The other day I was having dinner and a drink with my wife at our favorite Izakaya. It’s a small place, with a long bar and one table tucked up in the back corner. One of the regulars, Mr. Yamada, invited us to join him at the back table. He had just been to northern Kyoto and had a small brown bottle of sake set down on the table. Mr. Yamada always wears a tie and his gold watch peeks out now and again from his cuffs. He is, in short, something of a dandy and he knows how to use a smile to effect. We sat around and drank the sake, which was slightly bubbly, like some kind of laid-back champagne, and the world got warm and fuzzy the way it will when you are eating small bites of chicken roasted over charcoal and dripping with fat and talking about nothing in particular.
The master of the restaurant came and joined us, so in addition to sake we were plied with mug after mug of Asahi beer. The master, Kanpachi Papa, has had a long and passionate love affair with English. He bought a Mustang after graduating from high school and likes to talk about how he would drive up and down the strip in Osaka while listening to American songs playing over the radio. For two years or so, I had the pleasure of teaching him English. He took careful notes, spoke in frenzied bursts of English which carried over into drinking sessions at his Izakaya, and then he would put his notebook away and let all that hard-earned English fade away over the course of the week. I moved on to a new job and a house out in the suburbs and Kanpachi Papa moved on to working on his golf-game. Which is all well and good because when you are getting nice and drunk, it can sometimes be awkward to suddenly realize that it is indeed your student who is sitting at the table with you.
The night followed a familiar arc. We ate spicy chijimi that burned my mouth in a way that perfectly matched a cold beer. My wife had just enough to drink to break out her Korean. Mr. Yamada and Kanpachi Papa, who had both picked up Korean living in a Korean neighborhood in Japan, peppered her with new phrases which she jotted down in her daily planner. And then Kanpachi Papa pulled out his new Hawaiian driver’s license. Seems he had read that you could take the driving test while on vacation, so he withdrew a pile of money from the bank, hopped on a plane and went to the DMV in Honolulu.
“I failed the first test,” He said. “I just couldn’t get used to driving on the other side of the road.”
Mr. Yamada laughed and said, “Yeah, so he needed to change his plane ticket and have his wife wire him more cash.”
My wife said something in Korean, which might have been, “That’s too bad,” but was obviously the right phrase at the right time as she was wildly applauded by both Mr. Yamada and Kanpachi Papa.
Kanpachi Papa passed the test one week latter. He passed the license around. The smile in the picture made me want to market satisfaction as a kind of toothpaste.
It must have been around 10 PM or so when we stopped drinking. The other regulars had drifted home and it was just the four of us. The sake was long gone. My wife was now speaking in full Korean sentences. Mr. Yamada suddenly said to me, “I was in my university’s
English Speaking Circle
.” I had heard rumors that Mr. Yamada spoke English, but this was the first time he had actually talked to me in anything other than Japanese or Korean. “My sempai made me go to Kyoto and talk to foreigners. I didn’t know what to say, so I would say, ‘Hello. Nice to meet you. My name is Kazuki Yamada.’ I introduced myself to maybe a hundred foreigners over two year.” His beer glass was empty, but he picked it up and looked at it as if it was full of something before setting it back down. “The people I talked to always complimented me. They always said, ‘Your English is great! Keep studying.’ So I did.”
I’m an English teacher. My job is to teach English. But what I do in my classes is tied to my students’ language learning by the thinnest of threads. A parade of foreigners in Kyoto, a Hawaiian driver’s license, ordering beer and talking about food in Korean. In the end, it’s the ways people find to make a language their own that matters. Before we left the Izakaya, Kanpachi Papa told me that if it hadn’t been for my classes, he wouldn’t have been able to fill out the paperwork and answer the questions during the driving exam. It was a generous thing for him to say.
By the time my wife and I got off the train, our heads were pretty clear. We held hands and walked back to our house. It was a cold March evening, not much to let us know that spring was on its way. In Korean my wife said to me, “The beer was delicious.” I couldn’t have agreed with her more.