I went out for ramen

written by Erika Ehren (福島県)

I enter the store
full of bravado.
I signal with a finger
and an unsure smile.
It’s just me!
No words are needed,
only the use of
universally understood gestures
from the hungry herd.

My heart.
I can hear the apprehensive
They don’t yet suspect.
My secret is still my own.
There are no stares,
no questioning glances.
I am
one of them.

I sit down at the counter,
my dictator stomach and I,
and grab a menu.
I can read it!
Wonder of wonders!
(But only a little.)
The inadequacy of illiteracy
sometimes is overwhelming,
but this time
this time!
I think I’ll be OK.
I’ll stick to the basics.

But wait.
The seasonal dish looks
so scrumptious…
The dictator loudly growls in my ear.
But…I can’t read the kanji.
I try anyway.
Maybe my dictionary?
No. That won’t work.
Maybe I’ll just wing it?
Let’s try!

My stubborn heart whispers to my brain,
for it’s in my hopeful heart
that I desperately wish
that I could speak
But my brain,
that know-it-all,
knows the score.

I call the waitress.
Her – Unsuspecting.
Me – Resigned.
The race starts well.
I’m off the blocks,
the words sprinting
past my lips.
Yes, ドリンクバー please.
Yes, some ぎょうざ.
But now I’ve reached the first hurdle
and my Japanese mask is torn off.

The words are tumbling
end over end
over my clumsy tongue,
a bunch of muscles
which have not yet been trained
for the Tokyo marathon.
ら over めん
ぎょう over ざ
お over ね and がい
Dripping from my mouth
like water through a sieve.
I can’t stop the flow.
I’m throwing drops of language
about the room.

Shake it!
Shake it!
Shake it!
Casting about for the correct
kanji reading
like the shaking of water
from the steaming noodles
I so craved earlier.

Shake it!
Shake it!
Shake it!
Japanese all over the place,
scattered about
like drops of paint
on a Jackson Pollock painting.
Shake it like a Polaroid picture!

It’s everywhere
I can’t catch them.
The right with the wrong,
No, but they’re all
Not right.
Where’s my grammar book?
Where’s my dictionary?
Just give me a moment.
Please stop looking at me like that.

I know you expected fluency.
I’m doing my best.
This isn’t my native tongue.
Please stop looking at me like that.

This word?
Or maybe that one?
That’s not right either.
Please stop looking at me like that.

I want to yell it at the lady
slyly glancing at me from across the way.
Please stop looking at me like that.

I want to tell the store clerk
“I’m trying!”
Please stop looking at me like that.

I want to bellow it
from the bottom of my empty stomach.
Please stop looking at me like that.

The heat of embarrassment
sweeps across my
deceptively Japanese face,
a face that doesn’t actually
compute Japanese.
Please stop looking at me like that!
I’m not Japanese.

I’m sorry.
I’ll just…
point at the menu
Please stop looking at me like that. ◆


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