In Pretty Good Number One, in the chapter Just an American Girl Eating Tokyo Sweets, I talk about sitting in a park eating soy milk ice cream:
Outside a public park one day, a cafe stand did a brisk business selling iced coffee and tea and cones of soy milk (tōnyu) soft cream. My friend Akira shared a bite with me, and as the smooth, earthy stuff melted on my tongue, I thought about the ignominious fate of soy milk in America.
What I didn’t mention, because I couldn’t figure out how it fit into the book, is that this was also the site of my most absurd linguistic mishap of the whole trip.
We were in Kichijōji, a lovely neighborhood in western Tokyo. It was a Sunday, and our friends Akira and Emi joined us for the day, and we strolled through Kichijōji and nearby Inokashira Park. When we were ready to stop off and have a drink, Akira tried to find a cafe that could accommodate five people. He stepped into a several places in succession, and each time he came out and said, “Muzukashii.” It means “difficult,” but it is really the Japanese way of saying, “Not a chance.”
Eventually we came across a small grassy square and got our drinks and soy milk soft serve, and while Akira and Iris played, Emi and I talked about movies. She said her favorite movie was Fight Club. I thought, hey, this is my chance to say something funny in Japanese. So I stood tall and said:
Emi recoiled. Of course, I was trying to say, “The first rule of fight club is, don’t talk about fight club.” What came out was more like, “Talking about the movie Fight Club is prohibited!”
I could not figure out how to weasel out of this until finally Akira came over and walked me through it. “In the movie…Brad Pitt said…”
Lesson learned: the first rule of Japan is, don’t try to talk about Fight Club.