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He Says Fish, She Says Dance (Part 2 of 3)

After deciding to go against the wishes of her father, Monica flew to Japan. In the cabin, she had all the time to think whether her decision was the right one—not that it mattered anyway as the plane, almost twenty hours later, landed in Tokyo in the middle of winter.

“Oh my God, my first impression was how cold it was,” remembered Monica when she first took her first steps in the city. “That winter was the first time I ever saw snow. I was wearing five or six layers of clothing,” she laughed, arms wrapped around herself in a mock shiver.

After securing a job at a factory in Saitama Prefecture in the suburbs of Tokyo, she began adjusting to her new life and Japanese culture. But it wasn’t really the cold that bothered her as much as the characteristics of the Japanese people around her.

“I didn’t understand why people were so cold here,” said Monica. “No emotion at all. Whenever I took a train to work, people were either sleeping or had these blank faces. It was very quiet. Nobody talked to each other.”

She realized that in order to fit in, she had to tone down her natural inclination to raise her voice or say directly what was on her mind. She had to get used to the subtlety and indirect way of communicating her feelings in Japan in contrast to Latin America’s emotional, direct use of language. In fact, in a country where direct confrontation and losing face is avoided at all costs, it would be considered impolite and childish to show her feelings outwardly. Indeed, in communicating with her Japanese co-workers or neighbors, she felt like a child at times, unable to express her true thoughts because of her rudimentary Japanese language skills.

She knew all that time that despite being able to speak two languages, Spanish and English, she would have to master Japanese to communicate with her boss and make more intimate friends. So, she signed up for some night classes on Tuesdays at a local community center, organized by volunteers who are paired up one-on-one with a student from a foreign country. Students consisted of housewives, teachers, and laborers who came from as diverse countries as China, Korea, Canada, Philippines, Iran and Peru.

Within a year, her Japanese was good enough for everyday conversation. That was also when she was introduced to Mr. Keitaro Ito by a mutual friend in the form of a compa.

Compa, short for “companion,” is a typical way for young Japanese in their 20’s to meet new people in hope of finding a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. Two friends of opposite sex bring along their same-sex friends to a gathering place, usually a pub or restaurant, in hopes of finding matches for their friends. Although it may seem quite informal from the outside, just a group of young people enjoying a nice Friday evening, everything about the compa is systematized with its own codes and unwritten rules: Everything from the opening speech given by the “head boy” and “head girl” to the seating arrangement: boy, girl, boy, girl. Even down to the games that are arranged to combat those uncomfortable silent moments. At the end, a successful evening means getting a telephone number written on a scraggly bit of napkin or better yet on a piece of memo paper from an appointment book.

“I didn’t think too much of him at first. He was quiet,” said Monica. “We exchanged numbers that night and he called me a week later.” From then on, they regularly went out for dinners, movies and walks in the park. Because of her inexperience with men and he being only the second boyfriend she ever had, she didn’t think anything of the differences in their cultures at first. However, Monica quickly discovered one glaring deficiency in Keitaro unheard of in Latin America.

(Go to Part 3)

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