Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese

by David Galef

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Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae, runs an old Japanese proverb: Obey the customs of the village you enter.
Just don’t overdo things.
It may already be too late for Cricket Collins, a recent Ivy League graduate who travels to Osaka for his first real job as an English instructor. The time is late 1970s, with Japan quickly becoming the new find-yourself region that India was to the backpack set in the 1960s. From pachinko parlors to paper cranes, tea ceremonies to translation problems, everything is entrancing to Cricket, at first, as he throws himself headfirst into a two-thousand-year-old culture.
But soon he gets fired from his teaching job at Kansai Gakuin for petty theft, and on a brief trip to Korea he becomes embroiled in a sexual misadventure with painful after-effects. Spinning slowly out of orbit in his free-floating expatriate existence, he starts to lose touch with family, friends, and reality. It isn’t until he returns home to America that he begins to turn Japanese with a vengeance.
Turning Japanese is as much about the allure of a foreign culture as it is about the divided existence of an expat and the terrors of ones own mind. Be careful of breaking down the barriers between two cultures: the breakdown you create may be your own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504023863
Publisher: The Permanent Press (ORD)
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

David Galef was born in the Bronx in 1959 and started writing shortly thereafter. He’s a fiction writer, critic, poet, translator, and essayist because he can’t seem to make up his mind what to specialize in. A shameless eclectic, he has published over a dozen books, including the novels Flesh and How to Cope with Suburban Stress, a Book Sense Book of the Year Selection and one of Kirkus’s Best Books of 2006. He has also published short stories and nonfiction articles. His latest is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, which is at least as funny as its title. When he’s not writing, he is a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University. 

Read an Excerpt

Turning Japanese

By David Galef

The Permanent Press

Copyright © 1998 David Galef
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2386-3



Peering out the window from 30,000 feet up, Cricket Collins thought he could see the vast maternal curve of the horizon. A puffy level of clouds lay below like some mythical land, peopled by creatures of air with heads of smoke and wispy bodies. He stared at the scene until it began to stare back at him, forcing him to look away self-consciously. The man sitting next to him had just gotten up, leaving his breakfast tray in casual ruin: a half-eaten omelette, coffee scummed with non-dairy creamer, and a triangle of toast smothered by a paper napkin.

The sudden change in scale took a moment of adjustment. Focusing on the tray, Cricket saw that the napkin had words scribbled on it, and looking closer, he read the message:

Vast crystalline blue fractured a hair by a toy silver plane

It was obviously an attempt at a haiku, apt enough on an airplane bound for Japan. But the syllable-count didn't look right — wasn't it supposed to be 5-7-5? — and even the words themselves seemed slightly suspect. As a writer, though he hadn't written much, Cricket felt he should care about such matters. He glanced out the window again, testing the image. For one thing, there wasn't much blue out there, more a receding haze. He picked up the napkin and was just contemplating the sharp slant of the handwriting when the man returned.

Cricket blushed, dropping the napkin back onto the tray. "Excuse me, I was just reading what you left here." Then, since the man looked annoyed, he ventured an appeasing question. "Are you a poet?"

The man grinned sourly. "Not really, no." He crumpled the napkin into a ball and shoved it into his pocket. He was a tall, stocky individual whose legs pushed far under the seat in front of him when he sat down. Dirty blond hair framed a clear oval face: late twenties, Cricket guessed, though his body was oddly stiff, as if some part of him had aged faster than the rest. His blue eyes looked somehow hollow.

Cricket wondered if the man had been through what he'd undergone: a TWA 707 from New York to Los Angeles, a China Airlines connection with a stopover in Honolulu, and now the long flight to Osaka. It was the cheap way to go. In his wake, he was leaving behind Columbia law school, which he'd deferred for a year, and a few incredulous friends. Europe was cliché by now, he told them airily. Anyone could go there to find oneself, so he was going to try the life of an expatriate elsewhere. Japan had beckoned from a bulletin board at college, listing teaching internships in Asia. And he was going to write (which he told almost no one, for fear of pessimism and ridicule).

