English as a Decorative Language
IT WAS THE QUESTION THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO SURPRISE. Miriam the one who was supposed to be surprised. But to my Miriam, will you…, Miriam responded firmly No. She didn’t say Um or I’m sorry. Just looked me in the face and blinked slowly, glass of champagne bubbling in her hand. And there I was, standing alone at the altar of our happily-everafter, struck dumb. The no a hand crumpling me into a this-isn’t-working ball of paper. The no a relieved exhale that blew me, still balled, all the way to Japan.
I tumbled through the streets of Nara, by all appearances a nice young man. Neat. Canadian. Fit. You’d never know how small I was inside. How crumpled. The metronome of spoken Japanese kept the beat of my days. On the streets, in the bathhouse, at the noodle shop, I gestured and grunted my way through the necessary exchanges. Watched movies I didn’t understand. Ate meals I hadn’t meant to order. Got lost.
It was being alive without really living. Billboards shouted, loudspeakers cajoled, TVs spewed, but it was just noise. Hawkers, bores in bars, pachinko parlour greeters—they spoke in empty word bubbles, utterances blank. Telemarketers called and badgered and all I could say was sorry, sorry, before hanging up. In the abundance of the city, in its sheer volume, I bobbed along, alone and untouched by so much. In the land of yesyesyes, I could go days without hearing no.
Prolonged confusion. It was what I’d come for. A cocoon. The safety of stasis. A long sleep. A coma.
Shit got real pretty fast. To stay in this place, in this fugue, I had to solve the problem of work and money. Teaching was out of the question—I couldn’t stomach the thought of small rooms filled with all those mouths, talking. Of dictionary games and repairs to broken English.
Then, a simple thing. So simple I almost overlooked it. Hanging on a display rack at a drugstore a set of nail clippers, decorated with a pearly plate on which was written in cursive: Refreshing. Once I saw it, I saw it everywhere: objects adorned with words and phrases; English reduced to the irrelevant, the ungrammatical, the cute.
At Kintetsu and Daisō, the kids were buying up stuff imprinted with English, everything from dog sweaters and lunchboxes to Zippos and backscratchers. For words, plain words like juicy, tomorrow, homemade, cloud, forget, they paid good yen. No one seemed to know how English had become the lingua franca of coolness in Japan—something to do with World War II, American fiscal strength and novelty. Best of all, nobody cared what the words meant. They saw only roman type. Caught the whiff of international style that went with it. Sitting across from me on the train, a Japanese guy reading The Japan Times wore a T-shirt showing a cartoonish woman and man at a game of chess. The cartoon man grinned and held up two fingers in an exaggerated v-for-victory sign. Underneath, in large, proud letters: I beat my wife. Another time, a little girl in her mother’s arms gripped a worn pink teddy bear whose satiny sash read, simply, Fuck you.
In a business complex in the south of the city, in a plain brick building attached to a warehouse, I found the offices of Let’s English Ltd. At the reception window, a Mr. Sasaki alternated between scolding the receptionist in a terrifying Japanese and trying to make me go away. Not because of what I was—a worker eager to do the job when it turned out a worker was needed—but because of what I wasn’t.
“For decoration, we need a good feeling. We need Japanese sound of English,” Mr. Sasaki said, his accent hinting at Australia.
“I can do it,” I said. “I know I can.”
“Yes, it is very difficult. You are native English speaker. We need quick vocabulary not correct meaning.”
If I had understood better, I would have realized I was being dismissed. But I did not understand. Not then. I stumbled onward through the conversation, the words like mould in my mouth. “I can do that,” I said. “I can do words, not meaning.” ( Always and forever, for starters.) “Let me show you.”
Mr. Sasaki scowled but grabbed an object from the receptionist’s desk and thrust it through the open window. “One time chance!” he barked.
It was a personal-size pack of moist towelettes, the kind Miriam kept in her purse and pulled out at the movie theatre for wiping popcorn grease off our fingers. The pack was open, the “magic seal” sticker coiled into a tight, useless curl.
