The Brazilian guy who cleans the bookstore, speaks only a few words of English. I always say good morning and make small talk, but he’s not friendly and I think he’d rather I didn’t. He wears one of those blue-tooth phones that fit in your ear, vacuuming around customers browsing books or right next to where the morning staff meeting is being held, all the while bellowing in Portuguese to whoever is in his ear. I suspect he doesn’t mean to be annoying but that he is in a kind of oblivious state of other-ness. I remember when I lived in countries where I did not speak the language, how hard it can be. (although I think he might also just be a jerk)
I have lived in 3 different countries where initially, like the Brazilian man, I spoke barely a word of the language. Anyone who has been a tourist can get this stupid feeling, but when it’s your day-to-day life the loneliness, otherworldly feeling, is profound.
Life with UN Peacekeeping in Croatia and Bosnia was insular – my life and relationships existed mostly within the international community. My understanding of Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian (virtually same language but for different words for bread!) never grew much beyond the superficial greeting, shopping, weather chats with neighbors, sometimes against the backdrop of not-so-distant shelling and machine gun fire. My time in Italy was briefer but my isolation even more intense as I spent 3 weeks by my daughter’s hospital cot in Brindisi hospital when she was born prematurely. That was some zone to be in.
So I imagine I know something about how the Brazilian cleaner feels. I remember the apartness, the feeling of kind of living an incomplete experience. So many nuances around you are undecipherable.
But it’s mostly my years in Japan I recall. Although I studied Japanese in my feeble fashion, so many Japanese people wanted to speak English, it was easy to be lazy about learning their language. And even as I became fluently-flawed and gathered Japanese friends and boyfriends, I remained an outsider, oblivious to the reality and details of my Japanese neighbors – and they, to mine.
Still, for all the loneliness and discomfort, something still draws me to that expat existence, to that strange-state of being, the challenge to find a place. My focus, by necessity, turned inward, I filled journals with ramblings. My recollection of those sometimes uncomfortable times, was the richness of my interior life. A consciousness that, now in my familiar, task driven day-to-day existence, I strive for. A state of being alert in time.
Ruth Ozeki’s long awaited beautiful new novel, A Tale for the Time Being has really gotten under my skin and I think it’s not only because I love her writing (My Year of Meats is also a favorite) but because she captures this bubble existence – this weird sense of being, of being somewhere but not of it. We all are in that place at some point but some, by dint of the harshness of society, the struggle to exist in a world you do not feel part of, is often not by choice. Striving for … place? peace? love? Sometimes, giving up.
In A Tale for the Time Being Ozeki poetically takes us along on her quest to discover more about Nao, the Japanese teenage author of the journal she picks up out of the flotsam of a Pacific Northwest beach. I fell in love with Nao and Jiko, her ancient grandmother who lives as a Buddhist nun in Sendai right at tsunami ‘ground-zero’.
While reading this, I returned home from work each day to immediately pick up from where I’d left off, retrieving my book from beside the bed, where fighting sleep to read, I’d dropped it the night before. Perhaps because Ruth of the novel is Ruth the author, I felt sure such a diary really exists, and worried right along with Ruth (s), that Nao had been swept away in the tsunami… I’ll let you find out.
What have you read lately that you loved? This question is often asked of me in the bookstore. I’m usually reading at least two books so you’d think I’d always have an answer. But I often can’t even quite remember or at least, I can’t say I LOVE whatever I am reading. But I LOVE Ruth Ozeki’s new novel A Tale for the Time Being. What a beauty. I finished it a few days ago and the magic of it still lingers with me. Read it!