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Speaking Through the Silences

THEY were young and far from home - far from their own home, that is. They were very much in the middle of mine, a house in Boston, halfway around the world from the city of Kofu.

The two Japanese high-school girls were staying with me for an August of linguistic and cultural immersion. During the day they attended English classes and tramped through museums. They were guided by an American teacher who good-humoredly but firmly forbade them to speak Japanese. Their afternoons usually ended at a record store.

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My guests' English was meager. The other members of my family, including a son fluent in Japanese, were away. And so the job of communicating in simple, friendly, instructive sentences fell to me. I sympathized with the students; I, too, had experienced the chagrin and anxiety of trying to master another tongue while under a foreign roof. When - after managing to finish a dish of pale vegetables - they realized to their dismay that they had said yes to a second helping, I understood, and I whisked away the creamed corn.

During the first course of every dinner, we discussed the weather: past, present, and probable future. We reported, very briefly, on the day's activities. We said, ``Will you please?'' and ``thanks.'' I would serve up two or three uncomplex sentences that might have led to spirited conversation - ``The daughter of my friend refuses to marry a man from Chicago'' was one of my favorites - but these utterances induced only nods of stupefaction. After their strenuous days, the girls were weary. Soon we would fall into silence.

I have listened to many silences. At camp, after lights-out, insistent crickets gave me my first experience of white noise. At silent meeting in my Quaker high school the hush was, in a few cases, meditative, but most of us wriggled in mute discomfort. I have attended to the breathy silence of shame and fury, and to the stillness of miraculous accord, as when, after a great cellist has played the last note of a sonata, the enraptured audience forgets for a moment to clap.

In the awkward silence of my dining room on those first evenings of their stay, I could hear things not usually audible. The plunge of a fork into lettuce. The explosion of a grape crushed between molars. The shudder of the surface of jello. I could count the passing of 17 brief units of time - the empty syllables of an uncreated haiku.

By the end of two weeks, my guests could praise, with a modestly expanding vocabulary, the watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts. I considered aloud the origin, nature, and function of the word ``luminous.'' Once we conversed for almost three minutes about the high, blue, strong, loud, wet, and frequent waves at Singing Beach. We even turned to the subject of the personality of the gentleman from Chicago, and wondered whether my friend's daughter who wouldn't marry him was too, well, picky.

The silences that followed these exchanges were increasingly comfortable. I began to appreciate the opportunity not to chatter, not to charm. From my guests' unembarrassed quietness I foresaw the tactful and appreciative adults they would become, women who would know that smiles and soft glances are often as useful as words.

And alone in their room at bedtime my young charges were decidedly not quiet. They illicitly reverted to Japanese and became playful, joking, sometimes downright loud, and perhaps even lewd, though how was I to know? Their late-night hoots of laughter saved me from making facile comparisons to plum blossoms, saved me from misreading their silence as Eastern serenity. These kids were teenagers like the ones on the next block. ``Hai!'' they shouted, listening to the CD they had bought that day.

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``A little quieter, girls,'' I requested from the other side of the wall.

``Oh! Sorry!'' they yelled, even louder.

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