The fresh sting of the alcohol in my nose.
(Holding hands in the comfortable darkness.)
The fresh sting of the no.
I swallowed the delicious poison of the memory.
“Decorate,” Mr. Sasaki said, slamming down hard on the difficult “r.”
The pack crinkled in my grip. The words spilled out of me, poetry from the deeps: “Enjoy Your Surprise of Life!”
Mr. Sasaki smiled without looking happy. “You start as junior decorator. Monday.”
Turned out Mr. Sasaki was right: the job was not easy. Decorating with English called for the merest hint of logic, a loose approach to grammar and syntax, a bit of joy. It was harder than it looked. To my surprise, the drive for correctness was strong in me, a force I had to fight against. And yet, words as shells, shell casings—something about it made sense.
Despite struggling to capture the imprecise mangle of Japanese English, I liked the job. Being a decorator suited me.
I worked with Hiroshi, whose spoken English was good but whose decorative English was perfect—beautifully awkward and naturally oblique. Some of Hiroshi’s shining moments: days-of-the-week condoms ( Let’s go for it’s Monday!) and a Big Buddha snow globe that read, Bounce you in belly of love. Simple. Happy. Solecistic. I ached to be as good.
I ached for Miriam, too, at once wanting her back and knowing I had to get over her. Like she was a mountain I had to climb. There could be nothing in front of me until she was behind me.
I had the job and not much else, so I worked. Climbed and worked. Worked and climbed. In time, I had some small success: my Up Your Bottoms! shot glasses earned me a raise and my own section, Stationery.
“There’s more licensing bullshit, sure,” I explained to my mother, “but I get more words, sometimes whole sentences.”
Enthusiasm would not distract Mother. “That’s nice, hon, but when are you coming home?”
“When I’m tired of it,” I said, though I suspected she knew what I really meant. When the bed’s not too big. When the frying pan’s not too wide. When I stop quoting goddamn Joni Mitchell.
“Well, how long do you think that will that take?”
Will it, I wondered honestly. “Don’t know,” was all I said.
Harmonyland! declared the glossy brochures fanned across the lunchroom table. Photos of sparkly amusement park rides and attractions overlaid with bubbly, candy-coloured type. A few children ran happily through the grounds, but mostly it was smiling teenagers and adults, cuddling and posing with a giant, aproned Hello Kitty.
I waved a brochure at Hiroshi. “What’s this?” Kitty’s black olive eyes looked out from the page, her face happy looking despite being mouthless.
“For company trip, in next April,” he answered, threading a steaming noodle into his mouth.
Harmonyland: Hello Kitty theme park; holiday destination for English decorators. I puzzled it out. Popular, recognizable, English…less a thing in itself than a thing applied. I’d never thought about it before, but Hello Kitty captured the essence of English as a decorative language. It was a perfect instance, really. Maybe even the first.
I unfolded the brochure and considered a pilgrimage to Kyushu. As a new employee, I couldn’t enter the company trip lottery, but I could go on my own. Look across Beppu Bay from a Wonder Panorama cage. Roam Kitty Castle. Have my picture taken with a seasonally dressed Kitty. Get lost in a dream on the Sanrio Boat Ride. Pay homage at Harmonyland, home of Hello Kitty, birthplace of English as a decorative language!
My first rainy season came on like weather in a movie. Drop the rain! the director shouted and it fell by the bucketful, setting off car alarms and hammering rooftops.
I arrived at Let’s English one morning to find Hiroshi rummaging through the recycling bin, looking for scrap paper. I shook fat drops off my coat and dried my face and neck with my small towel, absentmindedly running a few decorative possibilities through my mind. Once in a while, I felt the words of a really good line breathe into me, expanding my chest and tugging at the creases there. Perhaps, I thought on good days, unfolding them a little. The healing balm of nonsense.
