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The Other Side of the Mirror
Shops lined both sides of the narrow street, each with its own inscrutable sign hanging somewhere conspicuous. Telephone wires crisscrossed above our heads like giant electrical spider webs. People bustled around us, walking in no particular direction, the thickness of the crowd making it impossible to see one side of the street from the other. My American friend Caitlin and I moved a little closer to Atsuko, our host mom, afraid to get lost in the rush of bodies.
This was the first time since we arrived in Japan that we had been somewhere that wasn’t a tourist attraction, and the contrast was startling. Signs and brochures, which up until then had humored our foreignness, were entirely in Japanese. The letters swirled around in elegant but unfamiliar shapes, and I struggled to adapt to the novel experience of not only being unable to understand the words, but to read them at all.
Conversation hummed around me, the volume amplified to a cheerful roar by the number of speakers. Occasionally I would catch a string of conversation and try to translate in my head, never understanding more than a single word or syllable. The Japanese language is painted by its pitch accent, which makes words sound more like songs than sentences. Listening was like trying to put a rainbow in a jar, I could sense the color but couldn’t capture it.
The shops were set in squat buildings that were never more than two stories and often only one. People entered through the fronts of them, which were open to the street. They reminded me of the stalls at the state fair. The smells of different kinds of food wafted from nearby booths, heightening the sense of familiarity.
One building held a candy store. Caitlin and I darted around the tables looking at sweets, fascinated by everything but not brave enough to spend too much money on something that might taste like fish. Atsuko guided us to a table that had a small dish set out with samples. It contained colored crystal candies that looked like tiny fireworks. I picked up a white one and dropped it in my mouth. It wasn’t fruity, as I had expected it to be, just very sweet, as if the only ingredient were sugar. Caitlin and I smiled at each other in approval.
We continued shopping for a while, but then Atsuko guided us off the street to a deserted path that I hadn’t seen before. It led away from the activity of the shopping road and through a line of red torii gates. Each one looked like a skinny H set horizontally between the tops of two posts, and they stretched almost three times my height. They framed the path like portals to a different world.
Atsuko led us further along to a small pavilion. Beneath it there was a basin of water guarded by a green dragon statue that crouched on a raised platform behind it. Its neck leaned back over its snakelike body, and then curved towards us again so that its bearded head was suspended above its feet, mouth open in a silent hiss. Beneath the dragon were an assortment of wooden ladles, some balanced on the edge of the basin and some floating in the water. Japanese writing decorated the back of the scoops, another reminder of my illiteracy.
Atsuko bent down and dipped one of the ladles under a stream of water that was flowing out under the dragon. She poured some water from the scoop into her right hand and brought it to her lips, and then used both hands to tip the ladle up so the remaining water would fall over her hands. She gestured for Caitlin and me to do the same. Fighting the nagging suspicion that I was doing it wrong, I cupped the water against my mouth, unsure of whether or not I was supposed to let it in. Was this really sanitary? I dismissed the thought, dumped my ladle over my hands, and then replaced it under the dragon’s watch.
We continued down the path until we reached a small Shinto shrine. A tattered rope hung down from the bells dangling from the roof. Behind it, there was an offering box with slots in it so that coins could slip through and fingers couldn’t. On the back wall people had crammed business cards into the pockets.
It seemed unusual to me that this shrine honored a business god, that it was the whole point of the shopping street. I thought of the passage in the Christian Bible where Christ enters a temple and is outraged that the merchants are selling their wares in what should be a sacred place. He rebuke them, saying that they have turned the temple into a “den of robbers,” yet here was a religion that used commerce to honor a god.
Atsuko tossed a five yen coin into the box and rang the bell. She pressed her palms together in a quick prayer, bowed, and then turned back to the Americans. We followed her down the path until we reached the main street again.
On our way back, we stopped at a food stall to get something to eat. The smell of fermented soybeans inundated my nostrils. We watched as the workers cooked batter over a sickly looking paste in fish shaped molds.
A few of the other customers glanced curiously at Caitlin and me over their shopping before heading back to the street. For the first time in my life, I was aware that I am white. The knowledge of it crawled under my skin and heightened my consciousness of other people. This was a place that I could never belong in, simply because I would never appear to belong. I would always be seen as a foreigner, not because of anything inherently racist, but rather for the same reason that a snowman in August seems foreign. It is something outside the commonplace, and its strangeness triggers a second glance, a second thought. The second thought condemns me.
It was as if I were standing in front of a mirror. The reflection I initially thought was identical to me was actually a reverse image. It was the same in every essential, but as I raised my right hand she raised her left. We reached for each other, but our fingers couldn’t cross the glass. I am damned to spend life on one side, my twin on the other. We are separated for eternity, yet bound so much more forcefully by how similar we are.
The man behind the counter handed Atsuko a box of the fish shaped been pancakes, and she gave Caitlin and I each a small piece to try. It was disgusting, worse than the smell. Atsuko scanned our faces, and then laughed at our poorly veiled distaste. We smiled back apologetically. For a moment, we all stood there grinning at each other, the same in every essential, our hands pressed against the mirror, seeing all the ways we are the same.