Archive for November, 2008

30
Nov
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #2: Props and Camouflage

As I’ve mentioned, #1: Don’t be you, is by far the most difficult step. A lot of water has to pass under the bridge before that kind of transformation can occur. So, what do you do in the meantime? My mother used to say, “fake it until you can make it!” In other words, pretend not to be you. This is much simpler.

I used to work for NOVA. Those of you who live here know of it, I’m sure. For those of you who don’t know, it used to be the biggest language school franchise here in Japan, focusing primarily on English instruction since English is in the greatest demand here. I won’t get into my life at NOVA. It’s not essential for this post (maybe I’ll tackle it in later post.) What is relevant is that the uniform for Nova instructors was at minimum slacks, shirt and tie, but they preferred you wear a suit. And so most everyday I left my house dressed very conservatively. This was not my preferred mode of dress.

Before I came to Japan, I used to work at a reputable company in New York and there, too, the expectation was for all account executives to wear suits. And, so, for the money, I did.

At first, I loved it. I loved the way wearing a suit made me feel. Like I was successful. Like I had made it, climbed out of the ghetto, scaled above the low expectations of the people I grew up among. I was a suit, goddammit, you better recognize! I loved the attention…some of it anyway. Girls went crazy for guys in a suit. Yes, I work somewhere where the requirement is that I look like this on a daily basis… What a statement to shout at some cutie looking to upgrade from the lifer she’d just sent two pairs of Timberlands and some Long-Johns to Upstate. (aka Prison)

But, it wasn’t long before I started hating suits. My hate was prompted by a number of factors. I didn’t particularly like the way my suit spoke to people on my behalf without my permission, sometimes without even my knowledge. It confessed  things I’d rather people didn’t know with a glance. It told people things about me that weren’t necessarily accurate. Things i often found myself having to retract or modify. Sometimes it even told all-out lies and, inexplicably, people would eat them up. It whispered to girls that I had money and security, education and standing. It yelled at my friends and people in my neighborhood that I was pretentious and thought I was better than them. It told salespeople and con-artist that I was an optimum target. It told some people, “He’s a hustler…so, you better be careful,” and told others “He’s a Jehovah’s Witness…get ready to get solicited!.”

Not unlike a soldier in uniform, a Police Officer or a Firefighter, unless you knew me already, I practically ceased to exist in a suit, the symbolism was so powerful. I used to practically tear it off of me whenever I’d leave the office for the day. When I quit that job I swore, unless necessary, I would never take a job where a suit was the uniform ever again.

But, I wanted to come to Japan and NOVA was my opening so I broke down and broke my promise. Their explanation being that in Japan, as in other countries, a suit says professional. that was understandable.

Now, here’s the thing: While I was working for NOVA, I lived in Saitama and, of course the same offenses that occur now occurred then. Japanese people behaved the same way in Saitama as they do in Yokohama. But, to a significantly lesser degree. After I quit NOVA, I had to move out of the apartment they had furnished, and eventually made my way to Yokohama. I was told (by Japanese friends) that Yokohama people are accustomed to foreigners, what with all the military cats and whatnot. A Gaijin-friendly environment that won’t set me back considerably? Hell yeah, I was in. I started working at a Japanese public school, which is an entirely different environment than the one NOVA provided. And, in this environment, to my extreme delight, suits were not required. That was a bigger fringe benefit than the six-week vacation in the summer. At the same time, I noticed that the Japanese in Yokohama were not as tolerant of me as the Saitama Japanese were. Which went contrary to what I was told.

Well, you guessed it by now, I’m sure. It was the fucking suit! It took me a few months to catch on, though. And an even longer time to breakdown and wear one again. The idea of being forced to wear a suit just so that Japanese people would feel more comfortable around me was offensive as well. If your child is acting out in the supermarket over some candy they simply must have, sure you might go ahead and buy it just to shut them up, or you might pop them upside the head, like my mother would do, and they’ll learn how to behave out in public. if your dog shits in your slippers, you might give him a Scooby snack or you might put your foot in his ass. I felt like I was betraying a rule of nature. It felt really wrong, soulfully wrong, to reward the Japanese misbehavior.

But, in the interest of maintaining your sanity (and your freedom), and unless you think you’ll get a kick out of putting your foot up dozens of asses and popping dozens of Japanese upside the head every day (I’ve been there and trust me your foot and hand, metaphorically, will get very tired and in the end they’ll just be more asses to kick and heads to pop), you had better take tip #2: Props and Camouflage to heart. It can put a big dent in the number of offenses you incur daily. Trust me.

Of course, if you wear suits daily anyway, you’ll be glad to know at least partially why you haven’t experienced the obscenities that prompted this tip making the list.

In addition to a suit, I’ve experimented with a few props that you might find of use. One of the most popular reasons Japanese give me for their behavior (yes, I’m an inquisitive mofo) is due to the fact they can’t speak English and they’re afraid that foreigners might try to communicate with them and create some kind of embarrassing international incident. Fine. Unacceptable, but fine. I didn’t believe it, however. I thought it was my skin color for sure. So, I put it to the test.

Let’s see now…how could I make it clear to the people around me that I could speak Japanese? That way, I could see if their manners would improve.

There are a few ways, some more effective than others.

While I’m standing in line and the Japanese in my vicinity begin their dance of discomfort, (and in lieu of doing my daily dance of despair and disillusionment) i whip out my cellphone:

“Moshi Moshi!” I stage whisper.

No answer. Of course there’s no answer. It’s a fake call. I’m actually talking to everyone standing on line.

“Ah sou nan da!….Eeeeeto ne…Honto ni?… Maji de?… Ja, kinyoubi yoru hachi-ko de aou ka? ku-ji goro? Ii naaa. Ii naa…Hai! Hai! Sou sou sou sou. Hai! Wakatta! Ja ne, bye bye.” You don’t say! Well…really? Seriously? Ok, let’s meet at that famous statue of a dog in Shibuya on Friday night…about 9? Cool! Cool. Right, right, yeah yeah yeah yeah. Alright. You bet! Later.

