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October 7, 2015 / Karen Hill Anton

The joy of strangers on a train

(January 14, 1999)

I have a friend, an American novelist, who told me she styles the dialogues for her books on the conversations she eavesdrops on in restaurants. She creates many of her novels’ characters from the unexpected but welcome encounters she has with strangers on public transportation.

I don’t listen in on other people’s conversations and I don’t encourage strangers to talk to me, but it seems every time I board a train that’s exactly what happens, even when I have my head buried in a book.

Recently, when a man sat next to me on the Shinkansen and said “How do you do?” I thought, Oh no. Time to talk English.

I said nothing, looked his way and smiled. Perhaps that could be taken as encouragement, because before the train pulled out of the station I knew he was married with two grown (unmarried) daughters, was a former high school teacher, and now works for the local board of education.

Staid, suited and buttoned up, he appeared the quintessential bureaucrat. I could hardly believe how easily and openly he began talking.

He’d always liked English, he told me, and started studying on his own beginning in junior high school.

“I was so keen to study. I memorized many phrases and expressions. But sometimes my memorized phrases got me into trouble.”

Here I showed some curiosity.

“After I finished university, I was able to realize my dream. I visited the United States. While visiting an American home I asked, “Where can I wash my hands?”

His host, naturally, took him to a sink. He washed his hands. Hours later, noticing their guest appeared to be in an increasing state of distress, he was asked if perhaps he would like to use the toilet. “I couldn’t even answer calmly, I almost screamed “Yes, yes!”

“When I taught school, I often thought how fortunate the students were. They were never hungry. Each one, I was sure, had a tape recorder in their room. In my junior high school there was one tape recorder. We students were not allowed to touch it. Only teachers could touch it. Young people now cannot imagine what it was like when I was a schoolboy.”

When he was 13 years old he went on a school excursion to Kyoto. “That’s when I saw a foreigner for the first time in my life. I cannot tell you how happy and excited I was. ‘Gaikokujin, gaikokujin!'” 

There in the train he clapped his hands together as he had done those many years ago, and for one brief moment, he was no longer the staid bureaucrat, but a teenage boy, with tears of joy in his eyes.

In December I visited the Noto Peninsula. It’s a long train ride (in fact, three train rides) and when I settled back in my seat with my book, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when my seat-mate said “Are you traveling to Kanazawa?”

Before long I knew she and a friend had visited Washington DC, where her daughter had been studying. It was her first time to travel outside of Japan, and it had been a wonderful trip, right up until this incident.

“From the moment my daughter, our friend and I entered this restaurant we felt uncomfortable. The waiter was unpleasant and haughty, and made no effort to hide his disapproval of us. Although many tables were available, he did not give us a good one. Our food came late, after people who arrived after us. One dish was so burned it was inedible. My daughter returned it saying it was not acceptable. Although I don’t speak English, my daughter could speak it well enough to complain and express her displeasure.”

She said although it had happened eight years earlier, the experience was still vivid and she will never forget it. She was shocked, she said, to find out how poorly people can be treated just based on their looks, and she became aware how easy it was to make others feel inadequate, somehow.

“It was very unpleasant for me, but I did learn something. Until then, I had never even thought about prejudice or discrimination, so there was value even in this painful experience.” She said it was only then that she realized how some people in Japan, and other places, are treated and how they must feel.

Fortunately, that unpleasant experience was balanced by the experience of going to another restaurant where their patronage was welcomed and they were treated well.

“But just think,” she said, “that this small thing, really just a social inconvenience, could cause such sadness and be so hurtful. I am sometimes surprised when I think of how it still affects me. Imagine what it must be like for people who are looking for work or a place to live.” There were tears in her eyes.

She apologized when she saw my book, which had remained open on my lap. “I’m sorry I interrupted your reading.”

I’d hardly noticed. I can read anytime, I told her, but I never know when I can talk with a stranger on the train.



This woman and I exchanged addresses and corresponded for several years. 


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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