Takahiko-san is a delightful, tiny Japanese woman; gregarious and multi-lingual, an aging school marm with a neat as a pin hair bun. She’s also a relentless stalker. After rambling around Cheung Chau Island, I stroll thru the food courts before jumping the ferry back to the city. As I pause at the Hometown Tea House, reading the review from Frommers pinned to the outside board and trying to figure out what is available at the “to go” window, a small Japanese woman greets me in English. “Hello, where you from” she asks with a wide, toothy grin. Perhaps ten others are waiting in line, but no one quite as tall as me nor with my green eyes and light brown hair. She is a marksman, and I am her bull’s eye.
She plows thru the standard introductions not pausing for my responses; “Where you from?, What you doing here?, I teach local Chinese girls Japanese., They work here!”. Normally, such an assault might be troubling. But I have no reason to be afraid. Unless she is packing heat, I am the clear victor in any hand to hand combat. So when she invites me to by-pass the outdoor patio seating and the more popular take away, to come inside to her private area, I agree. We enter a room which appears to be a quasi living room, storage unit, dining area with a single table. I take a seat as she preens over her pile of notebooks and pictures and greetings from her Western visitors and asks me what I want. I notice most people selecting sushi rolls. I don’t eat cooked fish from China. I’m on a heavy metal free diet. The thought of consuming raw fish is troubling. It’s a hard question. Noting my hesitation, she suggests a cup of green tea and a plain corn cake stuffed with mashed red beans. “You Westerners like chocolate, but we Easterners prefer beans.”. She’s perceptive. She has me pegged. I have never selected mashed beans over chocolate in my life.
Reiterating the question, “Where you from?” – I reply that I am an American living in Slovakia. She shoots me a look I generally reserve for winning the lottery. It is her lucky day. She yells over to the teenage girls, her students, manning the window “Look here, she from Czechoslovakia!”. Her geographic knowledge, though perhaps a bit dated, is certainly complete. Leaving me with her notebooks while she prepares my tea and selects my cake, I read the kind words of the people from around the world whom she has befriended. The comments are consistent in their praise of this Japanese dynamo, a gracious host, and her lovely island. These notebooks and pictures are her treasure chest. I imagine her flipping thru them during the days and nights when monsoons blow outside. She gives me a postcard which her artist husband sketched. Her English is adequate, though insufficient, to learn all I wish to learn of this remarkable, affable woman.
The bean filled cakes are tasty, unusual. They fit the situation. When I glance up at the clock, I realize I must make my way to the ferry shortly or remain another hour on the island. I rise to pay and give my thanks. I hold out my money and the girls select a 20 HK dollar bill – roughly $2.50 US. I certainly don’t feel as if I am being rolled. In a panic, Takahiko-san chirps, “Wait, sit back down, grab your cup, I take picture!”. I pose to Takahiko-san directions as she flashes shots off her digital camera. She p0ints to her head, “I’m making memories”. Her camera is first generation technology – saved for those days when the westerners accept her offer of hospitality. As I start to leave, she slips me a 5 HK dollar coin. “You take this, no tipping allowed here.”. If I had any lingering doubts, Takahiko-san’s intentions are validated. Her guests add color to her black and white world. It satisfies her innate intellectual curiosity.
Walking me outside, we say our goodbyes. She asks how to say “good-bye” in Slovakian. I respond “Dovidenia” one of the four or five words I know. She laughs and replies “Dasvidania, I been to Moscow”. The word is reminiscent of the last scene in the Disney animated story of Anastasia, the word yelled at the villain before he plunges into the river. This Japanese woman living in China responds to me in Russian. I’m impressed.
We tend to think all the interesting people are in Hollywood or London or Tokyo. They are famous enough to have single word, globally recognizable names. Their photos grace the covers of magazines and billboards. We might want to meet them, but we might not want to know them. Here on this tiny little island is a tiny little woman whom I wish I had the time to know better. I am honored that she selected me today as her most recent memory, her valued guest. What she lacks in fame, she makes up for in moxie and curiosity and intelligence and kindness. She’s broadening her otherwise limited life. They say the best things come in small packages. Takahiko-san is one of those packages.