Articles From the August 1994 Unification News



by R. Bruce Clarke

We were descending rather hastily, both of us thinking of a cup of coffee, I'm sure. When Otosan motioned suddenly to the granite ojisosan on the slope I didn't understand at first what he meant. He stepped up and rubbed its bald head, saying "good luck" in English. He brushed his rubbing hand on his shirt, smiled, and spontaneously beckoned me to share in the blessings. My hand found the granite statue smooth-evidence that it gave its blessings away often.

We moved down the steps from where we had earlier ascended. The top of the mountain was home to a priest's small dwelling and a large traditional Shinto bell. Otosan told me it was rung every morning at six o'clock by the priest. As we stepped down the stone stairway the stillness of everything sucked the thoughts out from between my ears. No one was awake at six-thirty on Saturday morning except ojisosans whose heads get rubbed-and the priest. Old men who take smoking walks to mountain shrines with sons-in-law are the only other exception that I could see.

My Otosan-which means "father" in Japanese-likes his cigarettes, sumo, sake, and companions. He has hordes of friends whom he's chummed with since schooldays. His timely comments and passed gas commentary sends them into hours of chuckles. his large pointed ears protrude like a bat's, and his skin is dark, hiding a reddish complexion gained from drinking. He had his short hair permed before I came this visit, which gave him a kind of slick pixie look, a la Peter Pan.

Otosan is definitely generous. He insists on buying his daughter and me things, and when we fall short of his anticipated level of greed, he just hands over an embroidered envelope with a silver and gold tie, some crisp yen bills tucked inside. My wife happens to be his first child, daddy's girl, and since there are no boys, by Asian custom, primary inheritor. These blessings we are grateful for, but they too require the rub that only loyal children can give their parents. As I found, there are special rubs only foreign children can give.

It is a humbling kind of communication my Otosan and I share. My Japanese is "skoshi" or small, and requires generous rehearsal to grow at all. Otosan's English is somewhat larger, if only because the English language is plastered everywhere in advertisement in Japan, and the borrowing of baseball terminology helps even the most homebound codger gain a foothold into the world of spoken Americana. I ask, "Doko Shinichi Dragons deska?" and he, pointing to a gray stadium at a great distance, says something in Japanese: "Are-wa baseballu jo des."

Overlooking his hometown and pointing down, I say: "Kore-wa oki des" or "This is big." He asks incredulously, "Honto? Big?" and I say, "Hai, Otosan." He asks, "Wonderful?" and I reply, "Ee des"-"It's good." I'm grateful he is so gregarious and informal. It leads to boyish grins on both faces.

The other night we were eating a dinner of fish, rice and seaweed, prepared by Okasan, my mother-in-law, and as is typical, Otosan finished first. He then passed wind in his usual way. Grinning, he hoisted up a large green bottle of sake from the table into the pinkish light of the kitchen's fluorescent doughnut hanging above. Glittering in the clear fluid were the irregular micron-thin specks of gold that a particular brewer has added to its sake, thereby establishing its trademark in the industry. This is Otosan's favorite brand. Otosan pushed the bottle at me. "Gold," he said in English, looking wide-eyed at me. I affirmed it: "Gold," and taking the bottle in order to appreciate his acclamation, I put my nose up to the green glass and watched for a moment the sparkles dancing in the light.

Otosan grabbed the bottle back (with liquor, the Japanese can lose some of that famed etiquette) and poured himself a glass. I saw his eyes glitter like the gold with sheer fondness. He drank it all. A moment later, he let go a long fart (in such moments, there's no other fitting word for it). Instinctively, I slipped my hand behind his seated bottom, and then looked at my cupped palm with feigned surprise, proclaiming: "Otosan! Gold! Gold!"

Otosan and Okasan just laughed and laughed. My dear wife did too, when she was the joike went over so well. We laughed for a couple of minutes. We laughed at each other laughing; we couldn't stop. My quiet Okasan, who's been listening to this after-dinner concert for the better part of thirty-five years, had eyes of true mirth.

It is talks like these that surpass in durable memory all the serious discussions we have had through wifely translation. After all, every communication relies on the true comprehension of a few key words. "Gold," "wonderful," "ee des," and "strikeoutu" are examples. What we experience in intercultural dialogue is not only the communication of internal mental environments, but the expansion and evolution of language itself. We are making it happen. We are potters, poets, weavers. We are culture artists. Moreover, what we are weaving is a splayed world together. Bodily gestures count with every weave when words are wanting. My own language limitations made such a moment not only possible, but funny and endearing. My experience here is not unlike rubbing the ojisosan's head. We are certainly here to mobilize heavenly fortune and transmit heaven's blessings to others. Well placed, even schoolboy humor can knock down walls, heightening our sense of common functions, common purposes, common destinies. This heightened sense is the antenna for the transmission of blessing.

I sometimes wonder what his world would be like if Otosan had only another Japanese son-in-law to talk to. Certainly, it would not be nearly so challenging for him, so wonderfully mind-stretching, and perhaps not so funny. I believe this one man's world would be considerably smaller and more isolated. That goes ditto for the son- in-law. Thank you, Otosan. Thank you very much, Father.


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