In Los Angeles, he had grabbed a bite to eat at an airport café and then walked a slalom course around the palm trees lining the access roads. He made some notes in a spiral-bound notebook he'd brought along to use as a journal. In Honolulu about two a.m., unable to leave the terminal, he had bought an Agatha Christie mystery, And Then There Were None, and read almost half of it while getting up to stretch his legs every hour. He had been some twenty-two hours in continual motion — him or the plane — and just wished he could sleep in a seated position.

Normally reticent, he was feeling loosened and broken up by fatigue. He figured he might as well offer a piece of himself to his seatmate: his name.

The man hesitated a moment, then extended his hand: "Matthew Harriman." He pursed his lips as if about to add something, but apparently thought better of it. The two of them ducked instinctively as the stewardess came by to collect their breakfast trays.

Cricket decided to pursue the opening. "This your first time going to Japan?"

It was obviously the wrong thing to say. Matthew made no attempt to mask his pained expression. "Not really. I live there."


Matthew reclined his seat and lay back, but Cricket wouldn't take the hint. He was bored of reading the book bought in Honolulu, and Matthew offered a possible diversion. In situations like this, he could become almost belligerent. "Where do you live?"

"Ashiya. It's a small town in Hyogo."

Cricket nodded as if he knew the geography of Japan intimately. In fact, his knowledge of Japan stemmed entirely from a little coaching by a college friend, a Japanese-American named Peter Inoue who'd never been to Asia. Cricket had acquired some basic vocabulary and took pride in what his friend called a fairly credible accent. But it wasn't worth risking here. "Can you speak Japanese?"

"Yes. Maybe not as well as I should." A guarded look, another wrong opening.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a writer. I teach, too."

"That's what I'm going to Japan for. To teach, I mean."

"A lot of people do." Matthew waved a hand as if to brush away a fly. "You'll probably like it."

"Do you?"

A shrug. "Sometimes. You do get attention."

"How long have you been at it?"

"Three years. I just went home for a break, to see if Massachusetts was still there."


"It was." Matthew stopped here, but Cricket didn't stop being curious. Matthew gave out information as if holding something back, and Cricket was determined to draw him out. He asked about family (yes, Matthew had one), Japanese contacts (he knew a few), and learning the language (speaking wasn't too difficult, but reading and writing took a while). In fact, Matthew was willing to address this last point for the equivalent of a paragraph. It seemed to bother him that kanji, the Japanese ideograms borrowed from the Chinese, had proved so damned elusive.

It bothered Cricket, in turn, when Matthew assumed the same would be true for him. "Oh, I like that kind of puzzle," he remarked, his competitive sense aroused. He'd always been clever at school.

Matthew frowned. "It's not like some jigsaw, you know. It's a whole writing system."

"I'm sure you're right," said Cricket quickly, just to make peace. This small courtesy mollified Matthew, and they went on to talk of loanwords, such as the Japanese for taxi (takushii) and the price of cantaloupes in department stores. As he listened, Cricket repressed the shadow of a smile. He'd succeeded in getting Matthew to converse.

"You can pay over fifty dollars for some of them — but they're often bought and not even eaten. You just bring them to sick people on a visit."

"Like the fruit baskets in a hospital, you mean." Cricket asked whether it was true that no tipping was allowed (yes), and how deeply one should bow (it depended on the occasion). An elaborate system of politeness governed both word and gesture, from honorifics to smiles. As Matthew began doing more and more of the talking, Cricket's responses were reduced to nods. He felt he was gaining some insight into the country, and maybe into Matthew, though he was also getting extremely sleepy. The heavy drone of the plane engines began to buzz around the back of his head, obliterating half of what Matthew said. His eyelids felt attached to small lead weights, the cabin interior muted to a lethargic gray. He nodded once more — something about Shintoism? — before nodding off entirely.