While you’re having this conversation with the people on line, via yourself, you might notice some of them, upon hearing your fairly native sounding Nihongo, visually relax, like they’d been waiting to exhale ever since they first noticed you. Try not to laugh. It’s important to learn some native sounding phrases and practice them over and over until they feel natural to you. Some of the people on line couldn’t care less if you were fluent or not. But, you’ll relieve the anxiety of a handful, guaranteed.

And that’s what these tips are all about: reducing the number of offenses, which will increase your chances of keeping your sanity intact.

Also, you might try picking up a Japanese language newspaper at the newsstand. I know, feels like a waste of money, but it does wonders. Make all kinds of faces like you’re comprehending what may to you be totally incomprehensible (actually I can read a little now so my facial expressions have become pretty authentic.) You know, go through the motions. And, make sure you read from the top to the bottom of the column then start at the top of the next column, right to left, otherwise you’ll expose your deception in the most embarrassing way. Might even draw some snickers. (Been there, done that) It sounds silly, and you might even feel loco doing it at first. But, compared to the daily feeling of repressed rage and the stress of not opening up a can of whup-ass on someone who has given you clear indication they need it bad, It’s a marked improvement. It might even inspire someone near you enough to do something as neighborly as speak to you–which could backfire if you can’t speak any Japanese.

Which leads me to my next tip: #3- Learn that Japanese!

Loco

30
Nov
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama: #1-Don’t be you!

I know it’s difficult to do anything life altering. I came here planning to alter my life, not to have it altered. It just kind of happened, and I fought it every step of the way. Which only made it more intense, and more interesting I’d like to believe…the results of which I am filling my blog with. But, for those of you who are planning to come to japan or have come here already and just want to have fun and not upset the status quo- Japan’s or your own- too much in the process I have compiled a list of ways to make the potential life altering experience of living in Japan less…life altering.

Of course, if you’ve been here 3 years or longer, and assuming you aren’t loco already, you’ve put together your own list of ways to survive life in Japan. It’s the rare foreigner, I believe, that hasn’t had to significantly adjust his thinking, behavior, lifestyle, and so on, in order to adapt to life here. And perhaps like I, you feel the better for it.

The following list I’ve been putting together in my heart and mind for several years. I’ve tested each one and they have proven to have a high success rate. They’re not 100% but they range from the high 70s to the low 90s percentile. Whether or not they’ll work for you, I really can’t say. And any feedback you have on my list is of course welcomed.

The reason I specify Yokohama is because I know Yokohama well. I also know Saitama and Tokyo well, but, though Japanese are indeed Japanese, I do believe that people have different experiences depending on their area or region. I’ve met foreigners who live in Kansai and were utterly surprised when I told them about some of my experiences here. And I’ve met Nihon-jin in the countryside whose reaction to foreigners was significantly more dramatic and intense than the usual.

Some Gaijin are only here for the short term. A one year contract with an English school, or your company has a joint project with a Japanese company, or maybe you were hired temporarily as an adviser or Consultant. If so, this list may not be of any help to you. But, for the rest of us, the ones who might have come initially for one of the above reasons, but somehow (and there are a number of ways) Japan got its hooks in you, and wiggle as you may, escape is unlikely and in some cases impossible: this post’s for you.

1- My first tip may very well be the most difficult. It certainly was the most difficult for me. I still struggle with it, but the longer you’re here the easier it gets. It may seem ironic that though Japanese life is heavily influenced by nature my first tip to the foreigner living in Japan is: Don’t be Natural. By natural I mean don’t behave the way you would in your home country, or rather don’t be yourself. Get over yourself, to use the fairly modern vernacular.

For example: Japanese behavior towards foreigners is, in general, offensive. That’s a fact. How offended and how often you will be offended depends solely on your sensitivity and tolerance levels. My sensitivity was high and my tolerance was low so I found myself offended quite frequently. I have theorized that this occurs because of the difference between the definition of offensive in Western societies and offensive here.

So, ask yourself how you would naturally respond to an offense against you back home. Let’s say someone upon seeing you reacted as if you were a rabid hyena, how would you respond? Now imagine that reaction 10-20 times a day. I think responses would range from ignoring the offenders entirely (the more tolerant of us) to drop-kicking them all (the least tolerant of us). At a minimum you would want to know what their issues were to determine if it was something legitimate or illegitimate, something you had control over or not. But, in Japan, you learn early on that the offenses being committed against you are done merely as a result of a kind of institutionalized ignorance.

If posed to a Japanese person, the response to the why question (why do Japanese people react like that to me?) is always the same so you can feel the indoctrination, the resignation that this is the way things are and will probably continue to be as long as they are Japanese. We’re a small island, cut off from the world…we don’t have exposure to foreigners…we can’t speak English…we are shy…. These do not sound like things that will ever change, do they? Forget how shocking it is that they feel that they’ve given you an acceptable excuse for treating you the way they have for a moment, and ask yourself what is the natural response to that?

Well, if you’re like I was, the natural response is to react, and in some cases react strongly. But, tip number one is don’t be you. Be a new you. Be a different you. Be the you that can look at such offenses every day and somehow find solace and maintain your inner peace. How do you find this solace and inner peace? You have to question all of your ideas of right and wrong, question your own indoctrination and institutionalized ignorance. It’s easy to say, they are wrong, I am right. The challenge is to say maybe they’re right and maybe I’m wrong, or maybe my sensitivity and self-righteousness is as much a part of the problem as their ignorance and nonchalance about it is, or, maybe there is no right or wrong, there’s just an is. If you have, you’ve taken the first step.

But that’s just the beginning.  Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.

I found that solace and inner peace were virtually impossible for me to attain while Japanese were in my vicinity. As hard as I tried to accept their offenses as just a sign of their ignorance I was so in touch with their behavior that I could spot an offense against me at 50 yards. This is how most Japanese feel about us, as well, however. Our very presence here is uncomfortable and offensive, which is part of the reason why they behave the way they do.

