“Do you remember me?”

The Japanese language can be very oblique. There are checks and balances throughout every conversation, subtly feeling out the social pecking order of the participants, how much can be asked of someone, a constant subtle search for common ground. Yes, I know, every language has that to some extent, but I’ve had conversations where I felt like the potato salad at the picnic and the Japanese person talking to me was the fly – hovering about, circling, but never quite lighting where I expected him to, if at all. Data is being collected, conclusions drawn, but darned if all I can see is someone going in circles. I have a kindly old neighbour, whom I meet every now and then on the elevator. Most of the time we exchange the usual pleasantries about the weather, but if she veers from that topic, I’m never really sure if she’s stating a fact or asking a question. That’s how courteously oblique she is, and for that reason, Japanese sometimes makes no sense at all if translated directly into English. But it works for them, I guess, in Japanese, and when speaking Japanese, I obey the Prime Directive.

Mind you, I live in Osaka, whose dialect often has all the elegance and musicality of an outboard motor on cement. It comes closer, culturally, to Montreal joual than any Western language I’ve ever heard. Like joual, Osaka-ben is at once a source of pride and a social stigma, depending on place, occasion, or whomever you happen to be talking to at any given time.

For all that, though, the longer I live here, the more often I’m accosted by Japanese people who come up to where I’m sitting, walking, eating, who stick their face in mine, point to their nose (surprising Japanese gesture #1 when you first arrive here) and ask, “Do you remember me?” In a culture where it seems that half of every discussion consists of avoiding loss of face, what could be a more embarrassing question? Oddly, though, it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do here. I’m trying to imagine anyone in Canada getting away with it.

More often than not, I do remember the person, but even then, I’m terrible with names. There are people who don’t accept that – if you’ve forgotten their name, you’ve forgotten them. In fact, a woman actually blurted that out – “Yappari, wasureta.” (I knew it, he forgot me), after I remembered where she was from, the part-time job she had when she was my student in the 90s, and the type of puppy she then owned, but then apologized for forgetting her name.

This is happening to me more frequently over the years. Sometimes, of course, I remember the person right away, but other times I have to fake it until some clue opens the right drawer in my memory banks. It’s rare when I draw a total blank, but for some people, like I said, forgetting their name equals the same thing.

It’s happened to me three times since August (I could go back for years with “Do you remember me?” stories, but I’ll spare you that). The first time was on a flight from Toronto to Narita at the end of O-Bon. I was half-watching/half-sleeping through some movie, and was not at my dignified best. I may have been snoring or talking in my sleep. I rubbed my eyes and looked up, and there was a young couple hovering over me. “Excuse me,” the woman blurted out, “ but do you remember me?”

Luckily I did (I’d taught her about two years ago), but of course not her name. Matters are complicated by the fact that my school insists on students adopting English nicknames – an archaic custom left over from the 60s, when no two unrelated Japanese adults would ever address each other by their given names and all English conversation classes were stuck in a Mr Tanaka/Miss Suzuki stiltedness; nicknames in class broke the logjam then, and were considered a great innovation. There have been plenty more innovations in the world since then (cutlery, moveable type, shoes,…), but this one dies hard . As a result, I have not one, but two names to forget whenever an old student jumps out from behind a pillar. Or, as in this case, stands in front of me on an airplane with – as I found out – her new husband.

That meeting was relatively painless (I could ask, “So what’s your name now?” Most newlywed women, when asked, proudly give their full married name, and she was no exception; problem cunningly solved). We chatted awhile until they excused themselves and went back to their seats (and I went back to sleep).

The next encounter was less pleasant. As I was walking to the gym, a woman passed and looked at me. I smiled and nodded blandly, as you do, thinking she was a gym instructor or something. “Don’t you remember me?” she said, in English. I looked around, and for once I was honest and said, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t. Were you a student at Namba School?”

“I was a staff member!”

“Oh, sorry. Did you work in the morning (as I do)?”

“No. In the evening! I arrived just as you were leaving.”

“When was this?”

“Two years ago! I work in Kobe now (a city 40 minutes away from where I allegedly worked with her).”

I eventually established that we rarely spoke, she had subsequently changed her hairstyle (and dyed it), and generally had been employed by the same company in the same building as I was (on a different shift), but calling it working together would be a stretch. She was quite put out, though. She told me her name again, but I’ve since forgotten it. Oh well.

It happened again last week, but this person, whom I hadn’t seen since 2002, did not expect me to remember her name. When she told me, and mentioned a few of her classmates, it all came back and we had a pleasant conversation and a few laughs. Such people are the exception to the rule, but I can’t imagine why.

Rereading this, it occurs to me that it’s usually women who ask me this question. I’m trying to recall a time when any man has asked me this, and I can’t. Usually, it’s the opposite: they don’t remember me.

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5 Responses to “Do you remember me?”

  1. Orchid64 says:

    One of the reasons I converse only in English with former students is that it puts the conversation on your terms and decreases the likelihood of any sort of attitude about things like not remembering someone’s name. That being said, I have never had the experience you have with people walking up and saying, “do you remember me?” They always just say, “it’s (name),” then “do you remember me?”

    I’ve always felt that it’s absurd for Japanese people who you worked with in a revolving door situation of office ladies and students to expect to be remembered. I’ve met and casually talked to literally hundreds of Japanese people. I remember a lot of them, and their names on occasion, but the average Japanese person likely has not met more than a handful, possibly a dozen, almost certain no more than a few dozen, foreign folks in their entire lifetime. That’s not to say they all “look alike”, but rather keeping tabs on that many names is impossible.

    Besides, the truth is that half of the Japanese people who have met me or spoken with me (and literally *thousands* have spoken with me) don’t get my name right or remember it. In my former job, I did 6 telephone lessons over 6 weeks with people who had a profile with my name in romaji and katakana to look at. Not only could they not be bothered to read my name correctly off the paper they were sent, but they rarely remembered my name at all – even after speaking with me 5 times previously. My first name is “Shari” and sometimes I’d get: Carrie, Sari, Sarah, Shannon, Susie, and Crary. Sometimes, they’d just say “teacher”.

    • nagaijin says:

      These exchanges usually occur in English. And it’s not simply a Japanese thing (I still remember my Grade 1 teacher 40 years on, but I’ve long since forgotten the names of most of my classmates). I was just puzzled by how commonplace it is to ask such a direct question in such an indirect language (if it weren’t, no one would ask it so directly in English). English seems to be a more straightforward language, but that particular question usually takes me aback. Perhaps it challenges my assumptions of both languages and cultures (besides just embarrassing the hell out of me!).

  2. Kelly says:

    Hey Colin you’re back!!
    Interesting to read of your experience. I am terrible with names and the people around me are too and we’re constantly saying to each other “sorry, what was your name again?”. I’ve never actually had a Japanese person ask me if I remember them but it’s not really a rude thing here like it seems to be in Canada.
    And surprisingly it seems to be more of a guy thing here, like “hey mate, do ya remember me?”(much back slapping ensues..) 🙂

  3. Melody says:

    Glad to see you’re posting again! This is one of my favorite blogs!

  4. Yolanda says:

    That ´s probably what you think, that they don´t remember you.
    Great blog, by the way.

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