Waikiki via Japan pt.2

It’s my fault, though. I made a couple of glaring mistakes.

The first: Whenever my Japanese friends have told me about their trips to Hawaii, they invariably mention that what held the greatest appeal for them, what alleviated most of their anxiety about traveling to a foreign country, is that Japanese is spoken everywhere. Hotels, shops, police officers, you name it.

I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration.

I mean, come on. I come from a very tourist friendly city, too. New York does what it can to accomodate any one with the money to visit. Signs in major tourist areas are often in a number of languages including Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Information booths are staffed with speakers of the most popular languages to visit those locations, etc…So, I imagined that Hawaii was similar.

I was wrong. Hawaii is friendly to three languages: English, Japanese, and Hawaiian. (and I didn’t hear much of the latter.)

I’m not much for shopping. I go shopping about once a year, for clothes that is. When I do go shopping I like to get quality stuff that will last, durability and style-wise, at least until the next time I go shopping and hopefully beyond. I’m not a brand name guy but I have had very good experiences with the clothes from Ralph Lauren so I’ve been a regular shopper there for years. There are a couple of Ralph Lauren shops in Waikiki. The one I went to had some really eye-catchy stuff in the window. POLO stuff. I went in and noticed I was the only person not of Asian descent. I’m talking customers and staff.  And I’m not including Polynesian.

When I was young, back in NY, if I went shopping in a store like this I would be followed around by plainclothes or uniformed security as a matter of course. I’ve worked at Macy’s in NY as a security guard and though I was never told directly that this was store policy, it was suggested that people that look like me were to be watched carefully or I wasn’t doing my job. There was no security, as far as I could detect, in this RL shop aside from the obligatory cameras and alarm clips on clothing. I didn’t even look hard for any. I was busy checking out the sweaters. 

As an adult, however, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of pandering and solicitation from staff people. I had been looking forward to this. I hadn’t had my ass kissed in English in a long while. Their mission is to make sure my wallet is lighter when I leave than when I arrived. How light depended solely on their skill, their persuasiveness as salespeople. Especially in high-end shops. 

Most of the customers were Japanese. They were walking around the store carefree like they owned it or had controlling stock shares in it, with staff people following them around and pandering in that kiss-assy way that staff people pander in higher end stores. I was reminded of Pretty Woman, the second time Julie Roberts went shopping, with Richard Gere and his cards in tow. The staff were speaking Japanese but I suspect they were Chinese or Korean…they had kind of an accent and flubbed the keigo (super polite service Japanese) in a way that would be almost unacceptable in Japan.

I found the sweater I wanted and was looking for a dressing room to try it on. I flagged down a staff person that didn’t appear to be stalking a Japanese customer and asked where it was. She smiled politely and pointed to an area in the rear. It reminded me of Japan when staff people would use pantomime and broken English to respond to me despite my having spoken to them in Japanese.

I made my way to the dressing room and tried on the sweater. It fit like a glove. I threw it over my arm and went searching for more. Where were the caps and slacks?

“Excuse me?”

“One moment please…” a sales person snapped and re-inserted her nose into the asses of the Japanese customers she was standing behind. They were just browsing. No conversation was taking place. No sells pitch was being pitched. She was just posted at their beck and call. I looked around for another sales person. They were all situated as such. Then I noticed one free staff person re-folding blouses.

“Excuse me…”

She turned, smiled, and came over to me. “Yes?”

“Where are the caps and slacks at?”

“Caps are on the second floor….slacks are over there.” She was almost on her way away from me before she finished the sentence. I pushed the issue.

“Over there where?”

Once again, she pointed. I guess I’ve been spoiled. In a Japanese department store, the staff rarely say, “Over there.” They will personally take you over there ot they’d have over there brought over here for your convenience.

“Thanks,” for nothing. 

I turned away. I was on vacation. I wasn’t going to get upset. She was just having a rough day, I told myself as two Japanese girls approached me giggling and Kawaii-ing each other’s selections and shopping acumen. Then they saw me, tensed up, like they do back in their country, sharply changed directions, like they do in their country, and one looked back as if to make sure they weren’t being followed and whispered to the other the all clear, like they do back in Japan.


Between the staff and the girls my Polo high was dead. I placed the sweater on the nearest rack and headed for the exit.

The second mistake: I booked my trip through HIS, and they recommended the hotel. I Should have known better. I Should have remembered from my experience with KNT on my trip to China what to expect from a Japanese travel agency. The hotel staff was great. The service was excellent. The accommodations were superb. Everything was clean and orderly and safe.


The hotel was like the Japanese Embassy…and some of the Japanese guests behaved as if they had diplomatic immunity. Immune from having to behave as if they weren’t home…immune from having to be on their best behavior.

The first day, I got on the elevator to go up to my room and before the door could close a Japanese couple boarded, vacationing, happy, carefree, and…oh shit! They take a gander of me. Suddenly, Papa-san decides that it’s in his best interest to turn his back on me and pretend I’m not there, like I was a bellhop or an elevator operator or something. I was standing near the buttons so in order to press his floor he needed to face my direction. He chose not to, and kinda reached his hand over blindly for the buttons…just like they would do in Japan…

I took a deep breath…

“Nan kai desuka?” What floor?

