Superpowers

Seth Godwynn - additional crap jokes by Jack
Superpowers are something we all have. The only trick is in identifying them.
And once you do identify them, it’s only a matter of time before everything starts to look like a metaphorical nail, just waiting to be knocked into place by your metaphorical hammer.

One of mine was never intended to be anything beyond a mere tool for survival. Once I’d made the decision to move to Japan permanently, and fully aware that most people either couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t speak English, I knew I needed to be functionally fluent in the local language before stepping foot on local soil. Trying to do this with nothing more sophisticated than a grammar book, a dictionary, and a local library was not the easiest thing I’ve ever set out to do—this was effectively pre-internet, and even if there were online resources to be found, most British computers would not have displayed them. Still, as my survival more or less depended on it, I persevered and achieved moderate functional fluency after about 6 months. I didn’t leave for another four years after that, so I had plenty of time to up the ante. By the summer of 1999, I was confident I could survive and thrive without needing to resort to English.

However, when I did finally arrive on Japanese shores, I was accompanied by hundreds of other people who didn’t have that foresight. For the first few months, I don’t think a single day went by when I didn’t end up helping somebody out of a situation they wouldn’t be in if they’d invested a bit of time into preparation. Often it was just silly things, like overhearing somebody sat nearby in a restaurant accidentally ordering a beer while intending to ask for the bill, or navigating a team of ragtags down the side of a bloody great mountain where taking the wrong path could mean ending up on the other side of the planet, and all the signs are handwritten in Chinese characters.

This became less of a burden as time went on, because I was able to successfully annoy most of these people enough that they stopped inviting me out. Also, most of them left the country after a year because being effectively handicapped is not a fun way to spend a large portion of your life.

What I found curious though was how often my language skills would come in useful while overseas. I come from a part of the UK with a Japanese population of none at all. If ever one did visit, it’s because they got on the wrong train at Waterloo. But when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

I was at the Spice of Life once with a friend (who curiously was one of the ill-prepared people I met on the plane on the way here) and was ordering a round of drinks at the bar. I heard the barman butchering some Japanese greetings to a couple of young ladies and I rather politely told him he was pronouncing it completely wrong. Turned out he was doing what I’d done a decade earlier—trying to learn the language so he could live in Japan—and the sudden presence of someone that had succeeded surprised him so much that he immediately offered to buy us both drinks all night if he could sit with us and pick our brains. He did end up moving to Japan some years later, and lived in the very same town I had first lived in, but then he went back to Britain after and became a journalist, so we can’t all have happy endings.

Another time about a decade back, I was on my way to Britain flying via Beijing, and a sudden snowstorm meant we couldn’t land at Heathrow, or anywhere remotely civilised—even Paris. We flew around for about an hour, eventually landed in Brussels airport and sat on the tarmac for close to another six hours while the pilot negotiated with airport authorities. The airline didn’t operate out of that airport, so they were effectively reinventing the wheel. When we eventually did get off the plane, I noticed a young couple sitting a few rows back from me. The woman was crying her eyes out, and the man was trying to reassure her in Japanese on a flight that was 99% Chinese passengers. That was when it occurred to me that probably neither of them understood Chinese or English— the only languages spoken on the flight. They likely had no idea what had been happening for the past six hours, and maybe weren’t even sure what country they were in. I stepped in and explained the situation, and said that as we were all likely to be stuck there together for some time, to come and find me if they needed help with anything. They did several times because we were there for nearly 48 hours, and for most of that time there was simply no information to be had.

By far the most bizarre incident though—the one that if I was trying to concoct a scenario for a short story, I wouldn’t use it because it was just too farfetched—was at a pub in London back in 2004. It wasn’t the Spice of Life, but it was just down the road at the end of a Cul-De-Sac. I can never find it on a map for some strange reason, but it was definitely there, and not just another figment of my imagination, brought on by experimentally mixing orange juice, mint cordial and rat poison… In the summer, everyone would drink outside it in the road because there was no through-traffic, as me and some friends were ourselves doing. One of them—Baz—says to me, ‘So then Seth, your Japanese must be really good by now!” At that precise moment, a passing stranger overheard and interrupted.

“I’m sorry,” he began. “Is one of you fluent in Japanese? If so, I could really use some help.”

He explained to me that he’d lived a little North of Tokyo for a year, where he met his wife, who came back to England with him after, but she wasn’t settling down well. Because of communication difficulties, she couldn’t tell him what the problem was, opting instead to just take it all on the chin. As I was obviously familiar with both cultures and languages, could I have a chat with her (for which he would provide enough refreshment to thoroughly flush any remaining rat poison right out of my system).

Even stranger, his wife was perfectly willing to flush her guts to a complete stranger. She explained to me that ever since moving to the UK, he’d been acting inconsiderately towards her and any time she tried to raise concerns, he’d dismiss them out of hand. The concerns were all silly little things, but they add up.

For example, when he washes the dishes, he doesn’t rinse the soap off, and when she asks him to, he just says it’s fine as is.

To her surprise, I actually agreed with her. I’d got into the habit of rinsing off the soap when I moved here, and now hate it when other people don’t. Most British people don’t, because they have no tastebuds or any sense of shame. To be fair to him though, he did sort of have a point too. Japanese detergent contains ingredients that are toxic if ingested, and British detergent doesn’t, so leaving it on the plates actually is technically fine from a health point of view, even if it is completely disgusting from every other.

She reeled off a few more specifics, and soon spotted the pattern that she was just experiencing culture fatigue and was likely overthinking things. She looked visibly relieved though.

I related this to her husband, enabling him to see a few things from a different perspective (and promising he would rinse the soap off in future), and then he went around telling everyone that I’m some kind of superhero that single handedly saved his marriage.

Another superpower I have is that I can fart through time. I have yet to find this quite as useful as the other one though, but there’s a nail out there somewhere…

At the end of the day, a superpower doesn’t have to be anything cool. It’s merely a tool that you can use effectively when the time calls for it. And the time will call for it, because you will find yourself fabricating opportunities to prove its worth.

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