As the bosom of the horizon receded, a host of clouds rushed silently toward Cricket, the sun glinting down on the fluffy plain amassing. Strange currents stirred the surface, extruding shapes and forms that moved slowly about. Cricket landed without impact and was greeted by a host of cloud-people, their nimbus feet scudding towards him. When they met in the middle of a cloud bank, they exchanged bows and traded smiles. They looked upward, where Cricket pointed to a silver plane impossibly high up and small. They nodded, he nodded, and together they moved off toward the horizon. The journey, he suddenly realized, would take years. It got dark, it got light, and dark and light again, and whenever it was dark a kaleidoscope of faces and gestures revolved in front of him. First came his dead mother, Louise, who'd succumbed to ovarian cancer when he was nine and who still occasionally nagged him. When he sneezed at a puff of dust, she reached into her voluminous handbag, drew out a tissue, and offered to wipe his nose. She was followed by an indistinct Japanese figure wrapped in a black kimono. A pair of wooden chopsticks floated in the hands of the one semi-girlfriend he'd ever known, Sofie, with her slim wrists and cool touch, who did him the favor of de-virginizing him, as she put it. He reached for his pen and jotted down a note on her stomach. As he stretched to touch her lower down, the vaginal softness turned to mist.

Cricket awoke as the plane began making its descent. At first he wasn't sure where he was, but the NO SMOKING and FASTEN SEAT BELTS signs came on overhead, and an accented voice over the P.A. system announced that they would be arriving in Osaka in less than forty minutes. With an effort, he cleared the dregs of the dream from his mind. He looked over at Matthew, buried in a Henry James novel, The Ambassadors. The print was so fine, it looked like a pocket Bible.

Cricket cleared his throat, and Matthew acknowledged his awakening with a brief look in his direction. "Back among the living, I see."

"I don't know what happened. I think I was just sitting here —"

"Yes, we were talking." He paused, as if choosing a fork in the conversation. "Well, you probably needed the sleep. And there'll be jet lag when you arrive."

"What time is it in Osaka now?"

"Seven-thirty." Matthew answered without consulting a watch. "They'll be eating breakfast right now."

Cricket was going to ask a question about the nature of Japanese breakfasts, but Matthew cut in before he could frame the words.

"Sorry, I just want to finish this chapter before we land."

Cricket nodded, slightly annoyed. It was just what he himself might do, which made it all the more irritating. To console himself, he began mentally preparing himself for his arrival, inwardly smiling, running through his small stock of Japanese. Hajimemashite, he addressed the plane window. How do you do. Ha-ji-me-ma-shi-te. He spread out the syllables and put them back together again, like a trick shuffler with a deck of cards. He repeated the word till it felt right.

Soon the plane was plunging through the surface of the clouds, which turned out not to be fleecy as he'd dreamed but misty and cold-looking. No stratospheric inhabitants greeted him. After a few minutes they were directly above the gray slate of the sea, dotted here and there by a thumbnail-sized boat and its wake of white lace. All too soon, they were over land and descending fast. The roofs of the houses were a bright blue not found in nature, the green rice fields so neatly demarcated they didn't look quite real. Only the surrounding roadways and traffic lent credence to the rest of the picture.

After the plane landed, Cricket shifted his attention back to the interior. Time to fumble through the carry-on luggage and find his passport, the one with the mugshot that made him look like a prisoner. Matthew shut his book importantly as if he had a monopoly on James's novels. But Cricket had read The Ambassadors in college, and the fact that Matthew was reading it now made him feel slightly superior. Should he say anything? He wondered whether Matthew's brand of intolerance was made in Japan, and whether he'd be like that, too, eventually.

But what could happen in such a short time? It was the tail end of the '70s, with nothing momentous on the horizon. It was August. The two semesters teaching at Kansai Gakuin would take nine months, and after that — law school? His father, a cigar-smoking lawyer who disguised his aggression through flippancy, had suggested that Cricket go to either Columbia or a good psychiatrist — in fact, they'd had their biggest fight in years over Cricket's planned decampment. The only point they'd ended up agreeing on was that maybe a while should elapse before they saw each other again.

In the meantime, Cricket was at completely loose ends after seventeen years of schooling, capped by a B.A. cum laude in English from Cornell. He had nothing like a girlfriend, not since Sofie last year. On the other hand, he had no intention of turning into a virgin again. Ever since graduation two months ago, he felt as if he were floating, almost disembodied. He finally concluded that the dizzying sensation was freedom. For four years he had toiled in Ithaca; now he was on the other side of the world. Recognizing it as an escape, he also saw it as a challenge. His father's final words were a shrugging parody of Horace Greeley's advice: "All right, young man — go east."

