She asks a few questions with the English she knows...
I am nervous. I don’t know if what I do works here. I know the rules of engagement in Germany, in Norway, back home in the USA, in Switzerland, in Europe. But this is Japan. This is the Tokyo subway. I’ve been told you don’t talk here. It’s so quiet. People are on their phones, reading manga, taking naps, or staring at their feet. I notice people don’t even acknowledge eachother’s presence. That seat isn’t taken by someone—it’s just pretended to not be there. You don’t make room for someone to sit beside you—you just happen to prefer less space suddenly. I have six stops to Harajuku—I’m meeting friends there. The culture here is so different. And I’m not sure if it’s OK for me to draw here.
Of course…I do anyway. I draw a girl who first is surprised I am using two hands. She then tries to ignore me by checking her phone. In a train where everyone is trying to go unnoticed, I am like a Las Vegas casino. Eyes start to point in my direction—even if they dash away when I look up. A grandpa with his high-school-aged grandson nudges his wife: he says something in Japanese. He makes a drawing motion with his two hands. Three minutes go by. I hand the girl her picture. Sumimasen, anata no kaku desu. (“Excuse me, this is your portrait”). “Oh! Uh…uh…thank you!” she stares at her picture. She is totally confused. Doitashimashite! I say, and begin to draw the next person. I start on the grandson.
He looks confused. But his grandparents know exactly what I’m doing. They tell him to look at me. They tell him to smile. Now the furtive glances from my fellow passengers aren’t as scared. They hang longer. Some smile at me. Three minutes more: done. Sumimasen! Anata no kaku desu! (“Excuse me! This is your portrait!”). Now there are big smiles. A woman next to me with a mask (to protect a cough, I imagine), starts talking to the first girl I drew. They share in their disbelief. The grandparents join in on the conversation. I can’t understand what they’re saying—my Japanese isn’t good enough—but I can see what they’re meaning. I can see how much they’re enjoying watching this foreigner give gifts on a train.
A few stations have gone by already. The first girl has gotten off. New people come; they find seats to rest in or a strap to hold tight against the back and forth motion of the train car. I take a look around. This train is so much different than when I got on. Now we are sharing a train car, all focusing together on the same experience. Now we acknowledge the presence of one another. I take a look around. My eyes settle on a girl beside me. I start to draw her. She thinks it’s cool, and asks a few questions with the English she knows. And then it’s done. Ano…anata no kaku desu…(“um…this is your portrait”).
I really wonder what those who only just got on the train thought. Only a few moments later, the grandma whose grandson I drew stood up from her seat. She had seen enough. She walked across the divide from her side to mine. She bowed. “Arigatou gozaimasu!” (“Thank you very much!”)—this is a really respectful way of speaking. I am probably less than one third her age. I am a foreigner on a train, with a heavy coat a few sizes too big for me and a goofy camera lens cap. But she shows me the utmost respect. She holds something small in her hands. Bowing, she hands it to me. “Nihon no purezento desu!” (“This is a present from Japan.”) I take it from her two hands. It’s a dog on a key-chain. It has googly-eyes. I smile. I can’t help it. This is the cutest thing I could ever imagine!
In just a few minutes more, my stop arrives. “How was your ride here? Was the train OK?” my friends ask me. It was great, I respond. I got a present from Japan.