David Chadwick, a Texas-raised wanderer, college dropout, bumbling social activist, and hobbyhorse musician, began his formal Zen study under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1966. Many years later, Suzuki Roshi’s successor, Zentatsu Richard Baker, shaking his head, said of Chadwick: “Years of expensive Zen training gone to waste.”
In 1988 friends and supporters underwrote Chadwick’s journey to Japan so he could begin an open-ended period of voluntary exile and remedial education. Since that time he has taken up residency in a house just outside a Zen temple near Okayama, where he studies with Harada Shodo Roshi. He and his wife, Elin, support themselves by teaching English. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Thank You and OK!, to be published next year by Viking/Penguin.
My first trip to the Okayama Driver’s License Test Building had been spent mainly helping the clerk do an analysis of my passport, enumerating the countries I’d visited, the dates I had gone in and out of the U.S., and so forth. The stopover in Hawaii for an hour on the way to Taiwan three years previously was properly noted. The space of time between the Taiwan trip and my arrival date in Japan was marked down. My month in Thailand and the side trip to Malaysia, as well as the times of visa extensions in Japan, were not neglected. It was a curious procedure. This was local government, not Immigration, and I really did not get the point. But mine was not to reason why.
I was told by the precise and bespectacled clerk that I had the honor of being eligible to apply for a Japanese driver’s license, although I would have to come back on another day to do so. I made an appointment and thanked him for his assistance; he expressed gratitude for my cooperation and handed me a form in Japanese which he said I should fill out before my return.
A week later I went back to the Driver’s License Test Building, arriving between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m., as I had been instructed. It took about an hour and a half on two buses to get to the building, which was way out of town toward the Inland Sea. I brought everything I was supposed to bring, including copies of my California license and every page of my passport. It was only a quarter to nine and the building was already filled with young people, housewives, a few middle-aged men, and some older people, who must have all been there to get their driver’s licenses or get them renewed or whatever. Hundreds of people. There were endless lines and people milling about. No wonder I was told to come so early, I thought. It’s gonna take me all day just to get to the window. But I didn’t know which window to go to, so I went to the information counter. There was no line in front of it, which had to mean that I was the only person in the room who didn’t know what to do. But I liked the answer that I got there when I asked where to go: I was sent to another deserted window where I was met by no less than four different nervous Driver’s License Test Building employees. I felt very special. I was.
One employee wearing a neat blue uniform and thick glasses sat down in front of me as the other employees looked on. He smiled and said, “Good morning” in English, and I smiled and said, “Good morning” in English and then in Japanese to all four of them. The observers all bowed, smiling and relieved that I could say, “Ohayo gozaimasu,” and they nodded and laughed among themselves in approval. So far, so good.
I presented my bundle of documents to the man in front of me and he looked through them carefully and seemed pleased. We reviewed the itinerary of past travels without a hitch. The others left us alone, having done their part in assuring me by their presence that I was being well taken care of.
The man who was left with the task of helping me straightened his glasses and went straight to the form that I was supposed to have filled out. I hadn’t. I had tried to fill it out with a neighbor, but since nothing applied to me we had decided it was a mistake. It wasn’t. At least it was no mistake that it was going to be filled out. Still, I had a lot of trouble understanding it. I had my dictionary out and we were going at it but we ran into problems right away, as much because I couldn’t believe what he was asking as because of not understanding the words. He spoke a little English and I some Japanese, and between the two of us we managed to get through it—but not without a good deal of imagination stretching. What actually happened is still unclear, but it had to be done. (Just doing things that have to be done is a particular talent of the Japanese.) Since this gent was going to so much trouble for me, I was game, too, and went to trouble for him. As I recall, it went something like this:
Him: “When was your last written driver’s license test?”
Me: “When was my last … ?” I said and stopped to think. He was waiting with his pen on the page. He needed to fill in an answer and I should not fail him. Vaguely remembering having taken such a test in Marin County, California, at some time or times during the present geologic era, I said, “Let’s see. Five years ago… the first Tuesday in May.” My tone was definite and authoritative. We were off to a good start.
Him: “Um-hmm. Five years ago. May 1984. Very good.”
He continued in a nasal tone of voice which rose in pitch at the end of each question: “And was it a multiple choice, true/false, or an essay test?”
Me: Stretching back, I looked for an old driving test memory and sure enough, there it was. I could see the paper and the questions with the blank line on the left. How many feet can you safely drive behind a … yes, it must be … “Multiple choice,” I said, wondering why anyone cared.
Him: “Yes. Hmm. Multiple choice. OK.” His follow-up threw me. “And what was your score?” He kept looking at the paper.
Me: Okay, what the hell. “Ninety-two,” I answered proudly.
Him: Writing carefully and drawing his voice out, “Ninety-two.” He continued his quest for precise details. “And how many questions were there?”
Me: Unhesitatingly and enunciating clearly, “Twenty.” Wouldn’t everybody say that? It might be right, too.
Him: Relieved and writing it down. “And what make of car were you driving then?”
Me: (Without trying to calculate for sure.) I’ve gone through a lot of cars, but most of them have been, “Toyota.” I’m getting into the swing of it.
Him: “Very good,” and then spelling it out as he wrote with increased confidence that this is something we could actually do. “T-O-Y-O-T-A.” Now catch this. His next question: “What was the rank of the officer who administered this test?”
Me: I’m reeling in delight. I hadn’t hoped for anything so wonderful to happen on this day. “He was an inspector.”
