After we arrived in Kyoto, we dropped our stuff in our too tiny hostel room and decided to go to the nearest convenience store to get some dinner. We brought it back to the hostel and sat in the kitchen eating it. A young man asked where we had gotten the food and if it was cheap. He clearly wanted to chat, so we offered to take him to the store and help him out since he didn’t seem to know any Japanese or really how to get around in Japan. So on the walk back to the hostel from the convenience store, he made a Nazi joke. Whatever, he is a seventeen year old kid from Serbia. It was a minor joke so I brushed it off. Once we got back to the hostel, Jennifer and I got some drinks from the bar in the lounge area and sat with the kid while he ate, just chatting.
That’s when he started to grate on me. First, he was too interested in bashing everything about America. (Seriously…he’s from Serbia. I’m not sure what high ground he thinks he has here. But that’s a whole other point and I don’t want to start a political debate here. In my opinion, every country has it’s problems and things it does well. And I’m going to leave it at that.) While I don’t like everything about America, it’s still my home and no one likes to hear their home being bashed quite so eagerly. But I mostly stayed out of that. Then, he kept trying to get Jennifer to read his copy of Diskworld in Serbian because it amused him that she couldn’t pronounce Serbian. The kid was doing everything he could to brag and feel superior. I’m guessing it was because he was a kid in a strange situation hanging out with two (technically) adults who knew how to get around in Japan. I think he needed to make himself feel better and show that he wasn’t an idiot, just out of his depth in Japan. (Not that we thought he was an idiot and the fact that he kept talking about how much he loved physics repeatedly reminded us that he wasn’t stupid.)
But then he handed me the book and asked me to read. While I am by no means good at any of the languages I have studied, I like linguistics. I like how languages work like logic problems and puzzles. Besides all of that, I had been paying attention when he kept correcting Jennifer during her earlier attempt. There was one thing that he said earlier that made it pretty easy to read: letters in Serbian always make the same noise, they don’t change like they do in English. Once I knew that, it was pretty easy to go with it. Was it perfect? No way. It’s freaking Serbian. That’s not even remotely like anything I’ve studied before. But it was good enough to make the game no longer fun for the kid.
Since we were talking about languages, he got a piece of paper and started to write some Serbian for us to look at. (Me being normally show-offish, a tendency that increases with even a bit of alcohol, apparently) I wrote out some Hebrew for him. He sounded worried and a little accusative as he said, “Why do you know Hebrew?”
And here’s where I forgot that while I was in Japan, I was dealing with another Westerner. I forgot that I sometimes need to be careful about mentioning my religion. I always wear a Jewish star, but it typically ends up hidden under my shirt.
“Because I’m Jewish,” I responded, as I always do.
“Oh…so the Nazi joke I made earlier….” I shrugged it off.
“My friends in high school made a lot of jokes, those don’t bother me that much.”
“Oh! Then I have to tell you this story.” Uh-oh. “I was staying with some friends in a hotel and we were bored. So we got some paper and drew a swastika on it. Then we stuck on a random door.” This is not going in a good direction. “It turns out there was a Jewish family staying there and…” I’m guessing the polite smile I had been attempting to hold on to had completely dropped at this point. It quickly transformed into what I am assuming was a deeply condescending one. I went off on him. Basically. I told him about the seriously scary climate for Jews in that area, to which he responded, “Well, I don’t think that’s true.”
That’s because you’re a moron, is what I wanted to say. What worried me was not so much the fact that he and his friends did that prank, but the fact that he didn’t realize how serious it was. The fact that the family (who left the next day) might have feared for their life.
After that, I had no further interactions with the kid. I didn’t talk to him, I shrugged off his attempts to talk to me.
But, as I was going off on this kid, I had apparently used enough big words to attract the attention of three Australians. It turns out they were three recently graduated medical students, (officially doctors) and we ended up going out with them that evening. The discussions we had made me worry about what my own doctors were like as recent graduates. It also made me realize that if I ever get to visit Australia, I cannot go to the emergency room where these three are working. My life literally depends on it.
All of that aside, hanging out with people I met in a hostel was an experience I wanted to have. I can cross it off the list of “crazy, random things I need to do while I can.” It’s probably not something I will ever do again, but it was good to try. We got back to the hostel around 3am and crashed.