One question I can count on being asked by Japanese (and I’m sure most of you can bear witness) is: Why did you come to Japan? This question used to vex me something awful. I’ve never asked a single foreigner in NY why did they come to America. But, I realized that this question is at the heart of the problem. The idea of leaving one’s home, where one is surrounded by all the trappings of home, by people who feel as you feel, think as you think, do as you do, look as you look, is absurd to most Japanese. Most of us want nothing but mirrors around us. Us meaning human beings. We want to see our reflections while we’re reflecting the people we see. Reflectors reflecting reflections of reflections, like some crazy house at the amusement park or maybe a barber shop. The reflections go on forever, with no reason and no end.

I asked myself why did I want Japanese to look at me and not see me but see themselves, see just another human being. After all, I was taught that this was the way the world should be. That in an ideal world, people would be people, and fish would be fish, etc…Martin Luther King said he dreamed of a day when a man would be measured not by the color of his skin but the content of his character. And his vision helped shape the society that reared me.  Of course, I’ve never lived in that world, neither did MLK, and neither have any of you, I presume. That world only existed in dreams. But, it was a dream that was shared by millions of people and so it became more than a fantasy it became an ambition. And, as an American, I was taught that the people that couldn’t look past my skin color to my character were dangerous, were obstacles in the path to reaching that goal. Obstacles that needed to be hurdled or removed. i learned that this kind of thing was unacceptable, and not to be taken sitting down unless it was at a lunch counter or on a bus where a sign reads “No Coloreds Allowed!” I also had some Malcolm X (pre-trip to Mecca) influenced feelings and ideas, as well. I grew up in the revolution. The Black Panthers were my teachers. Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis were as much my heroes and role models as Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. The struggle had several fronts.

I brought all of that energy with me to Japan. But, after being here for a while, encountering for perhaps the first time, people who had not even been influenced by MLK’s Nobel Prize winning message of how to build a better world, I started to wonder, for the first time, if this type of indoctrination, this ideal, was exclusive to Americans. I really don’t know what’s being taught in other countries. I know there is no other country in the world that can boast the kind of diversity that America does, even if some of it merely hype. So, maybe this is not the ideal in other countries. Or maybe it is the status quo in some countries I don’t know about.

I’ve listened to hundreds of Gaijin from all over the western world speak about their ideal, and their reactions to Japanese behavior vary from “How dare the little yellow savages treat me like a second class citizen!” to “I know exactly how they feel and I agree: Gaijin will sooner or later destroy what little culture and tradition this country’s has managed to retain,” and everything in-between.

So, I concluded that this indoctrination is a large part of the problem. We’ve all brought our ideals with us to this land and we assert them in everything we say and do. And, if Japan didn’t want to learn of them they shouldn’t have allowed us in or in some cases invited us. We have the inalienable right to be ourselves! Trust me, I know how you feel.  And, you know what? THAT’S OFFENSIVE to them! So, do yourself a favor, and don’t be yourself.

I know, I know…it begs the question: Who shall I be then? That’s up to you, but if you live here that person had better be someone less disruptive to the status quo or loco awaits.

Personally, I chose to be the happiest, go luckiest, friendliest, non-threatening-est, shyest, playful, joyful gaijin they’ve ever met. (-: I deserve an Oscar!

Next up: #2: Camouflage and Props

Loco

29
Nov
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama, but I say…

…why the hell not???

I feel very fortunate that I didn’t meet someone like me when I first came to Japan. Someone who’d been here a while, knew the ins and outs and ups and downs of life in this tiny island nation, but could, without an excessive amount of cynicism or negativity, present me with guidelines to make my transition here easier and more enjoyable. I probably would have been grateful, but I would have missed out on a great growth opportunity by avoiding what may be the best thing to ever happen to me: going loco.

I might have remained the same person I was when I arrived here. Not that that would have been so bad, but…well, yeah, it would have been unfortunate, actually.

It’s my assertion that the rewards of going loco far outweigh the drawbacks. Sometimes when you lose it, you win…going a little nuts can be very liberating. Many people don’t relish the idea of achieving one’s liberation this way, but I not only think it’s the best way, it’s perhaps the only way. Any student of history can tell you that freedom always requires risk, struggle and sacrifice. It can’t be given. It must be earned or taken, or both. Especially in the case of mental liberation, which is arguably the form of liberation of greatest value.

Some foreigners come to Japan fully evolved, complete, and satisfied with themselves, for whatever reason. So, no matter what they learn here, about the world or about themselves, they will pretty much remain the same. That must be wonderful (I think.) But, for the rest of us who came here with a little wiggle room (if not a lot) I’ve found that Japan is tailor-made for self-discovery…but maybe I’m just speaking for myself and projecting. If I am, please let me know.

I came here with a lot of baggage, most of which I hadn’t even known about. I thought I had traveled light. I’d sold most of my belongings before I left NY and gave away most of the rest. And what I couldn’t sell or give away or store in my mother’s basement, I threw away. I squeezed 30 some-odd years of consumption into a couple of cheap suitcases. Once I got here and got settled, that’s when I realized that I’d brought a lot more than I’d packed. A virtual grab-bag of human drama had stowed away inside of me. Maybe I hadn’t noticed because I had been carrying all this shit around for years, maybe my entire life, like accessories. I wasn’t quite conscious of their weight, like one doesn’t often notice the weight of belts, socks, watches and jewelry. But once I got here I noticed, and how. Like dumbbells in my pockets.

There’s something about the very nature of life in Japan that inspires an epiphany. Perhaps it was the combination of isolation, glorification and stigmatization that I encountered here that acted as a catalyst. Whatever it was, it raised my already heightened narcissism to an even higher sense of self-awareness.

It’s an incredible gift, or a horrifying curse, to be certain. I could see myself with a frightening clarity. I could see every ingredient in this gumbo I call I. I could see what gave me my bitter taste, what made me sweet, what made me too spicy , what gave me my irresistible aroma. I could see which ingredients I had chosen, and which were chosen for me. Which I had borrowed from the Americana recipe book of life, and which were inherited or environmental.

With this gift I was presented came a choice: I could try to manipulate the concoction, try to make something remotely palatable out of it, or…I could throw it all out, and essentially start from scratch. I began to see myself as I’d never seen myself before. Not as one among millions upon millions, but as less than one. I was invisible here. People didn’t see me. They only saw whatever they projected. But I was a zero, and zero is a hard number to face. Zero can make anyone go a little loco, until you realize the opportunities, the miracle of zero. That takes time. Time well worth the taking.