We are on a roll. We are one. He puckered his lips ever so slightly and neatly entered the word “inspector” on the form in katakana, a syllabary that is used largely to write foreign words. The way he wrote it, it would be pronounced “insupekuta.”
Him: “What office administered the test?” (At this point he listed some completely inapplicable Japanese government agencies.)
Me: “The DMV,” I said truthfully.
Him: “Diemubi?” He repeated it as they do in Japan, using their fifty sounds.
Me: “It stands for, ‘The Department of Motor Vehicles,'” I explained. He liked it, I could tell.
Him: “And what section of government is the DMV under?”
Me: “The California State Police,” I said and then thought back to my days of working for the state government in California. No, it’s probably directly under General Services, but, ah, who cares. He liked the State Police idea anyway. Now get this.
Him: “And what language was the text administered in, Japanese or English?”
We were brought together, soaring in a unique surrealistic world. Time stopped as I cherished the moment. When I heard the question echoing for the third time in my blissful state, I leaned down and, with a slight pause to show that I was considering the matter carefully, answered precisely:
Him: “English,” and he circled it. “And did you take a driving test? “
Me: “Not at that time.” I was trying to be honest. I probably should have just said yes.
Him: “When did you take a driving test?”
Me: “In 1978.” Total stab.
Him: “1978. And was that your first driving test?”
Him: “When did you take your first driving test?”
Me: Gee, it had been a long time. My very first one? I had one back in ’65 I think, but I was thirteen and a half when I got my beginner’s license. Thinking a second. “1958.”
Him: A little thrown off. Looking up. “1958?”
Me: “Yes. Back then in Texas … farm kids had to drive…. It’s very… wide.” I stretched my arms out. The word “wide” did it. It’s one of the main words they use in Japan to describe the U.S. It accounts for many differences and had just explained why I had a license at an age that must have seemed unthinkable to him. I wouldn’t have doubted that at that moment he formed the permanent thought that all people in the States, at least in Texas, start driving at thirteen, a fact that he might have connected with our high crime rate but which was also now likely to be associated with the concept “wide.”
Him: Having been thrown off a little, returning to the flow. “And was this examination given on a test course or on the streets?”
Me: “Both.” We’re climbing again.
Him: “What make of car did you take the test in?”
Me: Never flinching but with no clear idea. “Chevrolet.”
Him: “Would you spell that, please?”
Me: “C—abc, H—hello, E—E.T., V—VSOP.” (I was proud of my clear choices up to that point, and went confidently into the next letter.) “R—Rambo.” (A Japanese word, incidentally, pronounced about the same, means “violence or rudeness.”) He quickly wrote the “R.” I went on to, “O—O.K.” Now, the big one. “L—Lucky.” Just to make sure, I gave it the Japanese pronunciation, “Eru.” (“R” is “aru.”) He wrote it down seemingly appreciative of the hint. “E—Elvis.” He liked that. “T—Truman.” He was old enough to know who that was. He looked up. There was a pause. I knew we were near the end. His lips parted.
Him: “How many CCs was the engine of the car?”
Me: I spoke back from timelessness and without thought. I had come to Japan to study the teaching beyond words and letters, and here I had surely found it. “How many CCs does a big car have,” I heard emanating from my throat.
Him: “Two thousand CCs.”
Me: “Two thousand CCs.”
After that, everything went white. I only vaguely remember floating from window #19 (where I’d arrived from #17, and prior to that from #5), floating, floating to window #1, and from there to #6. I had my picture taken twice, once in black and white for their files and the second time in color for the license itself. Between windows there were long waits, which I spent across the street in a coffee shop. I would come back at the time they had told me and wade through throngs of people milling around or standing in lines that seemed to have nothing to do with me or what I was doing. There was never anyone at the windows that I used except the helpful and nervous public servants on the other side. They seemed to be easing me along as painlessly as possible. Little did they know that they were propelling me into successive states of ecstasy.
The last thing I did on the main floor of the building was to receive a membership card to an auto club. I don’t really know what it was about, but there were two bubbling young ladies at a booth there who presented it to me with a free velvet-and-plastic pocket-sized photo album. I was then told to proceed to room #3 on the second floor. I returned pretty soon to ask directions again because I had opened the door to a room that was full of people sitting in school desk chairs listening to a lecture in Japanese. It turned out I had not opened the wrong door. “Hurry!” they told me, excited and trying to help by running ahead, “It’s already started.” A few heads belonging to uniformed employees stuck out of their windows and watched with concern, several fingers pointed to make sure that I was going in the right direction. I ran behind one young blue-uniformed lady, trying to keep up with her quick, short, deliberate steps up the curving staircase that gave me a view of the dwindling throng below and the places I’d been. We passed a number of people who looked at me in the compulsive way people everywhere look at someone different. I looked back up, and there she was holding the door open, not the back door but the front door, and I walked into the room to find myself face to face with the speaker, a decorated, uniformed officer. He gestured kindly toward an empty seat, and I walked in front of a hundred or so people and sat down to about forty minutes of a driving lecture in Japanese. I tried to understand as much as possible, while a very high percentage of the audience slept. I caught a bit, and I think the speaker appreciated my efforts just as I appreciated everyone’s efforts there that day to guide me through what “cannot be helped,” as they say.
Looking back on that event, I can’t remember when I received my license. I do have it, but it’s hardly used except to show off: “See, I’ve got one.” I’m proud of it. It reminds me of a transcendent experience I had with Japanese bureaucrats one autumn day by the Inland Sea.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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