If you live long enough, you’ll experience things that are weird but cool. Here’s an example from my life. Some years ago, I was going to a professional meeting in Indianapolis. When I arrived at the conference hotel, the reception clerk apologized to me since the hotel had been overbooked, and there was no longer room for me. “But don’t worry,” he said. “We’re putting you up just a few blocks down the street at the Claridge, Indiana’s only five-star hotel, and the difference in price is on us.” Okay, I thought. Having to walk a few blocks several times a day when all I’d be doing would be sitting in conference sessions sounded more like an investment in health than an inconvenience. Plus, as someone who’d never spent a night in a five-star establishment, this unexpected change in plans struck me as a piece of good luck and, possibly, the start of an unexpected adventure. How prophetic that thought would prove!
My room totally lived up to my imagination for what a five-star hotel room would be like: great furnishing and appointments, a cushy king-sized bed with a king’s ransom in comfy pillows, and two TVs, with one in the bathroom! When I went down for the included breakfast the next day, I was pointed to a sumptuous buffet in the great hall. On tables with ice sculptures, which somehow had been trained not to melt, there was a feast beyond belief. In addition, guests could go to one of several chefs to request a personalized omelet, a fresh-grilled steak, or other delights of one’s choosing. After finishing two helpings of what was on offer, I noticed two Japanese businessmen sitting a few tables away. They were dressed in identical blue suits and looked important. Since our university system had just started a bi-national community college in Akita, Japan, and I was the assistant to the chancellor for international programs, I had begun taking Japanese classes along with other members of the chancellor’s staff and was at this point perhaps five weeks in. Of course, as an extreme extrovert, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for real-life practice. So, I betook myself to the two gentlemen, bowed, and offered my meishi, or business card. Fortunately, our first lesson had been about politeness, including how to introduce oneself to strangers. The two gentlemen turned out to be Mr. Subaru, owner of the car company named for him, and his companion, a member of the Japanese Diet, or Parliament. They were clearly delighted that a white person had been willing and able to exchange pleasantries with them in their language. I learned that they were in Indiana to open their then-new North American factory in West Lafayette and had been housed at the Claridge since the smaller town had no suitable facilities for such dignitaries.
When I got back to St. Paul and told my Japanese teacher, a youngish native speaker, about my experience, she was shocked. “Fredman-san [“Feldman” apparently was a bridge too far for a Japanese tongue], what you say to Subaru sensei?” I then recounted our brief conversation. As I did so, she visibly relaxed. “Thank God,” her body language seemed to say. “You did not embarrass me and I didn’t lose face for having an incompetent student.” What a culture-learning for me, and how dangerous we extroverts can be for such an introverted culture!