THE laugh was definitely on me, but to this day I don't know what was so terribly amusing. Since more than 30 years have passed since I was the object of such great hilarity, I have had occasion to look back and wonder just what it was about me that caused a busload of Japanese people to point at me and laugh all the way into town. The answer has eluded me. I had been in Japan less than a month, a naval officer's wife, and was slowly adjusting to life in a small coastal village where I suspected I was the only American. I say ``I'' because my husband, stationed aboard a ship which was out at sea a great deal of the time, was almost never home. I never saw another American in the vicinity. At first I felt like the proverbial fish out of water, but then I began to grow accustomed to the rhythms and noises of the little fishing village. There were lots of draw-backs by my middle-class American standards - no hot running water, no central heating, wooden walls that had never heard of insulation, and windows that rattled incessantly in the slightest breeze. There was also an interesting assortment of wildlife, but that's another story.
Then there were the good things. The view of Mt. Fuji across the bay was the best. Waking up to that on a clear morning made everything else seem insignificant. And the people - what a delight they were! Conversation was out of the question other than my Japanese ``good morning,'' so our communication consisted of much smiling and head bobbing. The local bakery was directly behind our house, and the aroma of freshly baked bread often helped rid the house of other smells that, to put it discreetly, weren't nearly so pleasant.
We had a car that miraculously made it through the narrow alley next to the house, and that was my lifeline to more American surroundings like the commissary and PX. However, one day it refused to start, which brings me back to my story. I had to take the bus to town.
The local bus system was extraordinary. You could set your watch by those buses and they seemed to be everywhere. Although our village was some distance from town, the bus was already very crowded when I boarded. I worked my way to the back and hung on to an overhead bar as we bumped and lurched over the notoriously miserable roads. There was an attendant at the rear door who took tickets as people got off, but in between stops she used a loudspeaker to maintain some sort of running commentary.
I just assumed she was explaining things about the countryside. But I had a gradual awareness that every eye on that bus was fastened on me. I felt terribly conspicuous, standing what seemed to be head and shoulders above everyone else. Then the titters and giggles began as they all continued to stare at me, and the attendant continued her nonstop chatter, which apparently became wildly funny - at my expense. I would gladly have fallen through the floor if it had only opened for me, but I was a captive on that bus. I could feel myself blushing and discovered that there was virtually no place I could look where someone wasn't staring back at me.
Then, fortunately, I was able to see the humor in this ludicrous situation and it struck me funny, too. I couldn't help but laugh at myself right along with everyone else. The more I laughed, the louder they laughed. Not only was I a funny sight, here I was laughing at something I didn't even understand! I had a crazy picture in my mind's eye of a colorful little bus bouncing along a country road with all the passengers in a mild state of hysteria. At that point I was laughing so hard the tears were streaming down my cheeks.
As we neared town, the bus stopped more frequently to discharge people. Soon it was my stop. I almost hated to leave. As I gave the attendant my ticket and prepared to step off, the remaining passengers clapped and waved goodbye and I waved in return, a fitting finish to one of life's more delightful little happenings.