Many times over the past months, as I’ve been poked and prodded and obviously in pain, I’ve been asked, “Gaman dekimasuka? (Can you stand it?)” The word gaman could roughly be translated as ‘endure’, but it’s more than that. I think ‘suck it up’ is closer.
I’ve heard stories of things happening in the States that would not, could not, ever happen here.
Case 1: Standing in the supermarket checkout line, the man behind you notices your bandana and starts to chatter. “Oh, do you have cancer? Are you doing chemo? My wife went through that last year. What kind of cancer do you have? Hers was ovarian. We were back and forth to the doctor’s office so many times natter, natter, natter, blabitty blah blah…”
OH, SHUT UP, YOU MORON!
Case 2: My friend Nora and family, Japanese husband and two kids, are visiting her hometown of Seattle. She is standing in line at a Starbucks, holding her daughter’s hand. Her baby boy is strapped to her chest. It is the late 1990’s. Adopting Chinese babies is all the rage within the yuppie community, which thrives in Seattle. Nosy Stranger leans forward and says, “What a cute baby! Did you adopt him from China?” Nora smiles and responds, “What, this little tyke? Heck no. I picked him up at Walmart. It’s so much easier than going through an agency. Imagine all the paperwork you can avoid! And everything’s made in China anyway. Just cut out the middleman. I’m thinking of returning him, though. He’s cute and all, but he makes an awful lot of noise and he smells funny. Good thing he’s still under warranty, right?” Nosy Stranger makes carp face, opening and closing her mouth as she tries to respond.
OK, my bad. Nora didn’t say any of that. It was her making carp face. How do you respond to something like that? “This is my own…I mean, he isn’t adopt…”
OH, SHUT UP, YOU MORON!
But as I said, these things would not, could not, happen here. As part of the gaman culture, Japanese people are brilliant at not noticing things they are not supposed to notice. To Westerners, this often makes them seem like hollow, insensitive robots. In fact, they hate high prices and traffic and screaming babies and their bosses and their neighbors just as much as anyone else, but they suck it up for the sake of harmony. This is neither a weakness nor a nobility. It is just how it works. And because of it, personal interactions with strangers are rare.
As a foreigner, I am used to sticking out, being stared at, the unwilling focus of silent attention. I was a little worried about going out in public, being the bald lady in the bandana. But people have done a phenomenal job of ignoring me. A couple of times, women have looked directly into my eyes and smiled a sincere warmth and encouragement that needed no explanation. The other day, the pharmacist complimented my scarf and earrings combination, ever so quietly, as she handed me my pills. But that’s been the extent of anyone acknowledging my condition. I am grateful for that.
A healthy dose of gratitude makes the vagaries of life so much easier to swallow, and cancer is a whammy of a vagary.