First, I saw myself through stages, through the eyes all around me, through the mirror that is my life here, through the Japanese: Bigger, stronger, blacker, scarier, cooler…stupider, incomprehensible, shameless…less patient, more impetuous, alien, different, strange, bizarre…dangerous…passionate, emotional, surprising, unpredictable, opinionated…free-thinking, free-willed, free-spirited, free…

Free?

Was it true, I wondered. Well, I definitely wasn’t Japanese. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, that just wasn’t going to happen. They wouldn’t have me. Not maliciously. It was just inconceivable to them and thus impossible. And, I wasn’t American. In my mind, at least when I came here, America was a theory, an illusion, a motto on a bumper sticker, no more representative of me than Disneyland was.  I was free, sure, the way homeless people are free. The way refugees are free. A very unsettling freedom to say the least. And terrifying. I’d never known that type of freedom.

Nevertheless, before I could make the transition from living life according to the mores and truths that have been impressed or forced upon me, or presented to me as self-evident, to living a life with my own flavor, where my only allegiance is to the personal mores and truths that I’ve decided upon of my own volition, a crisis of identity occurred. Yes, before I could decide what was best for me, I had to figure out who I was.

And during such a crisis, yes, there will probably be a time when you appear, and indeed presume that you’ve gone, for all intents and purposes, loco. I know I did. But, in the end, you can look back at your transition, your liberation, your gumbo, and see that clearly it would not have occurred, at least not in a profound way, without first relinquishing your grasp on this so-called sanity that’s clung to so desperately, and cherished so recklessly.

it is a heavy price to pay. Most cannot afford it for they are heavily invested in their lives as they are. Their portfolios are chockful of this sanity.  Some are literally trapped within the cultural constraints of their society’s expectations and beliefs, a straitjacket on their souls. Some are so afraid of life outside the straitjacket that they’ve totally submitted to it, reconditioned their minds to not only accept it as natural (and reject anything contrary as unnatural), but foster submission. They proselytize, offering straitjackets to everyone they encounter, wholeheartedly believing it’s in their best interest. They wear their straitjacket proudly like a coat of arms, or thrust before them like a standard.

Going loco, I’ve come to believe, is the only way to pull a Houdini, shed that straitjacket, and ultimately discover (or uncover) the real you.

However, despite my disclaimer, if you still want to hear my 10 ways to keep it together here in the land of the Gods, stay tuned. I’ll hit you off ASAP.

In the meantime give me a shout.

Loco

28
Nov
08

Operation: Feet don’t fail me now…

It has been 10 years since my last rejection letter. I’d written my first and only novel, and once completed, found an agent, went under contract with her, and I was on my way…Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Micheal Crichton, Tom Clancy…make room for loco on that bookshelf, I’d told myself.

Then, I got my first rejection letter, from HarperCollins Books, forwarded to me with a note from my agent imploring me not to panic. I wondered if I gave off that vibe. Was I a panicker, that guy on an airplane that when the pilot announces that the plane may encounter some heavy turbulence but there’s nothing to be concerned about, everyone in the cabin will look at with a “that means you too!” look on their faces?

I didn’t think so, at the time. I was ok, I’d told her. And I was. How was I to know that it was the first of a dozen to follow? Far as I was concerned I had a reputable agent and a viable product and that meant I was two steps ahead in this publishing game. Little did I know that each kindly worded rejection would chip away at my already fragile confidence until there was nothing left to chip, like when you’re watching a great action movie while enjoying fresh hot buttered popcorn, and an intense action scene begins. You sit there feeling giddy as a child again until you unconsciously reach in the bucket to find there are just popcorn crumbs left. By the time Ballentine, WW Norton, Penguin Putnam, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St. Martin’s Press (and some Independent publishers) were finished with my ego, I was chipping my molars crunching on un-popped buttery kernels.

It has taken me a solid 10 years to recover (assuming I have) from that debacle. I haven’t submitted a single thing to a publisher in that time. I’ve made excuse after ridiculous excuse to friends who inquired after the whereabouts of the my highly anticipated great American novel. Some had read my manuscript…the one that had been gutted by the big boys…and hailed it as great, suggested it was their loss (meaning the publishers), and recommended I self-publish. I was grateful for their support, but with a mouthful of kernels I told myself-via them-that I need to go back to scratch. Rewrite, Revise, Renew. Yeah…that happened. My novel is triple R’d alright, collecting cyber-dust in a folder on my laptop’s C:drive.

Sometimes I torture myself, and open and read it. I still think it’s good, though perhaps a little dated. Nothing a few minor changes couldn’t fix…change beepers to cellphones, Cd-Roms to memory sticks, Clinton to Bush, good economy to fucked economy, etc…No big deal.

Then came Obama…And that yes we can mantra of his. I adapted it. It moved me the same way it moved millions around the world. His positivity, optimism, confidence and audacity inspired me. I joined his cult of personality. Eventually, I started doing something I hadn’t done in a long time: I wrote. I started a blog…just fucking around mostly, following Obama stories and making quips about them. Then, my nature took over and i started doing it again, right there on my blog. I wrote an essay about a song Obama used at the Democratic Convention called “Ain’t no stopping us now”

Then I wrote another essay about Xenophobia called Xenophobes for McCain. Then, I wrote another essay, and another…and I could feel the old juices starting to flow. People were leaving comments, and sending emails saying they’d missed me.  I could feel the doubts I’d been nursing for years draining from me like pus from a cyst. That’s when I started this second blog about Japan. I figured it was time to tackle my experience here.

But, in all my excitement and enthusiasm about the return of the talent i thought I had at best lost and at worst had only been in my head all along, I may have jumped the gun a bit. I went ahead and pitched an idea to a magazine in Tokyo. A rather prominent English language one. I’m sure all of you living in Tokyo are familiar with it but I won’t drop the name. Anyway, the editor liked my pitch and, on spec, commissioned me to write the article. I did. I submitted it. He rejected it. Said (among other things) it was “Rudderless.”

