In 1990, I lived in Osaka, JAPAN for a year, teaching English and learning about a culture quite different from my own. One of the biggest challenges for me was not about difference, but about “sameness” in a very particular sense. I once got off at the wrong subway station and actually walked for 3 blocks before realizing I wasn’t in my neighborhood. Every neighborhood looked like the next, with the same-looking coffee shops, plastic shoe vendors, and fried food stands.
In the Spring, one of my roommates won a bicycle at a raffle when he walked into the local “Family Mart-o” to buy beer. They feted him like royalty as he rode off into the sunset, throwing confetti and snapping pictures. Mark, a dirt-man from Canada, had brought his own mountain bike to Japan when he came, so he loaned me his winnings for the rest of my time there. This was a real gift that relieved me of daily local subway and bus travel around the city and taught me a new way of interacting with the city and its constant crush of denizens. The bike was the standard-issue: a one-speed, black bike with a mesh basket on the handlebars – completely indistinguishable from the next, the same bike everyone in Japan, and likely all of Asia, rides.
I learned quickly that everyone rides on the sidewalks, not the streets, and slowly began to finesse my skills at negotiating large gaggles of knee-socked schoolgirls, legions of “office-ladies”, knots of business associates, and colorful throngs of Geishas. Though the bike was equipped with a sturdy bell, what worked best was applying the brakes with just the right amount of pressure so as to utter the familiar loud screech, what seemed to be part of this bikes design, to announce my presence. A presence which often was met with loud gasps as people turned to witness a rare sight: a gaijin (foreigner) woman riding a bike like a local!
One morning on my way to a meeting in the farthest end of the city from where I lived, I parked the bike in front of a coffee shop by the subway station near my school. Japanese bike commuters didn’t use cables and U-locks and lock their bikes to heavy metal posts like we do in the States, but you simply turned a lock near the front wheel, deposited the key in your pocket, and went on your way. In such an honorable society as Japan, one would never even ponder lifting a bike and carrying it off. Steal it? It doesn’t belong to you. Well, either that or these bikes are such dime-a-dozen items, who wants it really.
When I returned that evening to the spot where I left my bike, however, it was gone! How can this be! What will I tell Mark! Did I have that “honorable society” bit all wrong? As I stood there stewing with what must have been a telling look on my face, the proprietor of the coffee shop came outside and started talking excitedly. My comprehension of Japanese at that time was marginal but the use of hand gestures gave ample succor to an otherwise hopeless scenario. Apparently, one does not leave one’s bike in front of a place of business and block visibility or access to potential customers. One leaves one’s bike in the bicycle parking lot to which he pointed down the block. From my vantage point, I gaped over at the large bike lot with hundreds of bikes that looked just like mine, with tremendous doubt and dismay. Proud of himself that he had gotten his message across, that he had “done me the favor” of moving it to its proper place, he smiled broadly and patted me hard several times on the shoulder and ushered me off.
With trepidation, I made my way to the lot. I walked over to one cluster of bikes, and just stood there, dumbfounded. But then, somewhere out of the grand universe, I remembered something. Something the same, but different. A 7 digit serial number that all bikes had imprinted on them would be my life raft back to harbor, if only I could remember it. I began to squeeze the bike key in my pocket in anticipation of “saving face” with Mark, an important cultural ideal in Japan, I’d learned. I squinted sharply at my mind’s eye in search of the magic numbers; hadn’t I subconsciously looked at them every time I got on that bike? And to my surprise, my brain, acting like a computer, HAD mysteriously recorded and imprinted these numbers into my cerebral database, pulled them out of the ether, and presented them to me right then and there. As I weaved through the lot scanning 10, 20, 30 bikes around me, a miracle occurred. I found it! I actually found it! I pulled the key out of my pocket, damp with sweat by now, inserted it into the lock, and heard the most euphonious sound ever. Click. Yes, that’s it, just click. And out of the sea of sameness, I found my “different” and rode joyously home announcing my arrival at the door, “Tadaima! I’m home!”