“Why don’t you use approved Let’s English paper for brainstorming?” I asked, raising my voice so Hiroshi could hear me above the drumming of rain on glass.
“Yes-yes,” Hiroshi sang over his shoulder, still rummaging.
“Or dip into the box of notebooks in the storage room,” I continued. “Revenous ideas for today and always?”
“Yes,” Hiroshi said again. “Good idea.”
Through the window, the leaves of the oak trees glowed bright green in the rain. The abandoned notebooks would stay abandoned, I realized. What I didn’t know was why Hiroshi said yes when he had no intention of rescuing them. What was in the space between his yes and his inaction, if not agreement?
“Ah!” Hiroshi said suddenly, laying his hands on a thick stack of unused order forms.
“It’s only a spelling mistake,” I said, testing. “The paper is still good.” I watched as Hiroshi placed the stack of forms on his desk next to his pencil case, clean side up.
“Spelling mistake?” Hiroshi’s face went neutral as he tried to locate my meaning. Then, remembering, it went soft: the suggestion, the notebooks. “Ah, so. Revenous,” he said.
Outside, a line of black umbrellas snaked along the sidewalk. A man under an awning sucked deeply on a cigarette. “Rainbow smiles on rainy day without umbrella,” I said aloud.
A tchk sound from Hiroshi.
I looked at him.
“We hide our mistake,” he explained. “Bury it to storage closet of our heart. We do not enjoy…” He reached for one of the electronic devices on his desk, a handheld Japanese-to-English translator, and started typing into it. “Discord,” he said finally.
I thought for a minute, then tried again. “Rainbow smiles float you by.”
A sharp nod from Hiroshi and a noise from his throat: Unng.
And I heard it. The sound of agreement. The sound of approval. An honest-to-goodness yes.
The memory of a thousand Japanese yeses rained down on me. One was this: early days at Let’s English. Hiroshi and I had been discussing the products catalogue.
“You take ‘Electronics and Hobby’ and ‘Home and Garden,’” Hiroshi had said. “I take ‘Food and Drink,’ ‘Fashion,’ and ‘Healthy and Beauty.’”
“I think you mean ‘Health and Beauty,’” I said. I was trying to be helpful, trying to put my language advantage to use.
Hiroshi looked up from where he sat at his desk—he’d been brainstorming for the new line of Let’s English fingernail sets and had just pressed on a half-set of “Scarlett O’Hara.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, extending his left arm to examine his fingernails. He picked up a pencil and returned to his scribbling.
The yes rang hollow but my ears didn’t hear it. Back then, I was living in a world where the meaning for no was a single word. Not the opposite of no. Not the silence of no. Not a linguistic modern dance of no.
But I heard it now, against the unspoken truth of Hiroshi’s guttural affirmation.
I let go a pitiful laugh. There I was, thinking I was safe, when really no was everywhere—beyond the words. Subtext. Had it been there with Miriam, too? Instead of bringing upset, the thought buoyed me. It felt good to feel a new pain.
The letter, thin and insubstantial and addressed to me in Miriam’s handwriting, arrived on a Tuesday. I carried it around with me, keeping an eye on it, wary. The letter might have delivered any kind of terrible news. My mind went there: a deadly disease; trouble at school; love? But I wasn’t too far gone yet to think it might be something good. Hope is terribly elastic like that.
Days passed and still I held on to it. The longer I went without opening it, the more uncertain I grew. By Friday afternoon, exhausted with the work of wondering, I’d had enough.
“Hey, if Mr. Sasaki comes in, cover for me, will you? I’m cutting out early.”
Hiroshi nodded. “No problem.”
I turned and looked hard at him, listening for the key of sincerity. I couldn’t be sure. Once, I would have been, but now I knew better, despite
myself. At best, yes was ambiguous. I pulled on my coat and pushed out into the late-afternoon drizzle. Today, I would risk it.
