Tune in Tokyo: Funny because it’s probably true

“The reader understands…when reading, say, David Sedaris, that comedy inherently allows room for exaggeration, and even fabrication.”

Hannah Goldfield
Fact-checker at The New Yorker

Tune In Tokyo” is a humorous memoir by Tim Anderson, “a tall, white, gay Southerner who didn’t speak a lick of Japanese” who got a job as an English teacher in Japan because his life seemed to be going nowhere and he “desperately needed a shot of adrenaline.”

There’s plenty of room for Sedaris-like exaggeration in that set-up, but in reading “Tune In Tokyo” I can’t be sure I found any. However, I am sure that I laughed a lot.

For instance, during one of Anderson’s first rides on a Yamanote Line train, he sits down and finds himself eye-to-eye with a 4-year-old boy standing in front of his seat: “He looked at me with an eerie, inscrutable expression, like the one a child forms when he’s about to command dark forces to descend on you. He didn’t take his eyes off me; he didn’t blink. He just stared, cute and creepy. I averted my eyes…”

With his eyes thus averted, Anderson makes some humorous comments about the architectural mishmash of the Tokyo cityscape outside the train’s windows. His description struck me – a veteran Yamanote Line rider – as vivid, amusing and accurate. And I know I’ve met that same creepy little kid. So far, so good.

Then he turns his attention back inside the train, to “the attractive young girl sitting next to me. She was digging through her purse, pulling out mascara, lipstick, tweezers, blush and an eyelash curler…She had more tools than a smack-addled surgeon.”

Again, he’s describing someone I’ve seen. It struck me as remarkable that he encountered so many archetypes on a single train ride – not only the Staring Kid and the Eyelash Curler Lady, but also a wizened obaa-san he refers to as “Yoda.” I began to suspect he might be blending several different train rides into a single anecdote. But even if so, that would fall well within the bounds of what Hannah Goldfield would allow, and I had no problem with it.

In fact, I was delighted with the way he made it pay off when the young woman took out a cigarette lighter and applied the flame to the end of her eyelash curler: “When she believed it to be hot enough, she put the piping apparatus up to her eye and gave herself a set of shapely, luscious, twenty-four hour lashes. I feared she’d put her eye out if the train should make a sudden jerk, but even with the rolling and swaying of the carriage, the girl’s expert grip on her tools and the precision with which she performed her tasks continued uninterrupted. Amazed, I looked over at the toddler. He was still staring at me.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. I laughed out loud again the second time I read it. It’s perfect. Whether or not the Staring Kid, the Eyelash Curler Lady and the Conspicuous White Guy really were all together at the same time, this is exactly what would happen in those circumstances. So maybe it did.

One chapter in which many readers will likely suspect exaggeration describes severely alcoholic “Ron Faust,” a roommate whom Anderson is assigned by his employer, a chain of language schools he winkingly refers to as MOBA. “He looks like he’d been scraped off the streets of Philadelphia and shipped to Japan while still viciously intoxicated – without being told why. My guess: a Philadelphia MOBA headhunter had been desperate to meet his quota, went out onto the street, found Ron drinking from a brown bag and talking to his imaginary friend Crabcake, and thought, ‘Now there’s a MOBA English teacher!’”

Ron staggers around their apartment on a prosthetic leg like a real-life Jack Sparrow. That is, if Jack Sparrow were hostile, paranoid, and given to dropping hints about having been part of a strange sexual arrangement back in the States. His exploits grow increasingly outrageous, and once again I couldn’t stop laughing as I read.

My laughter was brought on partly by Anderson’s skill as a writer. He ratchets up Ron’s craziness on page after page, and ratchets up his own alarmed reactions to Ron at the same pace. This guy knows how to spin a comic yarn.

But I was also laughing because I’ve been there. Just over a decade ago, I worked as an English teacher for an outfit that was probably the one Anderson calls MOBA. The teachers’ ability levels varied from expert to clueless (one of them liked to say the main qualifications for the job were “round eyes and a pulse”), but the majority were good people making an honest effort to help their students. Even so, the teacher population in those days had more than its fair share of nuts, jerks, drunks, and basket cases. I knew one teacher who seemed to have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome, another who had a speech impediment that made it impossible to pronounce two of the three consonants in her own name, another who rarely bathed, another who broke down in tears on about a weekly basis, and more than one who took malicious pleasure in tricking students into misusing or mispronouncing English words in ways that sounded obscene. None of the people I directly dealt with were quite as extreme as the character Anderson describes, but I cannot say I found him outside the realm of believability.

The archetypical train ride and the Ron Faust adventure were my own favorite parts of this book, but “Tune In Tokyo” has a lot more to recommend it. The chapter titled “The Vagina Dialogue” is a comical story whose title doesn’t mean what you might think it means, but what it does mean is very funny. The chapter on “Gaijin Man” (a character type better known as “Charisma Man,” a phrase Anderson doesn’t use) offers a surprising insight on the phenomenon of unattractive foreign men hooking up with beautiful Japanese women.

Anderson’s humor is sharp, but never cruel. Many of his jokes are at his own expense. Even when describing what an absurd place Japan is – as most places are – he usually does it by way of deflating his own unrealistic expectations of what life in Japan was going to be like.

How much of it is literally true? I don’t know. But it’s true enough, and more than funny enough.

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4 Responses to “Tune in Tokyo: Funny because it’s probably true”

  1. Baye McNeil (@Locohama) Says:

    Sounds like a great book. Gonna have to go get me a copy! Thanks Tom.

  2. Geschichten, Storie, Gatari, Kahani Says:

    Thanks for your comments. Seems to be good reading and a good pick compared to all these gaijin books about Japan that want to explain the culture.

  3. Tim Anderson Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful review, Tom. Really glad you enjoyed the book! It also reminded me, I’m really glad I remembered to change Ron Faust’s name at the very last minute before turning in the final proofs! That would have been awkward…

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