His wife, who had been watching her husband’s bizarre behavior like it was the most prudent thing, her eyes liked to pop out of her head…

“Nihon-go ga jouzu desune!” (Your Japanese is very good) she sang at me informing her husband who, too, had decided that it was less of a risk to actually look at the button he was pressing because I could say something in his language…perhaps I was a staffperson in the hotel he probably told himself. The couple kind of nod/bowed and visibly relaxed.

I envied them.


to be continued…


11 Responses to “Waikiki via Japan pt.2”

  1. 1 Oli
    November 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Thought I’d check if you had anything new to say, and you do! I swear I’m a insomniac lying awake at 6:36am but atleast I can count on you loco to keep me entertained whatever the time.


  2. 2 Zen
    November 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Awww yeah, bring it!

  3. November 18, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    So much for the break, eh? I’ve actually taken to confronting this fumduckery on occassion.

    “Do you really think I’m going to kill/rape/rob you?”

    “Could you explain what you thought might happen to you if you walk/sit close to me?”

    When I’m feeling particularly ornery (read: particularly like a glutton for punishment) I may go on to ask people like the girls in the shop to think about how they would feel if people treated them like they just treated me.

    • November 18, 2009 at 8:44 pm

      Rubi-san, you’re my hero! You got more crust than me. I just write…you confront and engage. That’s admirable. As per our FB conversation, write about these encounters why don’t you? Inquiring minds want to know…
      Thanks as always for the shout dude!!!
      ps: fumduckery—-ROTFLMAO

  4. November 19, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Well it goes back to our discussion of drawing on narratives in society. The difficulty is that these can operate at an almost subconscious level. My aim then, in calling people out, is to make them own and interrogate their prejudices. You draw them out into the light of day and expose them as ridiculous. Because subjecting people to that kind of violence is unacceptable.

    Case in point, I was on a work-related trip when I noticed a young Japanese lady had dropped her train ticket. I say, “excuse me” and tap her on the shoulder. She turned to face me, and before I could utter another word she let out a piercing shriek, tensed up, and pulled her bag to her chest, as if to form a defensive barrier.

    “You dropped your ticket, silly!”

    Embarrassed, she nodded in acknowledgement and sheepishly bent down to pick up her ticket.

    “What did you think was going to happen to you, in the middle of this crowded station? There’s a guard just over there. Think I’m going to carry you off like king kong?”

    And that’s my beef. Despite the racial aspect, I’d have tolerated her reaction as somewhat prudent if it were on a dimly lit street late in the evening. Indeed, I might have even empathised. If I were a woman on a dimly lit street I’m sure I’d be weary of the approach of any strange man. In the context of a brightly lit, crowded station though, the fear was absurd. That she was embarrassed about reacting like that was hopefully an indication she recognised her assumptions were faulty. Perhaps when she next encounters someone who looks like me in a similar context she’ll take the time to suspend judgement. Maybe she was even moved to interrogate those narratives.

    • November 19, 2009 at 5:32 am

      Rubi-san, your prose is eloquent!
      Did you actually say, “What did you think was going to happen to you, in the middle of this crowded station? There’s a guard just over there. Think I’m going to carry you off like king kong?”
      I mean I want to say such things but I’m more of a “let the situation speak for itself and write about it later” kind of guy, which makes me think hate is seeping in causing me to feel that the Japanese who engage in such behavior (majority) are a helpless bunch of xenophobes and a waste of my time and energy.

    • November 19, 2009 at 8:09 am

      …but that sounds cynical and pessimistic doesn’t it? I mean, the people who would be at the receiving end of such words would be strangers mostly. People I have never met before and will never meet again so I’ll never know how they will react next time. But based on the experience I’ve had with the people I do know, and similar occurences, I suspect it’ll take a lot more than looking foolish once or twice for them to have a breakthrough of that magnitude…

  5. November 19, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Probably, I mean most of their peers will likely affirm or condone such behaviour. Real change in behaviour won’t come about until that ish is frowned on by society in general*. I think perhaps if you see the confrontation as more for your sake than for theirs it helps. I would argue that anger, engagement, and writing are just different but equally appropriate ways to affirm your own humanity. Not everyone needs to act as the educator and ambassador (e.g. avoiding using the word “racist” for fear of hurting feelings. I think there is merit to the argument that doing so actually reinforces inequalities, as the encounter centers on the feelings, mores etc. of those with power. Of course not every engagement needs be so gentle).

    There are times when I have concluded that it would be a waste of my time and energy, or even counter-productive to say anything, because doing so can be a real drain. Moreover, I haven’t always had the language ability required to induce Japanese people to reflect on exactly what super-powers/particular brand of depravity they believe black people possess.

    *Which is precisely why Japanese leaders need to lead and say unequivocally that racism is unacceptable, then put their money where their mouths are by passing robust anti-discrimination laws, which are obligated to do by an international treaty. They also need to call out twunts like Ishihara, and the National Police.

    • November 19, 2009 at 12:19 pm

      I second that emotion…

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