Rounding out

“The line is so long.”

This didn’t faze me. After years of living in the country of unrivaled line waiting patience, I’ve started considering less than a one hour wait to be reasonable. Japanese people can wait without complaining for hours. In the rain. Before sunrise. I know, I’ve done it too.

So waiting for less than half an hour indoors for the best – bar none, the best – egg tarts I’ve ever tasted? Piece of …tart.

“You get a table and I’ll bring them over, ok?” my dad said.

I nodded and headed into the cramped seating area. Every seat and substitute had been filled so with no existing line in sight, I stood to the side, making my own. In Hong Kong, I had a relative’s pocket wifi. In Macau, I relied on the free wifi that shopping centres doled out so I was perfectly content to catch up on my social media while waiting.

When a seat opened up a minute later, I pocketed my phone and headed over. Before I could reach the table, a woman flanked by bags swooped in and buried the table with her shopping. I looked around to find no one reacting to the table thief and decided that she hadn’t seen me.

It took another two times, once when I was already reaching for the seat, before I finally caught on to the rules of the line waiting: there are none.

This time, the phone stayed pocketed and I was on alert. At the next opportunity, I moved in too close too soon for normal social convention, almost hovering over the finishing occupants and sliding into the chair before they could push it back in.

Immediately, a woman came over and began berating me in Mandarin. People speaking in foreign languages at breakneck speeds have lost the fear inducing panic in me thanks to a long period of exposure, but at the volume and belligerence that she was going, I have to admit, I was a little stunned. I caught on to enough of the words to understand the general message but I decided to use the golden go-to I use for these situations in Japan… in Australia too come to think of it.

“我聽不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng: I don’t understand).”

Later that week, safe in Japan from screaming Chinese people, my housemates shook their heads at me as I told them the story over egg rolls.

“日本人になったね (nihonjin ni natta ne: You’ve become Japanese),” they laughed.

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The scenic route

The headlights rolled along a fallen “DO NOT ENTER” sign along the dirt road before leaving it behind in total darkness.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” I said tentatively, really meaning that I didn’t want to alarm myself, “but isn’t this how all horror movies start? Kids exploring places where they really shouldn’t? In their dad’s car?!”

At sixteen, I was the only teenager in the group. Being in a car with twenty-somethings, I really didn’t want to be uncool. Even more than that, however, I didn’t want to die.

My oldest cousin chuckled, though not unkindly. “It’s ok,” he reassured me with his charming smile from the passenger seat. “Things only get crazy when it’s like, midnight, right?”

We all glanced at the clock. 11:55pm. Of course.

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There’s no place like home

If I had a hundred yen for every time someone asked me if I liked 納豆 (natto), I’d have enough money to bribe my way out of ever eating it again.

What’s natto? Fermented soybeans in all their sticky glory. Which doesn’t sound too bad, right? I thought so too.

I love Japanese food beyond sushi and ramen. I ate もつ鍋 (motsunabe), essentially stewed organs, for every second meal I was in Fukuoka. When I have friends visiting, I take them out to eat raw horse (馬刺し: basashi) and raw chicken (地頭鶏たたき: jitokkotori tataki), half because I want to give them a unique experience and half because I want to eat it.

Granted, I haven’t tried pufferfish (河豚: fugu) because it’s expensive, or whale, because… well, they’re whales and I can’t.

But natto. It’s something else. It’s healthy and cheap and part of almost every local household as far as I can tell but. No.

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Last Friday night. Being the social creature that I am, I did the usual thing of holing up in my room with a book and a quickly emptied mug of tea.

“プリス今どこ?(purisu ima doko: where are you now?)” my phone lit up. One of my housemates.

Texting in Japanese makes me squirm. Instant messaging is meant to be instant, after all, and I am incapable of doing so in this language. Not to mention that all my mistakes are on display as soon as I hit send.

“私の部屋 (watashi no heya: in my room),” I sent back. “どうしたの?(doushitano: why? What’s up?)”

My guess was that I’d need to get the door. There’s no intercom system to get into our house so if you forget your key, you can either get someone to open it for you from the inside or wait until the next person comes home. We all opt for the former.

A gentle whoop alerted me to the reply. “今忙しい?(ima isogashii: are you busy at the moment?)”