But, then, I re-read my submission with his critique in mind. And, you know what? He was right on. I’d never had my writing called rudderless before. But, as i thought back to those letters I’d received from those publishers back before I’d run away from my failure all the way to Asia (I realize suddenly) the wording they’d used was along those lines. I pack so much into my writing that it kind of winds up being ineffective. Sure, it’s entertaining occasionally, intriguing, and possibly even engaging at times. But, instead of hitting my target with laser-guided proficiency, sometimes my writing is like one of those smooth-bore shotguns that spray bullets helter-skelter.

And, that’s fine for blogging, but, needless to say, that just isn’t what magazines are looking for usually. You can get away with anything once you’re established. I’ve read articles and magazines where the writer was all over the place but i still enjoyed the article immensely and came away feeling it was well worth the hour I’d given to it.

I think sometimes I get caught up in myself. I love to hear myself pontificate. Maybe I would have been a great preacher. But, hell, even sermons need rudders.

So, I took a pause for the cause. I stopped blogging (granted it’s only been 2 days but I feel like I’ve been writing continuously for 3 months.) The cause being I had to contemplate the ridiculous again, just for old time sakes. I questioned my ability, my talent. I asked myself those old haunting, taunting, disabling questions: Who the hell do you think you are? Do you really think people give a shit what you think? Enough to pay to read it? And I laughed. Then i stopped laughing. And I started writing again because, you know what? I’m a fucking writer!

So, I’ve decided to work on the rudder. All entries from now on will be rudder-driven. If you read a rudder-free, scatter shot post on my blog I want you (the reader) to give me an earful. Pimp-slap me with your comments.

Cuz, this time, I’m in it for the long run! Boom or bust! Feet don’t fail me now!

Lo (yes I can) co

28
Nov
08

When it rains we all get wet…

Many Japanese, when walking towards me, have a tendency to (upon noticing me and while at the same time noticing that there is little room or little time to make a run for it) put a hand up to their faces, like one might do if the sun was in one’s eyes. Only, I’m the sun and since I’m not above them but ahead of them and oncoming, the hand goes between their eyes and me, as if to block out any hypnotic suggestion I might be trying to transmit or worse, to blot me out of their world view. This is primarily done my men, but women do it, too. The women do it coyly, however, while the men more aggressively.

I call it the tic because it appears to be involuntary. I can walk past ten people in a row and 7 of them will perform this tic. It has other manifestations. Sometimes the arm between us swings up in an “I’m prepared to protect myself from you so don’t even think about trying anything” kind of gesture. The ones ashamed (I guess it’s shame) of this instinct catch themselves and try to make it seem like they suddenly had to know the time or check the sleeve of their suit for moth holes, elbow held high and defensively. These people used to make me so angry. I wanted to justify their fear so badly, but i usually didn’t.

That is why I love rainy days in Japan. With an umbrella obscuring my features (and by features I mean me) from the oncoming pedestrians I’m just another human being trying not to get wet. I can be virtually anonymous. I don’t have to endure the daily onslaught of offenses, at least not on the streets. But, I have to make sure that I have a colored umbrella. Sometimes, when the rain comes unexpectedly I’m forced to borrow a cheap umbrella from the collection of discarded umbrellas that sit in the umbrella rack in front of my school for just such an occasion, and most of them are the cheap umbrellas you can pick up in the convenience store for anywhere from 100 to 500 yen. Unfortunately, they are typically transparent. These umbrellas do not offer as much sanctuary.

It’s raining in Yokohama today. I’ve always been a big fan of rain. Long walks in the rain with a special someone always makes me feel closer to the person. Making love while it’s raining always seems more romantic and intense. I love water. Rivers, lakes, oceans, beaches, showers, baths, Crystal Geyser (until recently), onsens…something about water makes me feel in balance with and connected to the Universe.

Japan has given me a new reason to love the rain: Anonymity

Loco

22
Nov
08

Home Alterations Pt. 5

My family wasn’t thrilled about my moving to Japan. They’d treated my announcement like I’d announced “I’m disowning all of you!” The fact that it has now been five years since my fateful exodus hasn’t helped the situation, either. Maybe they had alleviated their anxiety about my move by telling themselves, “Oh, he’ll be back in a year, perhaps the better for it.” Well, I am better for it, but I’m not back, and feeling further and further from being back each day since I’ve been back.

There’s a 12-13 hour time difference (depending on daylight savings) between NY and Yokohama, and this has an lousy effect on keeping in touch with family. Either they’re busy or I am. Either I’m asleep or they are. Because of Yahoo and SKYPE communication wasn’t cost prohibitive, but these timing issues slowly made the whole effort mendokuse (too much friggin’ trouble.) At least for my family it did, I presumed. That is, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

For my mother, initially (meaning pre-SKYPE,) it meant using some crazy international code before the number. And why should she have to? After all, I didn’t give birth to her. She was the one who sweat through umpteen hours of labor trying to squeeze out my oversized head. The least I could do was return the favor and alleviate the crucible of having to press three additional numbers every time she wanted to hear her son’s voice. Well, she was still tucked away in a rehab, where receiving any calls was a no-go, so contacting her was out.  That was a blow but I rolled with it.

I have 5 brothers and sisters. My oldest sister, and her two daughters, live in California so that wasn’t going to happen. My two older brothers and my younger brother are MIA. Seriously. I didn’t know where they were. No one in my family could say definitively. If I asked my younger sister, the person in my family I felt closest to, she’d probably laugh. My older sister might walk past my little brother in the street without recognition. Even my mother could only give me leads.

“Oh, last time I spoke to your brother he was calling me from somewhere Upstate. He gave me an address but, I don’t know where I put it.” In NY parlance, Upstate means prison.

So, when I say my family wasn’t thrilled, what I’m actually saying is my mother and my little sister weren’t thrilled. My older sister over in Cali… she was thrilled! It didn’t directly affect her at all, so she was able to look at it objectively. Moreover, she is the most optimistic person you ever want to meet, and very supportive of anything I undertake. I believe she could actually be a motivational speaker and be a big hit to the tune of 5 figures a shot! I swear. She has more energy, intelligence, and life experience- that spans the spectrum of life experiences- than anyone I know, and can eloquently and passionately convey her thoughts and feelings. And she can draw from her experiences the wisdom to go on, and go on with vigor. I envy her. I think she’d probably be a better writer than I’m trying to be.  She’s the fucking inspirational bomb, and truly gifted! Every conversation with her either leaves me rearing to go or drained from the mental energy it takes my often brooding and pessimistic ass to keep up with her.

