Flash Fiction Friday: Culture Shock

Courtesy of MasashiWakui @ pixabay.com

The storm arrives, and it is anything but quiet. Drops of rain pelt against your paper-thin umbrella, withering your defenses. You’re left no other choice but to shuffle inside a random izakaya, or risk your boots making you slip on the cobblestone street again.

After all, you’re a foreigner. The last thing you want is to embarrass yourself any further.

The front door bell rings. The master chef glances at you briefly before continuing to drain the freshly-cooked noodles. “Irasshaimase!

All male, the patrons at the counter do not peel their eyes away from the chashu between their chopsticks nor the glasses of water in their hands. Thank god. The last thing you want is more attention.

Still, now you’re the only woman in an izakaya full of salarymen. Anything you could do could set any one of them off and make them spout corny lines from 80s movies to try and seduce you.

You keep your head down, pocketing your umbrella in the umbrella basket, and slide to the vending machine. Insert the yen, press the highlighted buttons, hoping the last one said to add extra spinach. If not, oh well. It’s all so inexpensive that it doesn’t really matter.

You take your tickets from the vending machine. A young trainee smiles at you and guides you to your table — the one in the furthest corner of the izakaya. He takes your tickets and assures you your order will be ready in a moment in slow, perfect English.

“Here is your seat, miss,” he says. “Your meal will be ready soon.”

You smile back so he doesn’t feel insulted by the assumption he’s made about your Japanese language ability. “Arigatou gozaimasu.”

You hope he hears your pronunciation, the years of effort it took for you to master it.

You take a pair of chopsticks out of the black chopstick box and place them on the right-hand side of the table. You wrap a stray brown lock around your finger, frowning at its new bumps and ridges. Humidity. The rain pounds even stronger against the door and the windows.

Hai, omatase itashi— ” Am, er sorry to keep you waiting, miss.” The trainee arrives with your bowl of tonkotsu ramen with extra spinach. No water.

You mumble and hope that he finally catches the drift when you politely tell him you ordered a glass of water. “Anoo, saki ni o-mizu wo chuumon shitandesu ga…”

The trainee gasps, face reddening. He bows too many times to count as he apologizes. “Ah, h-hai, kashikomarimashita! Sumimasen. Shoushou omachi kudasai. S-sumimasen!” He bows again and scurries off.

You dip your spoon into the bowl, letting the salty, creamy broth pool in its center, then raise it to your lips. You blow a few times, and as your about to sip, he strides back to your table.

“I… I’m very sorry about that, miss,” he says, placing your glass on the table.

You tell him it’s fine, that’s it’s no big deal, and offer another gentle smile. “Daijobu, desu. Taishita koto de ha arimasen yo.”

“No, no, I mean the… the…” He rubs his hands together. “When I talked in English earlier. I have… bad habit, but I don’t want to, um… discriminal — discriminate.”

A strange ease settles in your chest. You lower your spoon and smile again. Finally, someone gets it. “It’s okay. I get it a lot.”

“I mean, I didn’t you spoke Japanese,” he says. “You don’t look Japanese at all.”

Your smiles freezes in place.

“That’s because I’m not,” you say, sipping the creamy broth. “But that doesn’t mean you should automatically try talking to me in English.”

The trainee’s frown softens. His Japanese returns, soft and clipped. “Well… how could I know you spoke Japanese if you didn’t speak it to me?”

“Because I’d ask you to speak to me in English. That’s why.”

“Then why didn’t you ask?”

“Because I don’t always need to!

Your voice rises above an acceptable volume. The salarymen turn their heads like cranky owls.

Your face flushes with heat. Your spoon and chopsticks tremble in your hands. You storm from the table, snatch your umbrella, and leave your ramen behind, despite your stomach’s protests.

You’ve done it. You’ve done it now. You’ll never go to an izakaya again. You’ll never eat ramen again. You’ll never go to Japan again. You’ll never make friends again. Never. Never. Never. Never.

The storm rages against your paltry umbrella, and the wind tries to shove it from your hands. Tears and rain mix together on your face. Your breath becomes ragged and spasmodic.

The young trainee’s voice calls out to you. “Miss, please! It’s not safe out there! You’ll catch a cold – maybe the flu! Please!”

You ignore him. You ignore the world. Your face contorts, and you collapse to your knees as a sob wracks your body. You pin your umbrella between you arm and pray, pray that you don’t get washed away with it.

“Miss, please.” Wet footsteps grow closer form behind. The young trainee kneels beside you. “Please. Come back inside. It’s not safe out here!”

You scream at the world. “I hate Japan! I hate it! I hate all of it! I hate my job! I hate my life! I hate having rice and noodles every day! I want potatoes and carrots and Shepherd’s pie and milk and enchiladas! I hate it! I hate it!

As you and the trainee are soaked below your knees, your clothes flapping in the wind around you, the world rages. The world hears none of what you say and only hears what it wants to say.

The trainee places his hands on your shoulders and speaks in careful English. “Miss… I don’t know what hurt you, but I’m sorry if it… if it was the cause of me. Please. Come inside.” He grips you tightly. “Your ramen will get cold.”

You hear him. You feel his gentle kindness.

You rise with him in the rain.

This week’s Flash Fiction is brought to you by Insane In the Rain’s arrangement of “It’s Raining Somewhere Else” from Toby Fox’s masterpiece UNDERTALE and my experiences in Japan.


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