When you go to the bank early on a Monday morning, you don’t usually expect to be offered a beer. And you certainly don’t expect to be offered a slug of an unshaven, red-eyed stranger’s can of beer. Not while you are sitting in plush surroundings waiting for the teller to call your number. But that is what happened to me.
I had gone to my local bank in the simple hope of transferring some money to my account in the UK. There are few ‘western-looking’ people in my town, and it is rare for me to meet one without prior arrangement. Rarer still is to see one I haven’t seen before. When I do, I sometimes nod hello, an acknowledgement of our shared status as foreigners in small-town Japan. To greet in this manner would get tiresome in large cities, but in a town like mine where westerners are few and far between it is a simple courtesy. I took a small piece of numbered paper from the machine by the entrance and sat down to wait for that number to be called so I could complete my transaction. I was reading a book as I waited and soon became aware of somebody quite large in my peripheral vision. I looked up and saw a tall foreigner. I smiled before I had time to notice that he was really quite a scary, big man. His face was so full of chips and divots that it looked as though it had been roughly hewn from an already weathered rock, his hair was short and dirty blonde in color, dirty unkempt in style, his chin had what would have been three days’ growth for me but what I suspect was three hours’ for him, an unlit cigarette rested behind his ear and in his hand he had an open can of Sapporo Black Label beer. He smiled in return and I looked quickly back to my book, muttering a small mantra, ‘Don’t sit next to me! Don’t sit next to me! Don’t sit next to me!’ He sat next to me.
I pretended neither to notice nor smell him. But then he nudged me and said, in a heavily accented approximation of English, ‘Meesta.’ When I didn’t look up, he nudged me again and said, ‘Hey, Meesta.’ I met his eye and he smiled broadly and, pointing to his chest, said, ‘Russia!’ I squeaked a little by way of reply. But he looked like he was waiting for a better response. He took a slug of beer and said again, ‘Russia.’ Then he pointed at me and said, ‘America?’
‘Britain,’ I stammered. He looked confused, but offered me his open can. ‘No, thanks,’ I said. ‘Bit early.’ He shrugged his shoulders and took a long draw himself. Then he wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve and let out an astonishingly large burp.
I noticed a few shoulders cringing on the housewives and young mothers in the bank, but they all did an admirable job of pretending that a large drunk fellow hadn’t just let out an enormous belch in a polite and public setting. The staff, too, carried on as if all was normal. A few looked up, but none said anything to him. And it was just at that point that I saw that one of the staff members on duty that day was the mother of one of my seven-year-old students. She noticed me too and we nodded a mutual greeting. Despite my best efforts, I discovered that it is simply not possible to convey in a nod the message, ‘I have no idea who the big drunk man who just did a huge burp is and I don’t know why he’s talking to me.’
Well, even with my obvious reticence to speak and our almost complete lack of common vocabulary, the Russian continued to try to make conversation while everybody else no doubt formed the opinion that we were friends and that foreigners think nothing of getting pissed in the bank of a Monday morning. When my number was finally called and I dashed quickly to the bank counter. I completed my remittance and, as I was leaving, smiled again at my student’s mother, hoping desperately that she realized the Russian fellow wasn’t my pal and that she wasn’t regretting that she had entrusted the teaching of her daughter to a ghastly drunken reprobate. She nodded back and then, when I was almost at the door, a loud voice rang out. ‘Meesta!’ it said with a can raised in accompaniment, ‘Friend!’