My move would mean absolutely nothing to my three brothers. My younger brother I haven’t seen in a solid 10 years or so. He’s schizophrenic, clinically, and divides his time between the Hip Hop career he created in his mind, insane asylums and prisons (assuming there’s a difference.) My second oldest brother…He used to be in and out of jail, but went straight and moved to the country somewhere, last I heard somewhere in Delaware. We’ve lost contact and I haven’t really made an earnest effort to re-connect with him, nor has he with me. We didn’t get along well when we were kids and our relationship as adults, with our relationship as youth as its foundation, wasn’t that sturdy or stable. No, those two wouldn’t even notice I was gone.

But my oldest brother…He, I was crazy about. There was no father in my house growing up so he was the closet thing I ever had to a father. Though he was a career criminal, he wasn’t especially gifted at it. But what he lacked in skill he more than made up for with style and audacity. He was my hero, my idol, and my protector. He was the toughest of the tough guys in the neighborhood. The other guys feared and respected him and the girls adored and hated him. He had a pathological duality about him. He was as harmless as a housefly at times and as dangerous as a Black Mamba other times. He was as funny as Richard Pryor (no exaggeration) one moment and the next he’d just lose it. One time I had to pull him off of my other brother after he’d ht him over the head with a brick. Born a year apart, they’d had the consummate sibling rivalry. Because of him, for me, life in Bed-Stuy was a breeze. His reputation for cracking skulls wrapped me, and anyone in my circle, in a protective cloak. I rarely had an altercation when I was growing up. Except with my second older brother…he was a bully, and my only nemesis as a teen. And my oldest brother was the only thing standing between me and a regular asswhipping from him.

I mentioned Franklin Avenue previously. My oldest brother RAN Franklin Avenue, he and his crew, and if something went down, you better believe he had a hand in it, or knew who the guilty party was. Unfortunately, the police knew this as well. He was the usual suspect, and usually guilty. Police at my door was not a rarity. Nor was the sight of my mother begging and crying before some judge for leniency. It was too late for mercy.

Before my previous trip home 3 years ago I’d searched on-line at the NYS Department of Correctional Services Inmate locator website and was able to locate my oldest brother. There he was, up in Fishkill, under one of his aliases of which the website had a list, at least the ones I knew. I’d sent him a letter and some loot and told him I’d be in town in the summer and to look out for me. I never got a response. I checked again before I departed and his status hadn’t changed so when I arrived in NY, Japanese girlfriend in tow, I decided to give her a rare experience and brought her with me Upstate to visit my brother. On a NY vacation, most Japanese never leave Manhattan, I’ve learned. My girlfriend got to see the real New York: Brooklyn, in all it’s glory and gore, and an American prison.

I’d actually never visited my brother Upstate before. I’d gone to Riker’s Island a couple of times, and several jails in the city, but I wasn’t about to go up to Sing-Sing (which is relatively close to NYC) or some of the other facilities he’d resided in wayyyy the fuck upstate, damn near in Canada.  I just wasn’t keen on seeing him in a cage, whether it was an hour away or a 6 or 7 hour drive away. Selfish, I know, but that’s me. However, I’d made an exception this time for a couple of reasons:

1-I hadn’t seen him in years and,

2- He is HIV positive and I really don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll get to see him.

The depressing idea of him dying alone, in prison, of that god-awful plague… Anyway, when we got there, I realized that it wasn’t quite a maximum security jail. More like a medium security, which means get those images of Shawshank out of your head. It means we didn’t have to talk on a phone through fiberglass, but could talk and touch and hug and have lunch and whatnot in the flesh. When they’d told him he’d had a visitor he’d come into the picnic area expecting to see some girl he’d convinced he wasn’t a lost cause. When he saw me and this tiny fine ass Japanese girl, he was so shocked and overjoyed he burst into tears, which isn’t exactly the thing to do in a jail, but like I said, it wasn’t Sing-Sing. It was a very emotional reunion but I think it added years to his life. He looked great. He always looks great when he’s been locked up for a while. While he’s in there he eats regularly and works out like a madman, but he doesn’t look like The Terminator. He’s more like Taye Diggs. Not bulky like a power lifter, but chiseled like a gymnast, a martial artist or a swimmer. Once he’s back on the street a while he starts to look like shit, again. The streets are his nemesis. He seems to thrive on incarceration.

This time around however, the website informed me that he had been released and so I had no idea where to find him. My mother had had a phone number for him but it was one of those disposable pre-paid cell phones, and apparently he had disposed of it.

So, that left my little sister and her daughter as the only family I could meet. I picked them up and we went out to dinner. In the car we carried a conversation about this and that but I was anxious and uncomfortable. I tried to relax and bask in the love that one can only feel in the company of loved ones, but I couldn’t. I felt estranged. We went to a diner my sister said was all that, called Purity Restaurant, over in Prospect Heights. The menu was oldtimey like the diners I loved growing up and the food was great. It was 8pm, but I had some pancakes and sausages anyway.

My sister hadn’t changed much. She was still her sassy, sarcastic, super intelligent self. But, something was different. She’d grown a little weary. She’d gained a bit of weight and that had her down. Her daughter was a teen and slowly falling out of adoration with her, and that was a hit. The men of quality that used to come knocking weren’t knocking as often and that was a blow, as well. So, she’d lost a little of her snap, but not irretrievably. I think she’ll be ok.

But, as she was catching me up on her life I felt an inkling of the reason I’d been feeling estranged. I couldn’t…no, rather I didn’t want to get into it with her until I had thought it out some more, though. My sister is a tough cookie. She has a heart as soft as butter, but she’d placed that butter in a meat locker a long time ago. I could thaw it out before I left for Japan. Our relationship was just that way. But, since then…I haven’t even put it to the test. She wasn’t being especially cold, though. Little stabs, like Sharlene and Wendy had made, little snide, verbal daggers that hit their mark with the precision of a circus performer.

