The passive aggressor
One day in February I was browsing in the sixth floor foreign language section of Kinokuniya Bookstore’s head store near the south entrance of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. A young Japanese man - college age - with two young women trailing close behind him approached me from my left speaking in English.
“Excuse me, we are English students. May we ask you some questions?”
“Oh, no, not again” I thought.
I was crackling with passive aggression, a habit I began cultivating in high school as a defense mechanism to keep people at bay.
I was cold. I was in a bad mood. I came to the
bookstore for refuge. I was crackling with passive aggression. Maybe he could tell. Radiating passive aggression is a habit I began cultivating in high school as a defense mechanism to keep people at bay: the way I walk; the set of my shoulders and head; my choice of heavy footwear to accentuate my gait; my downcast eyes; my black clothes; my accessories; my radical opinions partly genuine and partly affectation. Often when people talk to me I move my eyes in their direction without moving my head. I imagine it gives me a menacing, reptilian demeanor. Even in the best of times I rarely want to meet people’s eyes directly because I think it is both rude and dangerously aggressive.
In reality I am an eminently interesting, gregarious and jocular fellow, brimming with intelligence, brotherly loving kindness and compassion for others. I love The Beatles, the Bible, and animals, too. My façade is a screening mechanism. People who survive the vetting win my acquaintance. So the lesson is that things are not as they seem, so do not to judge a book by its cover. Am I an asshole, or what?!
Anyway, back to the college aged man and his two female companions. I immediately tried to shrink my body to become less noticeable, even though it was too late and he was already talking to me. Maybe to his eyes it looked like I was cringing. Good. Simultaneously drop my chin and lift my shoulders in an attempt both to make myself look smaller and to raise some kind of barrier between us. Perhaps he targeted me because I was standing alone in front of a display of new English releases - mostly fiction, but some non-fiction on display as well. I was not in a talking mood, so I played a trick I used in Jerusalem in 1987 when pesky Palestinian vendors approached me outside the Damascus Gate.
“Furansu go.” I speak French.
I hoped my ruse would not require a lot of French because everything would have to be dragged up from my memory of high school thirty years ago and I would not be able to carry it off for more than a few seconds. But it was enough to dissuade the Japanese students. Never mind the incongruity of a supposed French speaker perusing the English best sellers.
It didn’t work with the Palestinians, though. In 1987 when I tried that the vendors just switched from English to French. Then when I feigned German they immediately switched to that language. I was way out of my linguistic depth. The Middle East is just as much a global crossroad as it was millennia ago and everyone is a polyglot. Despite Japan’s economic, political and strategic importance plus many decades of striving to ‘internationalize’itself, it is still not a global crossroad and everyone is not a polyglot. Many Japanese have more than enough trouble with their own language to devote themselves to fluency in others.
Almost immediately I regretted my rudeness. We ought to be kind to our fellow man and augment their lives, not spoil them, oughtn’t we? Maybe I ought to have admired the courage of the trio in approaching a foreigner in his language. In my thinking I tried balancing that against the rude impropriety of approaching me in the first place. Many people assume that foreigners here are all language teachers and that they are fair game. Any chance encounter is a precious teaching moment. I still regretted my behavior, but what could I do? First of all, I moved off to the French section to give credence to my French claim. But that was boring so I moved over to the English sections that I was there to visit in the first place. I kept thinking about the trio. When I turned down their advance they looked so disappointed, like timid crestfallen, or wounded kittens. I like cats, so after a few minutes I thought of seeking them out and having a go at an English interview. But it was too late. I couldn’t see them anywhere. It bothered my conscience for several days and I worried that I had sown bad karma. Then I got over it.