By Evannia Handoyo, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
Mara sat at the table by the windows. Third cup of hot ocha. Second bowl of chirashi sushi. Night number 32.
It was raining.
What exactly was she hoping for?
“I guess it’s possible,” Saraana told her the week before, as they sat to enjoy a lunch box in Ueno Park. “There are only 13 milion people in Tokyo. Assuming half are men….that’s a 1 out of 6.5 million chance you’ll be able to find him.”
They laughed together. The cool spring air caressed Mara’s flushed cheeks. She took a bite of her beef and tomato spaghetti.
“I mean, I’d like the chance to thank him.”
“For directions he gave you 3 years ago?”
“Yeah,” Mara sighed.
Saraana raised her dainty eyebrows, chewing her chicken katsu slowly.
“Fine, it’s not to thank him. Curiosity’s getting the better of me.”
Across from their bench there was an old couple sitting beneath the white cherry blossoms, feeding each other pieces of sushi. Their grandchildren were running around in a perpetually interesting game of tag.
It was nice of Saraana to show her around Tokyo while Toru was busy with work. What work, he won’t say. However close they were in college still doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the most enigmatic people Mara has ever met. Mara was relieved, at least, to have a female friend to talk to. Especially about her most recent project.
“How long are you here for? You know Toru wants to take you to see the Ghibli Animation Museum and fish being auctioned. I sometimes wonder why I surround myself with such boring people as you two.”
“I only have a month left,” Mara replied.
“Ah, that’s right. It’s almost spring break. The blossoms are early this year.”
“Your brother and I can go on our own if you’d like.”
“No thanks, I’ll chaperone.”
“You’ll be bored to death.”
“I guess I’ll be the first to die next to a giant cat bus.”
“How many times has Toru taken you to that museum anyway?”
Toru loves Ghibli Animation movies.
“Every time he’s felt lonely. His love life is as interesting as a tuna auction, Mara-chan, he’s had to settle with sharing his oh-so interesting life with me.”
“Well, he’s no hopeless romantic, that I know.”
“At least you’re around for another month.”
“If you’re trying to set me up with your brother, chaperoning all the time might work against you,” Mara teased.
“Just until you find your mystery man. If you find him and Toru gets hurt,” Saraana said, almost whispering, “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
It was 9pm and Shinjuku was just starting to get crowded. Mara saw the fashionably-dressed teenagers saunter past the window, laughing and smoking and holding hands. Across the street she saw lingerie shops and ramen shops and convenience stores filled with people, coming in and out. The more faces she saw, the less certain she was of her vivid memory of the Mystery Man. If he did see her, would he remember? After all, they had barely met each other for 5 minutes. And yet still she hoped.
What exactly was she hoping for?
5 years ago, Mara came to Tokyo with her family. She was 19 years old, the official tour-guide for her parents and her 3 brothers. With the tourism that Tokyo gets, it was quite simple to find all the information she needed online. What to do, where to go, how to navigate with public transportation–she was prepared. Of course, Google Street View was still relatively new. The overhead view looked simple enough, and all subway stations had directions in English. 4 minutes from the South-West Exit, the hotel website said. The hotel was just off the main road, and so Mara thought it would be simple to find.
“Mara-san, more ocha?”
She could remember being out there, in the summer heat, with her family tired from lugging around suitcases and being stared at by the Shinjuku crowd. She looked at the map printout and couldn’t figure out her way. Shinjuku station is attached to two malls you say? It has exits on a bridge and to the road under it? And no one knew what she was talking about because the hotel was new (with cheaper room rates) and so she stopped in front of a corner restaurant with a young man trying to attract customers as a human signboard.
At first, he seemed to want to say he couldn’t help her. But taking a good look at her face, he asked, “您会说中文吗?”¹
Mara had wished she remembered at least a little of her Mandarin lessons. But still, she said, “一点 .”²
After some Mandarin and sign language, Mara found her hotel. She couldn’t stop thinking about the young man throughout her whole trip to Japan. For some reason, that memory stayed vivid in the back of her mind.
The bell by the door rang, and a young man dressed in a suit came in. Mara froze.
Behind the sushi bar the chef loudly said a surprised hello. He washed his hands and gave him a handshake. “Well, look at you! Agasa-kun[NN1] ,” he called over his shoulder, “there’s a stranger here that vaguely resembles the dishwasher we lost a couple of years ago.”
The owner hurried out, and gave the man in the suit a big hug.
It was him.