An orange shuttle bus took them to a terminal, where Cricket joined one of the lines going through Customs. Arigato, he rehearsed. Thank you. Though Matthew had been right in front of him the whole time, somehow he had switched at one point to a faster-moving line. Going past the Customs desk, he waved imperially to Cricket, who was still several people back. Cricket nodded in return.

He would catch up with Matthew at the luggage claim, he thought. Because he knew no one in Japan, maybe he should ask Matthew's address. But by the time he got to the outer area, a large crowd had formed around the luggage carousel, and Matthew had disappeared. And Cricket realized that he had forgotten Matthew's last name.

Once he had claimed his luggage, a bulging, belted gray suitcase and the carrying case that held his Olympia typewriter, he walked through the main exit area. Ichi, ni, san: one, two, three. In his shirt pocket, he had the address and phone number of Kansai Gakuin, though the school had hinted that someone would be meeting him at the airport. He scanned the crowd. Being able to see over so many heads was thrilling. At 5'7", Cricket had resigned himself to a lifetime of looking up to people, but the Japanese stepping quickly around him made him feel tall, almost awkward.

A few people by the exit gate were holding up placards, looking hopefully at the arrivals. One of the signs was an oaktag parallelogram with "MR COLLINS" in slanted lettering. The blue business suit behind it looked at Cricket questioningly, and Cricket heard a voice in his head telling him to ignore the summons, to step outside the plan. He would walk away, fade into the crowd and make his own life here. He would learn his Japanese from the street vendors, get taken in by a beautiful black-haired girl who'd teach him Japanese cooking, karate, and the finer aspects of Oriental love. Sofie would be jealous. In a few years, he'd be able to show people like Matthew a thing or two. Sophisticated stories of the Far East would emerge from his typewriter, studded with arcane knowledge to startle even the Japanese.

He hesitated at the threshold, and the hesitation proved his undoing. Was there any need to abandon what he'd come for? His neurotic need for security came to the fore, addressing him in the tones of his dead mother. A substanceless hand stroked his brow and called him Crick, straightened his posture and pointed him in the right direction. Surely he could work within the system and learn a lot more that way. And wasn't conformity part of being Japanese?

All right, he'd show them just how Japanese he could be. He nodded encouragingly to the man in the suit, who hastened forward to help him with his luggage.

As they met at the far side of the railing, the man proffered his hand and recited in a lilting accent, "How do you do?"

Cricket smiled, bowing from the waist. "Hajimemashite."



On his second day in Japan, Cricket moved into the dormitory at Kansai Gakuin. The school had sent a taxicab to pick him up at his hotel, a sleek black Nissan that deposited him at the dormitory gate with his luggage before gliding away. The driver, Cricket noticed, had worn white cotton gloves as if to avoid contagion with the passengers. Now he was alone.

He looked around the landscape, taking in the double row of ginkgo trees flanked by pounded earth, the high, shingled walls that seemed to hold in the very air of the place. The sun entered at the oblique angle of nine a.m., but a late-summer haze restricted it to dappled images on the far wall. No breeze stirred the foliage. The faintest scent of lemon came from the nearby buildings, which rose only a few stories before slanting into blue-slate roofs. Each element of the scene was natural enough, but together appeared stylized, Japanese. It was like the hotel last night, a Best Western knock-off that could have been plunked down anywhere in America except for a few details that were off, such as the cloth slippers at the threshold, or the cramped dimensions of the room widened by room-service courtesy that bordered on the obsequious.


Excerpted from Turning Japanese by David Galef. Copyright © 1998 David Galef. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Clouds,
2. Korogi,
3. A Night in Korea,
4. Learning the Language,
5. Bon,
6. The Japanese,
7. Eastern Standard Time,
8. The Foreign Offensive,
9. Timing,
10. The Concrete Buddha,
11. The Road to Hell,
12. Shanghai Ward,
13. Encounters in America,

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