In the stuffy, overcrowded train car, almost everyone was sleeping. Head back, mouth open. Chin to chest. Cheek to shoulder. Snoring, drooling, farting, dreaming. Oblivious to everything except station announcements and deep violations of personal space. I had managed a seat but a businessman teetered overhead—temple to pole, white spittle gathering in the corners of his mouth—about to drop in a dead sleep on top of me.
Someone spoke. The Japanese came fast and clipped, separated by pauses, laughter. The sounds rolled around in my ear. Mostly, the words faded, but a few pushed through into meaning, a shaky clarity in the static: Saturday night…figure out…election day…routine—no—habit… habit of mine…
I scowled and closed my eyes, sinking into my coat, hands into pockets, kidding myself that I didn’t know what was there.
My heartbeat thumped in my fingertips where they touched the envelope. I pulled the letter out and looked at my name pressed into the paper, the result of her hand’s careful penstrokes. Why was I here when I could be at my desk, safely immersed in the world of putting words on things? I closed my eyes again. Teetering on the edge of sleep, I saw her writing. Christmas tags, grocery lists, love notes word for word—
My chin hit the knot of my necktie. The train lurched and I felt the looming man weave. The train stopped. Disoriented, I jumped up to follow the rush of people moving through the open door.
I’d gotten off at the wrong stop—midtown, near Kofukuji Temple and Nara Park. I headed to the park. At the entrance, a plaque explained in five languages that, according to legend, a god had arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital, so to this day the Sika deer are regarded as heavenly.
On the east path, I passed a tourist hut selling flags, fans, velvet paintings, stuffed toy deer and real, sawn-off deer antlers. The evening air was warm but the rain clouds had moved away. I took off my coat and walked deeper into the park, toward the deer enclosure, watching from afar as the animals took high steps on flat ground with bony, awkward grace. Like ballet dancers, they looked hungry.
I bought rice crackers for the deer from a vendor. I had barely pocketed the change when six or seven deer rushed me, fighting with each other and nipping at my hands as I tried to unwrap the food. Deer pushed against me from every side. Startled, I let the crackers fall and hurried away. But one angry deer gave chase, snapping at my backside. It closed on the letter in my back pocket and pulled it free.
I spun and grabbed at the envelope, catching a corner, while the deer held its end tight between grey, gritted teeth. Nostrils flaring, the deer released its grip, then closed its strong jaws on the letter again, released
and closed, released and closed, its teeth inching closer to my fingers each time.
A polite crowd gathered to watch the tug-of-war. Two Steampunk teenagers—girls, maybe—in aviator goggles and tall lace-up boots. An American couple wearing matching windbreakers. An old woman holding a carefully folded newspaper. A park worker leaning on an upright dustpan and broom, a garbage bag stuck through his belt loop.
I held fast to my ever-shrinking corner and growled.
The crowd drew closer together. The deer they could handle.
“Naze kareha Naze kore o hanasanai no ka?” the sweeper asked.
The translation bloomed in my mind. Why doesn’t he just let go? “Sore ni wa nanika imi ga aru nandeshou,” the old woman replied. It must mean something to him.
I let go.
The deer stumbled, steadied itself, then backed away, munching on Miriam’s words. The most important meal it had ever eaten.
The crowd scattered, chatty and excited after the performance, while I set myself down in the middle of the path, breathing heavily and sweating. The park worker moved in and swept up a few shreds of biscuit wrapper and paper.
“Daijobu?” he asked, leaning in to touch me lightly on the shoulder. I had been watching the lone deer, tracking its movement as it ambled off through the shadows and rejoined the herd, becoming one like the others. I started at the man’s touch, turned and looked at his concerned face, then down at his dustpan.
“Yes. I’m fine,” I mumbled in English.
Perhaps it was the friendly concern, the lifting of cloud cover, the promise of cherry blossoms working on me, like so much in this place already had. Perhaps my response was decorative, and I was not fine, actually. Probably it was both: I was fine and not fine, the way only someone enjoying their suffering could be.