“You’re so funny, Mara-chan.” A couple of nights before, Toru had come with Mara to one of her nightly sessions in the corner restaurant.
When Toru and Mara first met in the Language Exchange Club, they got along right away. That night, they went to a 24-hour McDonalds and talked until it was light outside. He was a year older, so when he was about to graduate he invited her to take a semester abroad to advance her Japanese. And to visit, of course. Meet his sister. Usually quiet and un-opinionated, this was a first for Toru. Even when the extremely biased (and old) history professor went on a tirade against Japan in a lecture on WWII, he held his tongue. She knew he was angry, but he didn’t say a word. Now, Mara could sense the same irritation. But he did not retreat into his head.
“So there’s a young man you met three years ago, and you spent one month’s worth of nights to find him, at a restaurant he no longer works in…you must feel like you’re in some kind of Korean drama.”
“Of course not,” Mara said lightly, “hey, you’re the one who wanted to come! I told you this isn’t something you’d like to see. Me obsessing over something that’s so, so past.”
“Do you even remember his face?”
“Like it was yesterday.”
“And you are sure he hasn’t come?”
“Yes. I’ve always been in this seat by the window, with a view of the front door. And there’s a bell that rings, so…”
“Why do you want to meet him so much?”
“He’s probably not who you think he is.”
“I still don’t get it.”
Toru stared needles into her eyes.
“It’s just that, we meet so many people who come and go, and this is one I really remember. I keep wondering, what would it be like if I met him for real? When I stumbled over rusty Mandarin words in our short interaction, I realized just how much Mandarin, as a language, was part of my ancestry and my identity. He’s why I re-learned it. He’s why I took linguistics. How could I not find him and thank him?”
“You didn’t take linguistics because of him.”
“How would you know?”
“Because you told me why.”
Mara raised her eyebrows.
“You told me that once, when you were a child, there was a language that kids in your class invented. It involved adding an extra G after every syllable, and the vowel of that syllable after the G. You said, the beauty of it is, there was this secret way you could understand your peers under your teachers’ noses, creating this bond that can’t be explained. You told me about your time learning Mandarin in Shanghai, and how horrible it was to not be understood. How you realized that if you don’t understand someone you tend to think they are less intelligent than you are and no one should be treated that way. Everyone should be heard. You never wanted to look down on anyone ever again. That’s why you took linguistics.”
“You’re just jealous.”
Toru grabbed the bill and said quietly, “Of course I am.”
“Well, well, he’s all grown up now! What are you manager of again?”
“I’d rather not say,” he laughed. Mara had learned his name was Zhang Wei, and he had worked at the restaurant for 4 years to graduate from a local university. Was it Takachico? Takachuco? Something of the sort. He was of Chinese descent. In her head, she played out at least 10 scenarios of how she would get up from her seat to approach the group of men now talking over glasses of sake and sushi. Instead, she continued pretending to warm her hands on her now cold glass of ocha.
“You must be getting much more than this old man could pay you!” The sushi chef laughed heartily, while Agasa-kun began telling him to stop joking around so much in front of customers. Zhang Wei told him he missed his time here, and they began to reminisce. Mara felt bad to eavesdrop, but something kept her from standing.
He’s probably not who you think he is.
It quickly turned 10pm, and they were becoming more and more intoxicated. Zhang Wei apparently worked managing a “theater” slash bar downtown in Harajuku. He was considered the young upstart, he boasted, and the older ladies who worked there all love him. He had apparently got a list of their names and was halfway down the list, “If you know what I mean!” The restaurant was almost empty. He has a wife and a baby boy.
What exactly was she expecting?
She got up, thinking, she’ll just thank him anyway and leave. That’s what she came here for. Grabbing her bill, she approached the register.
“It’s 3320 yen for everything.”
Mara gave the girl at the register her money. “Could you help introduce me to that man? I have something–”
The group burst out laughing. “And she forgot her wallet! I mean, I did return it, but after that night with her? I needed a beer, no matter how early!”
The girl gave her the change. “Yes, ma’am?”
“You know what, never mind.”
The spring air was crisp, with the post-rain smell lingering, weaving into street corners.
Mara felt her curiosity quench and drain from her legs, emptying onto the street. A couple was kissing by a 7-Eleven. A group of girls were taking a selfie on an iPhone. A boy was crying, having run too fast and fallen on the pavement.
She took out her phone and dialed Toru’s number. “This restaurant’s food is getting old. Tomorrow we’re eating Italian.”
“I’ll pick you up at eight.”
¹Do you speak mandarin?