Tag Archives: empathy

A Whammy of a Vagary

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.

Me bandana

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!

Nora and Haruki

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.

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Finding Balance

Give me tuna or prepare yourself for the consequences.
¬†Give me tuna. Now. There is no “or else”.

There’s something going on in the balance of the celestial energy and it’s having a perverse effect on me. I think it began in June when Twitchy arrived. I’ve lived with cats on and off for most of my life, but had never taken on a feral one. Neither of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. People who have recently quit smoking should not be expected to have this amount of patience, but six months later, we’ve come a long way. I have very few scratches on my hands and arms, she hasn’t peed in the bed in ages, and when she’s in the mood, she’s almost aggressively cuddly. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERALast week, Karlina came to visit. We’ve known each other for about fifteen years but had never met, I had never even heard her voice. She was my main contact at Sesame Workshop when I was liaison between New York and NHK. As she put it, she inherited me when Veronica (who it turns out is NOT Jewish) got promoted and we were in nearly daily contact by email. She’s been going to Cambodia, where she does good things, now and then for the past ten years and decided to drop by on the way home. We had a grand time, as I knew we would. This is GOOD.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve also started going to the theater again. I love the theater but had been badly disappointed and painfully overcharged a few times in recent years so pretty much gave up. I knew there was English language community theater, but assumed it was a bunch of ex-pat housewives with zero talent and too much time on their hands. I was wrong. There are some truly gifted actors out there doing it simply for the love of the art and I’ve been lucky to see a good bit of it in the past year. Pictured above is the lovely and talented Rachel Walzer who recently appeared in God of Carnage. I’ve had the pleasure of directing her in narrations but had never seen her perform live. She was GOOD.

A friend and I had a discussion about whether there is energy because there is life or there is life because there is energy. I’m a supporter of the former; I believe energy is created when life begins. My friend believes energy continues when life no longer exists. I’m starting to think maybe he’s right, but not in a reincarnation sort of sense. Maybe when life is gone, its energy goes someplace else. Maybe it does create new life. That’s possible, but maybe it does something else. It might become an idea or inspire someone to do something great. Maybe it makes the bread rise or the rain fall or the flowers bloom or the sun set. Or maybe it inspires just the right amount of empathy and kindness at just the right time to make a difference in someone’s life. That would be GREAT.