I endured them, like a penance, from Sharlene and Wendy, mostly because they were drunk, but partially because they were friends. Their daggers stung. But my sister doesn’t drink. Not a drop. And, I was a little more vulnerable to anything that came from her mouth. She was my touchstone before I left. She was the person I could turn to for a reality check. I was the person she could open up with, let down her guard, be absolutely real with. I wasn’t prepared to accept daggers from her. Her daggers would draw blood.

I decided to avoid any serious topics.

On the way home, we dropped her daughter off at her cousin’s house. Then i told my siter that I wanted to drive by the old block to see if any of the old heads were about. She still lives in the area so it wasn’t nothing to her to see these people. But she said cool, anyway. We hit Franklin Avenue, and as I approached the signal at St. Johns and Franklin, I caught a glimpse of my oldest brother’s profile in my headlights.

“Oh shit!!!”

I pulled over and hollered out the window, “Yo Chuck!”

He was with a woman and turned around like he expected trouble. Then he saw me.

“Oh shit! Get out the car! Oh shit!!!” He started crying right there on Franklin Avenue.

I remember when he first told me he was HIV positive over ten years ago. He came to my old apartment and dropped that bomb on me. Back then everyone thought of it like a death sentence. Even though Magic Johnson was strutting around looking better than he had when he played ball. That was only because he was rich and had access to some super drug and the best healthcare imaginable, everyone believed. But for the average Joe the Plumber, it was deemed Death Row, you were a dead man walking. Everything about him had looked the same that day except for something in his eyes, or rather something that was no longer in his eyes. Even when I looked at his eyes through 3 inches of steel reinforced glass, in them I could still see that he was going to be alright. He could survive jail, no problem. He could handle them niggers in there. But, HIV? HIV had already begun its deadly task. The disease had killed something in him spiritually before it took its toll physically. We’d looked at each other that day. I don’t know why but he wanted me to see that he was dying inside. It was like he wanted me to see that the streets couldn’t kill him, jail couldn’t break him, but even the thought of this shit coursing through his body was destroying him. He was going to give up. I could see it. He was going to cash in his chips. He’d cried that day. Cried like a baby. I’d never seen him cry like that before. I couldn’t look at him. At this invincible mountain of a man, brought to this.

“Stop crying man!”

“This fucking shit…this…shit, it’s…”

“Man, crying ain’t gonna change shit,” I said but I broke down too. and we cried together for a long time.

And he was still crying 10 years later. I wasn’t. I stopped crying years ago when I realized that this dead man had been walking around dying for years, not months like I had feared. And if he had years then he had better fucking live them and stop crying. I had gotten really angry at him. Every time i spoke to him I told him what he should be doing with his life. I spoke to him like he wasn’t dying, because I didn’t want to deal with that. But, he still looked like he was waiting to die. 10 years, whenever he’s not in jail, he looks like this.

When I saw him crying today I cut him some slack. It must have been an emotional shock to see his favorite brother he hadn’t seen in 3 years and the sister he hadn’t seen in even longer than that. And I was so damn happy that I had decided to drive down that street. Serendipitous, was it not? That I could pick his profile out of a crowded street corner at night. It had that feeling of meant to be. I had resolved myself to the fact that this trip home I would only see a single sibling.

“Hello…” I said, to the woman with my brother.

“Yo, yo, this is my wife, man.”

“Your brother is so rude, hi, it’s so nice to meet you. He talks about you allll the time, his little brother in Japan.”

He’d told me about her before. That they were living together and planning to get married. I’d  thought that that was rather optimistic of him and was happy to hear it. I think he’d said that she was HIV positive as well, but I’m not sure and I wasn’t about to bring it up then. She was a little thing, looked about 40 something. Had that scratchy voice like a former lush, but she seemed really nice. She said that she had 4 kids and 3 grandkids. I was surprised but not too surprised. Young grandmothers are not that rare. Even Wendy is a grandmother and she’s only 41. Her daughter, all of twenty something now, had actually come to the bar the night I’d arrived and had a drink with us.

We stood on that corner, on Franklin Avenue, the avenue he used to run in his hey day, and talked for hours, as a family. I’d found the love I’d longed for back in Japan. And it felt wonderful…like Thanksgiving. He had my sister, his wife and I dying with laughter. He joked about all those crazy adventures that are the stuff of legend on the Ave, of all the people he’d robbed and cops he’d beat up, and so many things he’d done on these hallowed streets. Everybody that passed by shouted a what’s up at him, and once they noticed that I was there as well, they showed me some love, too.

After a while, the laughter started winding down. My sister was genuinely happy to see him but she was ready to go, and so was I. We exchanged numbers. I gave him my SKYPE number.

“What about when you go back to Japan, how the hell am I gonna get in contact with you?”

“You can use that same number.”

“Huh?”

“It’s like you’re calling my computer…wherever my computer is I can talk to you.”

“Word! Fuck outta here!”

“Word, yo.”

It was like he hadn’t been living these past years. Granted he had limited access to computers Upstate but I still felt really sad, then. I gave him a big hug and told him I love him very much and I told his wife to keep him out of trouble, and keep his stupid ass off of Franklin Avenue, unless she wanted to be visiting him Upstate.

After I dropped my sister off, I went back to Ma’s house. And, I cried for a little while. Then I did some writing.

Loco

to be continued…

(Links to Previous parts below)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

22
Nov
08

Home Alterations pt. 4

Sundays in Yokohama, I wake up bright and early and play basketball, but Sunday in Bed-Stuy is a holy day. I couldn’t tell you which there are more of in Bed-Stuy: Fire hydrants or churches. When I was younger NY used to enforce Blue Laws on Sunday…grocery stores couldn’t sell alcohol, bars stopped serving after 4am, etc… Some of these laws are still in place, but rarely enforced. Liquor stores still can’t do business on Sundays though. But, I don’t think there’s a bar or club in the city that would survive if they stopped serving alcohol after 4am. Can you imagine Blue Laws in Japan? The whole country would shut down.

