"NOW I KNOW MY ABC'S!" and Other Ways I Embarrass Myself on the Subway in Japan

I can't be the WORST travel companion. I'd definitely put the guy who picks his nose and eats it ahead of me.
Publish date:
February 18, 2015
public transportation, subway, japan

I ride the subway almost every day in Japan.

When I'm not lost in a book, I take the time to practice my Japanese in the time it takes for me to get from my neighborhood station to the bargain mega mart, my favorite shopping/eating area, or the districts in Tokyo where I tend to get lost (so, all of them).

Rocking along in the subway or above-ground train car, it's easy for me to forget myself and blend in. One of the benefits of looking like everyone else around here — an advantage I haven't always had in the US — is that if I keep my mouth shut and play by the "rules," everyone assumes I'm Japanese and ignores me. Until I don't and then the jig is up.

A few days ago I was taking a short ride, only 20 minutes, to meet my husband for dinner. I took the opportunity to go over my katakana and hiragana — more or less the Japanese alphabet.

I had my headphones on and was listening to a mish-mash of wordless bluegrass covers and Scott Bradlee. The flashcards were flying, my mind was clear, and I was a (kindergarten level) Japanese genius. For a few glorious minutes, I felt cool and capable.

And then I didn't.

As the subway car slowed and pulled into a station, I glanced up to see how much further I had to go before my stop. That's when I noticed the eyes on me.

Glancing around, it was like some orchestrated classroom game, "Heads Up 7-UP Don't Let the Weirdo See You." Every pair of eyes I caught staring at me, quickly glanced away when I saw them. Their eyes fell like dominos.

Huh. Did I have snot hanging out of my nose? No. Was my fly unzipped and gaping? No. Did I have a cat on my head? Not this time.

Figuring it was just my irresistible musk of "oddball," I turned back to my flashcards. It wasn't until a few minutes later when I caught a young woman furtively glance my way that I realized what I was doing, mid breath.

I was absentmindedly reciting the "alphabet" out loud for everyone in the quiet car to hear. With my headphones on, and my brain focused on getting the sounds right, I was giving everyone a refresher course on "ka . . . ri . . . chi . . . ne . . . shi, wait, no, CRAP . . . tsu."

Since it is the cultural assumption that everyone who looks Japanese must be Japanese, the sight and SOUND of an adult woman essentially reciting the alphabet out of order and poorly pronounced must have been baffling. Not to mention that my rambling sliced through the placid near-silence of the commute.

Next time you're in a quiet public place, loudly say, "NOW I KNOW MY ABC'S!" and see what happens. Next time NOBODY will want to sing with you.

This incident reminded me of the time at the end of my freshman year in high school when, after finishing an English exam early, I put on my headphones and relaxed to Tori Amos' dulcet shrieks. Then, like this time on the train, I was jolted out of my happy place when I noticed that the whole class was staring at me.

When I removed my headphones, one of the cool girls said to me, "How does it go again, Louise? Never was a cornflake giiiii-rl . . . ."

How do I still not understand how headphones work?

Several profuse apologies later (that probably made everyone even more uncomfortable), I sat through the rest of my ride in silence. No music, no flashcards, just me and all the blood in my face.

Sometimes I wonder if my neighbors see me getting on the subway, and they walk to another car.

I can't be the WORST travel companion. I'd definitely put the guy who conspicuously picks his nose and eats it ahead of me. I'm accidentally annoying or confusing. Maybe I give people good stories. "There was this woman on the train, and OMG she was . . . ."

But then sometimes I try to be friendly and I cross over into creepy territory. (Not in the good way.)

My creepy-friendly powers were at their peak one afternoon not too long ago when I was taking the subway to go buy some sweaters — some very non-creepy, wholesome sweaters.

On the ride I ran into a friend of mine, another American. We quietly chatted as the car rumbled along, and a few minutes in I noticed a little Japanese girl looking curiously at us. Well, at me.

Now let me add, that I'm used to this. Japanese children often see me speaking rapid, fluent English and they don't quite get it. It makes sense. I remember being in kindergarten and seeing two grown-ups who looked like all the other Caucasian people in Seattle speaking french or something and loudly, and asking my mom, "What are they doing?"

With my blue-eyed, blond-haired friend, speaking English was a given. But me? I think Japanese children are fascinated by the conflicting information their eyes behold. She's Japanese but she's not . . . but . . . huh?

May the Great Kitten in the Sky bless them for their blatant curiosity.

And while I usually just let them stare and carry on, I was feeling extra "peppy" that day and decided to engage the girl, just a little.

Catching her eye, I smiled and gave a little waggly-finger wave. She smiled back. She was missing a couple teeth.

Encouraged by her response, I smiled back bigger and made a funny face, sticking out my tongue. She smiled and laughed a tiny little laugh.

Then I got in trouble.

I guess her mother suddenly noticed that her daughter was goofing around with a stranger-danger-train-weirdo and abruptly stepped between us. She said something quietly to her daughter, then turned and gave me a hard look that transcended language. "GO AWAY," it said.

I felt so bad. While I knew I was just being silly with the little girl, offering her an innocent "howdy and hello," I should have known better. Maybe her mom overreacted a little, but one can be none too careful when it comes to adults who are overly friendly with children on the subway.

And because of the language barrier, there was no way to explain that I wasn't being a creep. But then again, that's what a creep would say.

They got off at the next stop. My friend said, "Only you, Louise."

Of course, I'd like to think my subway hijinks aren't always my fault. Sometimes I drop things. And while it seems like I'm THE ONLY ONE IN JAPAN WHO HAS EVER DROPPED ANYTHING EVER IN A SUBWAY CAR, I'd say that such actions land squarely in the realm of "cover your laughs and annoyance all you want, it was an accident, GEEZ."

I won't go into too much detail because you'd probably be better served watching an episode of I Love Lucy or The Three Stooges. But apparently you haven't lived until you've seen a sweaty American woman chase a bottle of water down the length of a subway car, her stupid pink scarf snagging people's bags along the way, and her long stupid hair gagging her as she blathers, "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry" in Japanese.

Sometimes I really miss my car.

Have you ever embarrassed yourself on public transportation? How? Do you know how headphones work?

Tell us and we'll have a good laugh.