed at the sentence.
“Hatena! Hatena!” (Question mark! Question mark!)
“OH! I see!” He scrawled a question mark.
“Gotta go!” I picked up my pace. He bowed and said thanks a lot many times. I raised my hand in that flat-palmed way Japanese in a hurry say ‘sorry,’ ‘pardon me,’ or ‘don’t mention it.’ With any luck, he took it to mean the latter. I arrived just in time, and related my story to the staff and teachers who were there.
“Eeeeeeeeh!” The office staff bleated in astonishment.
“How bold he was!” said another, indignantly. When Japanese women criticize someone’s behaviour in English, they often sound like some minor character in a Jane Austen novel; I’ve never understood this. I haven’t heard anyone called a cad or a bounder yet, but I won’t be surprised when I do.
They had missed the point of my story. I admired the kid for having the chutzpah to ask me. I only wish I’d had the time to do it right – preferably over coffee at Tully’s. Oh well. I wonder if he made his deadline (he obviously had one). I wonder what college it was for (there are a lot of them on the Hankyu Line). And I wonder who he was.