I love haori, which are loose, hip-length jackets with billowing kimono-like sleeves, and wear them almost always when I leave the house. This is true even outside of Japan as long as the weather permits. Virtually no one under the age of 60 actually wears haori, so old Japanese ladies tend to stop me on the street and comment on my outfit. One lady has actually walked around me and fingered the sleeves of my jacket – ooh, it’s a nice material. It makes for some interesting encounters.
When I get on the MUNI one day it’s the same story: these three Japanese ladies seated together notice my jacket and say it looks nice. We exchange small talk in a mix of Japanese and English, and I end up sitting next to one of them. There’s yet another old lady seated in front of me, who turns around to see what’s up. She says hello and sets off another round of small talk. I can almost cycle through this in my sleep. She’s a slight, moderately wrinkled lady with permed grey hair and tinted glasses, with a heavy Cantonese accent Americans like to call ‘fobby.’ Her husband was born in Sabah, she’s from Hong Kong, they moved here some decades ago, etc.
Then she says to me, ah, you don’t speak Mandarin, do you.
It must be some kind of combative streak in me, some misplaced postcolonial banana defensiveness that always, always prompts me to contradict a statement like that. My spoken Mandarin is frankly quite awful. For someone who spent so long in a Chinese-medium school – 6 years, and another few years of classes – I bumble through most conversations with the grace of a beached jellyfish. But I rise to the occasion of a seeming accusation and there is no turning back: the moment I respond in Mandarin her face lights up and she launches into full-blown Chinese aunty mode.
Are you a student?
Praise the Lord, I still look young enough to pass. No, I tell her. I live in Japan. I like it there. I’m just visiting.
Do you go to church? No? You can listen to Christian radio in Cantonese, you know. And also Chinese.
She hands me a flyer.
Oh really, I say. Japan has a way of honing your ability to feign interest in conversation. I mean, I am interested – just not in the way she thinks.
You know, if you’re free you should come to church. Just come. You know, there are many nice boys here. Nice boys who can speak both English and Chinese. (Oh really.) Very nice boys. You should come to church and meet them. Are you married? (No.) You’re not married yet? You’re so pretty! All the boys will be chasing after you! You’re a student? (I’m working already. But in Japan.) How long are you here for? You should stay in America, find a job here, meet a nice boy. Get married and bring your family over. You know? I think it’s very good.
Throughout her entire spiel I keep my eyes wide and murmur noises of assent. Internally, the thought of meeting a nice boy at church is setting my liver on fire. While she’s monologuing I recall the first time I stepped into a mosque, which ironically was in Hong Kong despite having lived in Malaysia for the first 18 years of my life. It was a beautiful prayer hall, almost glowing in the evening dark with its walls of turquoise and ruby-magenta prayer mats. One of the men there waylaid Z and I, proceeding to tell us in no uncertain terms that as non-believers we would burn in hell. At least Canto-Church Lady’s concerns are more, well, well-meaning.
As the MUNI clanks its way downtown I politely extricate myself from her attempts at finding me a boyfriend. She takes the flyer back from me. The Japanese lady next to me begins telling me about whirlpools in Tokushima and how it’s better to rent a car there, and this is the rest of my journey to Van Ness. Just before I alight, Canto-Church Lady hands the flyer back to me and there is a wall of text on the back now. This entire time she’s been industriously scribbling detailed directions to her church, even including times for worship in various languages. I feel a little bad because I’m never going to turn up, but her flyer is a rather priceless souvenir from these travels.
Just come when you’re free, she says, as I exit the train. Tomorrow is Sunday.