Bed-Stuy has some of the most beautiful and oldest churches in the city, and this Sunday morning found me taking a stroll around the old neighborhood, around 10am, trying to find a NY Times. Used to be you could find the Times any time of the day, and The Daily News and NY Post, the local tabloids, would be gone. Now, the Times are missing, too. That’s as clear an indicator of the changing demographics in the community as you can get.

Bedford Stuyvesant has some of the most beautiful architecture in NYC…maybe the entire country. It’s not a boast. It’s a fact.

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

bedstuy-streetscape

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

It’s a very old community and the homes average 100 years old. And these are some of the most coveted homes in the city these days. When I tell my Japanese friends that they are shocked. Old homes in Japan are not desirable, new ones are. The new homes in NY are not worth the cylinder blocks and sheet rock they’re built with. These brownstones were built to last. They were almost hand-built. Limestone, brownstone, intricate detailing and woodwork, fireplaces with painted tiles, stained glass windows, wainscoting, you wouldn’t believe it! On some blocks each house has something a little different about it than the others (See Pics) At the turn of the century (not this one, the previous one) Bed-Stuy was considered a suburb of Manhattan and so most of these homes were built for the affluent who had moved to Brooklyn to avoid the overcrowding and influx of immigrants coming into Manhattan. Ironic eh? Some even have stables for horses, servant’s quarters and dumbwaiters. Unfortunately, if you’re a tenant, and fortunately if you’re an owner or well off, they are very much back en vogue. And virtually exclusive in price already.

I love to look at them. I grew up in homes just like these. Not as an owner unfortunately. They weren’t kept up very well back then. Bed-Stuy had fallen into ill-repair, in every way imaginable. The history of Bed-Stuy is very fascinating, and being a student of it I could tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, but thinking about them makes me a bit melancholy. So, I’ll pass right now. As I walked around I was overwhelmed by this melancholy.

Around the corner from my house was an old school, abandoned a good portion of my life. Homeless people used to squat in it. Well, no more. It’s a school again. (See below)

Before (old PS 70)

Before (old PS 70)

After (renamed Excellence Charter School)

After (renamed Excellence Charter School)

I have never been a Christian, but I love the architecture of the churches in my neighborhood, and the sense of community they inspire. Some of them are very old. Take Mt. Lebanon baptist (below)

Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church

Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church

Bridge Street AME

Bridge Street AME

Notice how it is made of the same stock as the homes, yet is grander at the same time. This speaks to the relationship of the church to the community. I don’t necessarily agree that a community ought to have this kind of relationship with a religion, but it looks great doesn’t it? I wish i had pictures of the homes on that block to show here. I’ll search around see what i can find. It’s one of my favorite blocks in Bed-Stuy. So, while the school represents the changes underway, the church represents just the opposite…steadiness, stability, a “we’ve always been here and we’ll always be here” appearance. Is it a delusion?

akwaaba Mansion / Bed & Breakfast

Akwaaba Mansion / Bed & Breakfast

Bread Stuy Cafe

Bread Stuy Fine Coffees and Cakes

There were several new cafes, restaurants and bars along my way. The cafes weren’t Starbucks but had a similar vibe and an equal or higher price.  I stopped at one for a cup and seated inside (yappari) was a group of white 20-somethings having a little meeting over coffee and assorted laptops. It reminded me of a cafe I frequent in Yokohama, only here the staff and owners are black. It was a cafe back when I left as well, called Mirrors. it was owned by a black couple I know, a couple of gentrifiers, who also bought a huge mansion around the corner which they converted into a Bed & Breakfast and several other enterprises. Now the cafe is owned by another black couple of gentrifiers I knew in passing. They changed it around a bit. They weren’t in when I stopped by but I could see that business was good.

And they had a NY Times (-:

Change is inevitable. I guess I’m a little conservative. The Bed-Stuy I grew up in had no cafes nor bed & breakfasts’. There were white people but they might as well had been black they’d been in the ‘hood so long. The houses were always beautiful but the security measures defaced many of them, and the need for tenants caused many of the houses to be converted into 2, 3, and 4 family houses, owned in many cases by an absentee slumlord. Gunshots ringing out in the day and night were commonplace, blood trails in the asphalt were not shocking. Drug dealers and users were everywhere. Businesses and services were few; mostly barber shops and beauty salons, grocery stores, liquor stores and supermarkets. Just the essentials, or the parasitic businesses that profit from despair and/or ignorance. But, this was what I grew up in and it became a part of me, so i feel a certain sentimental attachment to that ‘hood, an allegiance, however dubious, to the place that produced me.

So different from the super-clean, super safe, super quiet town in Yokohama where I live now. Where I can sleep with doors unlocked and windows unbarred. Where the only dodgy element in the neighborhood is, well, if you asked my neighbors, is me.

Still, I love Bed-Stuy. I love the old one, and the new one growing from the old, as well.

I’m a little torn, though. Inside me there lurks a gentrifier, too. While most of my friends loved the ‘hood, I actually loved to get out of the ‘hood. My best friend and I were of a similar mind, and we always made out for other locales. it was like a ritual. We’d get whatever we needed for the trip from the hood: weed, blow, whatever… and then head out to areas of NYC where we weren’t especially welcome but were quieter, cleaner, and more picturesque. We called these places sanctuaries. My favorite was Fort Hamilton, a totally white neighborhood out by my favorite bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.) We’d go out there and smoke blunts and drink blackberry brandy and talk and laugh about the things that I guess teens talk and laugh about, with a backdrop like this:

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

I was always kind of an outsider in Bed-Stuy. I knew people, people knew me, I was safe, I understood what was happening, but I always had a vision of something different. I always knew I was destined to do something different, perhaps even special, with my life. My friends and family seemed to sense it, too. I was the first person in my blood line (that I know of…at least going back several generations) to graduate from University. I didn’t feel anything special about it. No special sense of pride. I actually grew up inexplicably feeling that college was one of those things people just did, like get married and have children. Nothing special whatsoever. However, most of the people I grew up with did not share this mindset.

Nor did i think moving to Japan made me special. I just thought it would be a great experience, perhaps inspire me to write. But, my friends and family, well, they haven’t handled it well, some of them…

And it was time to spend some time with the family. Tonight, first up, my little sister and her daughter.

Loco




Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

Words I love…

Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round

Words by: Sly Stone

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