“Nope,” I replied, switching languages for speed now that my interest was piqued. Opening doors doesn’t require that much time.

“新しい外国の人がいるんだけど、日本語わからないんだ(atarashii gaikokunojin ga irundakedo, nihongo wakaranainda: there’s a new foreigner here but they don’t understand Japanese),” came an equally quick reply, “キッチンに来れる? (kicchin ni koreru: can you come to the kitchen?)”

I laughed. Uh sure, I thought, wondering what I was supposed to do. Welcome them, maybe? After all their help in getting me settled in, it was time to pass it on. And, if we’re going to be completely honest, I really should be more social. On a Friday night, no less.

Grabbing milk and my empty mug on my way out the room, I figured I could microwave my now cold pot of tea while I was there.


Tea: my social safety blanket.

Our new housemate had just arrived in Japan the day before and moved in earlier that afternoon. So, for the first time in a while, I was able to unleash a storm of English in our common room. It wasn’t long, however, for the other housemates to join in the conversation – in English – to my surprise.

To my great surprise.

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Broad strokes


“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox, “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I think Japan is taming me somewhat.

To them, before I came to be called プリちゃん (Purichan) or プリ子 (Puriko) or even プリス (Purisu), I was nothing more than a hundred thousand other foreigners with a hard-to-pronounce name. One of the thousands stalking around famous landmarks and little alleyways in search of a photo opportunity. One of the many miscommunications.

Then suddenly, one day, they started talking to me about other foreigners – even Australians and Chinese people – in front of and to me without that filter of politeness.

I will never completely shed my foreign status, no matter what my passport says or however fully I integrate into society. Yet apparently, neither am I considered wholly and newly foreign either. I’m in limbo. In the stages before I become someone who is more than just a Chinese-Australian, a foreigner. In the process of becoming tamed and therefore unique in all the world, beyond ethnicity or nationality.

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Little noodle

I love my brother, Aaron’s, Chinese name. It means something like “looking upwards,” implying humility and also, in my opinion, great dreams. My name is less fitting. Mine means something like “beauty and grace.” Our parents struck much closer to the mark when they named Aaron.

“My Chinese is pretty terrible,” Aaron said one night over dinner. He turned to his then-girlfriend, now-wife. “It’s so bad I think I’d name my first kid 叉燒 (cha siu: Chinese barbecue pork).”

She laughed. I gasped. “Yes,” I nearly shouted in excitement. “Do it. No matter what you name that kid now, I’m gonna call it 包包 (bao bao: bun). And then I’m gonna chase that little munchkin around the house and pretend to eat its cheeks.”

“Yeah, you would,” Ally said, digging at her pasta.

“唔好啊 (m4hou2aa3: it’s not good/don’t do it),” said my father, thoroughly unamused by the suggestion. Unsure of how serious Aaron was being, he looked a little scandalised.

“Cutest name ever,” I said, undeterred.

Dad looked at us, half bewildered and half confused. Where did you two come from?! I could almost hear him thinking.

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Made up

“先生、先生、いい?(sensei, sensei, ii: teacher, teacher, can I…?)” my older, more brazen students would ask, already running their fingers gingerly through my hair.

I’d chuckle. These girls always preferred to ask for permission only after they’d started.

“Go for it,” I’d tell them.

Their hands would grasp the air for my wrists, where they knew I kept a hairband handy. I never admitted it to them but I always found their giggling and the gentle tugging on my hair an amusing distraction while I corrected students’ writing and homework.

In some classes, when this happens, I see other girls sink further into their books. Or some will never participate, but only watch on from the sidelines as they chat with my amateur stylists.

But I’m not the only one who notices these girls. I’ve heard others – sometimes adults and sometimes their own peers – reassure them that they’ll become more interested in these things as they get older.

When I hear it, I’m suddenly back, an awkward preteen afflicted with eczema and, worse, a liking for my brother’s baggy hand-me-down jumpers. I’m showing my teachers my palms when they ask to check my hands, implying that they’re really checking for nail polish at school. All the aunties telling me the same thing I hear these girls being told now; that “beauty is pain,” and that one day, I’ll be spending all day in front of the mirror “putting my face on” and chasing after boys.

They were wrong. That day never came.

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