Every weekday, I return home on a thin stretch of road tracing the Kuma river. My usual commute is about twenty minutes, though if I’m returning from Itsuki village that commute is forty. I enjoy the drive. The countryside is beautiful, I listen to music (currently Enigma’s new release), and unwind from a day of herding children.
And every weekday afternoon, I stop at a convenience store called Yamazaki to buy one small bottle of shochu. I usually buy the single serving because if I buy a larger bottle, I usually end up drinking too much. And since I work daily with children, being hungover is a recipe for misery for all parties involved.
(For those of you who remember my previous blog, I wrote about stopping at Family Mart and the nice lady who works there, but my route has changed. I don’t see her as often these days.)
This Yamazaki convenience store is run privately by a married couple who I would guess have been running the store for a very long time. The store is surrounded by rice and tobacco fields, so many farmers stop by after working the fields. I usually have the opportunity to meet a few acquaintances, or parents of children I teach.
After grabbing my daily libation, I take it to the counter which most of the time is attended by the lady whose name I may never know. She is always all smiles. Since I have been going there for several years, silence doesn’t seem appropriate. But since we neither know each other’s names (though to be fair she probably knows mine, I am the only white man in town) we can’t talk about anything of substance. Plus, time is precious. Silence is awkward. Conservation is also awkward. What shall we talk about?
Why, the weather, of course!
Back in my “I’m too cool for society” days, I held those who talked about the weather in disdain. It was a very 90s thing to do. I wondered why should we waste oxygen and time with a banal conversation about the weather. Why not make a “real” human connection? Why not take that opportunity to reach out to another human being?
But that’s precisely what talking about the weather is! What’s more common to the human condition than weather? What is the one thing we share with everyone we meet? And no one minds if we disagree on it.
“It’s hot, isn’t it?”
“Actually, I like this weather.”
“Never speak to me ever again. Asshole.”
… is a conversation that has never happened.
When you live in a community of farmers, the weather is one of the most important things they experience. A dry season, an overly wet season, a typhoon, climate change, all these things worry farmers and talking about them helps alleviate stress and shares important information. When one of my farmer neighbors talks about how much rain there is, he’s not making idle chatter and filling up space with banal blathering. He’s talking about his life.
But that’s not what’s happening in a Yamazaki convenience store in Kuma county between an American expat and a smiley Japanese lady. We’re not speaking intensely on a topic that impacts our lives directly. But we are making human contact. We are acknowledging another person’s existence without pressure.
And as a minority, talking to me about the weather is a signal that not only do they acknowledge my existence but that I am welcome to share their community with them. I am grateful that she speaks to me about the weather. But I think the way to talk about the weather is to really talk about it. Focus on the person you’re talking to. Don’t just mutter “uh-huh” and walk away. Make eye contact and say with purpose, “Yes, it’s too god damned hot. I’m sick of sweating. Thanks for the shochu.”
How about instead of the pressure and stress of trying to connect with a stranger through some “deeper” connection, why not just let them know that you acknowledge their existence and accept sharing a space with them by saying “It’s hot today, isn’t it?”