Conversing in Japanese is like being a dog. Using context, a few key words and swift application of my scientific skills in deduction, I can sometimes pretend to have a full grasp of whatever sentence has been thrown at me. In truth, I am understanding slightly less than my parents' Springer Spaniel.
It is therefore not surprising that I was caught unawares when the conversation switched from the computer modelling of galaxies to whether I believed in the virgin birth.
I was seated beside an older Japanese lady (she was 68 to be precise. We'll get to how I know that later) on a flight between Tokyo and Vietnam. Having revealed I spoke a little Japanese when confessing I wasn't entirely comfortable with squeezing between her legs and the back of an economy class seat to reach my place, she has proceeded to quiz me about my life. Her interest had begun with a benign set of questions:
Are you French?
(Perhaps not entirely benign to ask of someone from England, but we'll pass over this.)
What are you doing in Japan?
Have you travelled much around Hokkaido?
What is your research about?
Are you Christian and do you believe in Maria's virgin birth?
Can anyone spot where my mental graph for the predicted progression of this conversation completely broke down? Even with the injection of a reasonable number of English words, my language skills were struggling after question three. This was usually the point in the conversation where I would hurriedly depart, thereby avoiding my true lack of linguistic ability becoming apparent. However, this time there was an almighty drop to my right and a conversation with the same applicable adjective to my left. Unable to converse on the finer interpretations of Christian theology, I opted for the ultimate fail-safe reply:
"I... I don't know."
I gathered this was insufficient when the lady continued to gesture at her own belly to indicate the idea of a spontaneous spawning of a godly child. At the risk of sounding slightly rude (remember we're working with Springer Spaniel level vocabulary here) I moved to:
"It's not interesting."
This was completely effective and the lady muttered 'physics' under her breath, nodding in sage understanding. I consoled myself that while I may have enforced the stereotype that all scientists were hell-bound heathens, I had at least saved a future foreigner from the same perturbing turn in conversation. Unphased by her dead end, my neighbour then picked up a new topic for discussion.
... which happened to be the intimate details of my private life.
Being quizzed on personal aspects of my life by complete strangers is common in Japan. I feel this is partially cultural: for instance, I have been randomly asked my age in Japan, Hanoi and on the Beijing subway. It's a question doesn't seem to hold the same taboo as in western countries. However, my suspicion is that in Japan at least, foreigners are considered walking zoo exhibitions to sate all your darkest curiosities.
It is possible my talkative companion suspected she was treading into unsuitable territory. Her starter question was not to inquire how old I was, but to ask for the years of my mother. My first inclination to refuse this information was cunningly offset by her telling me her own age, which is how I came by the number 68. When she asked if I was my parents' oldest child, I could practically hear the abacus balls clicking into position.
"Are you a 'miss'?"
And this was rather less subtle.
Living in a foreign country, I try very hard to be sensitive to different social etiquette. I also appreciate that your marital situation has more significance for the older generation, for whom it was rare not to marry or to wed later in life. This is perhaps particularly true in Japan, where a high fraction of women do not return to work after giving birth, and the term 'Christmas Cake' is coined to mean a woman over the age of 25 who has now passed her prime. I therefore understood this lady's interest was well meant, but this was not enough to blot out my instinctive feeling that this was none of her god damned mother fu--
[The next six paragraphs of text have been removed from this article for brevity. They can be reconstructed by the reader by accessing an online thesaurus and looking up 'profanity'.]
Of course, it is possible that this inquiry was connected with her theological curiosities. Perhaps she felt it was necessary to confirm whether babies regularly materialised in Christian women before inquiring into my family set-up. Either way, this conversation had problems.
In the past, I have answered similar questions with a slightly forced smile. This time I decided I'd had enough. If I could remember to remove my shoes before using a shop changing room and not blow my nose in public, then I could surely expect a basic level of privacy in return. Moreover, if this lady was going to jet off around the world, then it was time for some international manners.
Rule 1: Demanding to know whether the stranger to your right is getting some is perverted.
(What? That's totally what it comes down to.)
Rather than express my feelings in exactly this way (again, saved by the lack of language) I gave an embarrassed duck of my head and pretended to be extremely interested in the flight announcement appropriately warning of approaching turbulence. It was as I tried to avoid eye contact and swept the cabin area around me that I realised my neighbour had brought absolutely no entertainment with her for the six hour flight.
This was going to be a long journey.