The Japanese have a saying: Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu. The literal translation is: If you do not enter the tiger's cave, you will not catch its cub. The English equivalent is: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Every year our host mother Eikosan throws a New Years Party and invites several of her family members for dinner. This year she invited approximately 30 people and mentioned that she'd like us to attend. This was hard to pass up, as her warm smile and gift of hospitality always make us feel at home. This was going to be our 4th time breaking bread under her roof. Although we had enjoyed each of the other 3 visits, the idea of mingling with 30 other people whose language I didn't speak was a little unsettling.
While riding the subway to Eikosan's I had a vision. I pictured a quite room filled with tatami mats, a japanese table, notes from an eastern string instrument played over an old radio, traditional dress worn by everyone and lots of bowing to the patriarch of the family, who in this case was Ojiisan (grandpa). Although we hadn't been formally introduced I had seen him twice before, the first time being quite awkward. During our initial visit to Eikosan's home I opened the door on him when he was reading the newspaper in the bathroom. For just one moment I stood there, he sat there, and we looked at eachother with blank stares. Mine saying,"Is this happening?", and his saying "Who are you?". The second time was when the rest of us were eating dinner. From the hallway he stuck his head through the doorway and looked at me, then at the other guests, and with a look void of emotion he did an about face and marched down the hallway.
It would be fair to say I was a little afraid of Ojiisan. He was a shorter man who looked to be in his late 80's or early 90's, he wore a military crew cut of gray hair and large bi-focal glasses with gold trim. Even though we had our differences in the restroom, I desperately wanted to communicate with him and get his pespective on things. If he was willing to share it with me, I imagined that it would be quite interesting. I wanted to show my respect towards him and hoped he could acknowledge my appreciation for inviting me into his home. The one thing I knew about Japanese culture was the importance of maintaining respect for older generations. And the more I realized I didn't know enough japanese to accomplish this one simple task, the more my blood began to rush with anxiety.
It was starting to dawn on me, not only was I unable to deliver a proper greeting to Ojiisan but I was also going to meet partiarchs from all different sides of the family. Uncles, fathers, sons, cousins, would all be present and counting on me to deliver a fair attempt at a personal and proper greeting. "How had I survived nearly two monthes in Japan and not learned the basics?", I thought. Then my imagination really took me for a ride. I began to picture everyone watching me while I stood in the middle of the living room gesturing with my hands and making facial expressions, trying to communicate simple things like "Thanks for the invite", and "Please excuse the sweaty pits". I imagined eveyone watching me as I tasted the food they had prepared. They would study my facial expressions, and then slap me on the back of the head with a bamboo pole right after cutting through the bullshit of my pre-planned response of "MMM, oiishi des!" (it's delicious).
I knew no Japanese, I was way behind in my Japanese family customs class and I was definitely going to insult the patriarch of every family present. Meanwhile, I would insult all the cooks by not liking their traditional holiday dish. As if the anxiety of all that wasn't uncomfortable enough, I was going to a family gathering that was not my own. I was not entering my family's comfort zone, where the walls have been scaled, broken down and there is no ice left to break. I was completely out of my element. What did we have in common anyway? We're from opposite sides of the globe, so what common thread would we weave even if we could speak the same language? All these questions were burning up my insides. Here I was again, assuming the worst case scenario would take place.
We jumped off the subway and headed towards Eikosan's. I took a few breaths and tried to calm my nerves. I glanced down at my watch and realized we would be arriving 30 minutes late. "What a great first impression", I thought. We rang the door bell and waited to be greeted at the front door.