Posts Tagged ‘culture

11
Dec
08

Conversation (12/10/08)

Loco: How are you doing today?
Private Student: …I’m…I’m chotto, wakannai…
Loco: Are you ok? You seem troubled. How was work? Tough day, ne. Otsukaresama desu.
PS: No, I was not busy. It was quiet day.
Loco: That’s good, ne.
PS: Demo, saa…this morning on the train…
Loco: Ohhh no! Mata? Another chikan?
PS: Oh no no no! Chigau chigau…
Loko: What happened? Another suicide?
PS: No, not suicide. Chotto matteite. I want to say story in English.
Loco: Ok, ganbatte!
PS: On the train, it was crowded. And there was a black guy.
Loco: Uh huh.
PS: He was sitting anoo muko…across to where I was sitting?
Loco: Across from where you were sitting…
PS: Yes…across from me. Nobody sit next to him.
Loco: Sou da ne. So, what happened?
PS: That’s all. That happened.
Loco: Oh. Oh? Did it upset you?
PS: Hai! Yes it upset me very much. You have told me this happen to you but…eetooo…
Loco: But what? You didn’t believe me?
PS: I believe you. I just didn’t want to believe.            

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

26
Oct
08

How I learned to bow

I was on the way to work my first week in Japan, when I saw this gorgeous girl giving me the eye. I mean really beautiful. In America she wouldn’t need a stick to beat them off, she’d need Chuck Norris.

I was reading a Japanese textbook…ok, I’m lying. I was reading a book on pick up lines to use on Japanese girls, Nanpa it’s called, and when I looked up, she was across the car from me ogling me. I gave her a little smile of acknowledgment, kept my cool, though my heart and brain were racing. I scanned the book quickly, trying to find just the right phrase, but the book must have been written by some corny-ass, no pussy-getting-ass Canadian or something cuz the closest phrase I could get to what I had in mind to say was, my, what a beautiful handbag. I like your style, when what I really wanted to say was more in the spirit of “players wanna play, ballers wanna ball, rollers wanna roll…” Maybe I should write one of these books. Once I learned the language I’d certainly think about it.

When I looked up again, there were those eyes again.

They were heavily made up, like a porn star’s and they made me want her even more. I’d been a big fan of Japanese porn for as long as I could remember. I can attribute the broadness of my triceps to them. Her skin was tanned like Malibu Barbie. She smiled this time and her teeth, a little crooked and one seemed to protrude from her gum a little, but the smile took about 5 years off of her so that she looked about 13. Her blue jeans hugged her curves like latex and even seated I could tell she had a body. The Tim boots and the Yankee baseball cap on her head reminded me of how a girl back home might run out to the store on the spur of the moment to get some grits for breakfast on a bad hair day. Only her hair was unmistakably done, and her look was plainly on purpose. She was a Hip Hop chick, I realized…minus all the glam of the excessive make up and perfect hair and the cubic-zirconia studded crucifix dangling from a faux-platinum chain over her miniscule cleavage, she was trying to impersonate a black girl…even her fingernails were an attempt at ghetto glam. She looked like Lil’Mo in a music video.

Maybe she was trying to find herself a FabOlous.

It didn’t really matter though because if I knew me, and there are some things I know about me, I wasn’t going to say a word to her. My MO is to gas myself up then drive around aimlessly and hope to God I crash into something interesting. The book was just for entertainment purposes, mostly. So, as the train pulled into Yokohama Station, I shoved my little passport to Asian booty, replete with useless information and whack ass lines, and queued with everyone else to get off the train. I glanced at my cellphone and saw that I was about 20 minutes early for work. When I glanced up I noticed that she had worked her way to the space beside me. To look at her you would think it was purely coincidental. She was eying me peripherally with a knowing smile on her face. She just knew she was about to be hit on, and to me the smile meant Green Light. This time I inclined my head in a bow she returned it. Wow, this bowing shit works, I thought.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she replied a little too eagerly…she’d lost all of her coyness so abruptly that I didn’t know what to make of it.

“What’s your name?”

“Atashi?” She asked, pointing at her nose.

“Your name is Atashi…that’s pretty…” she looked unsettled. “Atashi,” I repeated because I didn’t want to forget it. She giggled for some reason. “My name is Kevin,” I said, pointing at myself.

“Ke-bean?” she asked, still giggling and blushing, all of her coyness returning just as suddenly as it had left. “Ke-bin! Ah, sou desuka. Nice to meet you, Ke-bean-san, Atashi wa Natsumi desu. Anooo…my-namu ee zu Natsumi.” And, she smiled some more, and brushed a couple of stray strands of hair from her the edge of her face to the side of her head with a stroke of a cluttered fingernail.

I’d learn in my class that the Japanese have trouble with the pronunciation of certain sounds like Vee so I wasn’t surprised by the distortion of my name. And, I didn’t care anyway because she was so fucking cute and had a banging ass and I didn’t care what I had to do, I was going to get me some of that…WHAM! My head versus the doorway! It lost! She turned to look, as did everyone, and guffawed, covering her mouth, as I stood there rubbing my head like a Aladdin’s lamp and going through the motions of “it’s not that bad…” for my ego’s sake when what I was really feeling was a needle-sharp agonizing stab of hurt. The ledge I’d walked into was metal and sharp and there was a strong chance there was going to be some bleeding, but my desire to make a move on her countermanded any idea I had about immediately seeking medical attention, she was that fine!

I could tell by the “how do I convey concern?” face she was making that she was English-free. She kind of pantomimed “are you ok?” and I nodded, feeling as far from ok as Marselis Wallace was in Pulp Fiction after getting raped by Zed. I checked my palm for blood, there was none, but, my god, there should have been. This much pain without the accompaniment of blood is almost an obscenity.

I couldn’t think, much less think in Japanese, so I just stood there. “Kimi no kabin ga totemo kawaii desune…” That Canadian’s words were the distraction I needed to clear my head. We had an awkward moment of silence while the train announcements said incomprehensible shit and thousands of people raced around and between and nearly over us. And then she looked around and her body language was like, well, it was nice almost meeting you, and sorry about your head but I gotta go… And I thought: hell maybe this happened for a reason. Maybe I should just let her go. Maybe this was the Creator’s way of telling me that she was a no-go. Maybe she’s a transvestite, or has herpes or AIDS or something, and the Creator is trying to look out for me.

One of the first things I learned to do was bow. You would think that learning the language would place prominently in the hierarchy of things to get out of the way, right? So did I. I tackled Japanese for 3 months before my departure; got all that Konnichiwa-ing and Sayonara-ing out of the way, and I was ready for the show…or so I thought. But, right out of the gate, bowing bogarted its way to the front of the queue like a gorilla on meth. I know what you must be thinking: Does Japan have some sort of roving Courtesy Patrol enforcing their customs? Up against the wall, punk! -Gut punch- Oh, now you know how to bow!

No, nothing like that.

It would be unnecessary anyway. From what I’ve seen so far, bowing is as instinctual here as it is for my boy, Darryl, back in NY, to critique every ass that passes by. Some people even bow when their talking on the phone. No, Japan has other ways of commanding your capitulation, and trust me you learn them right quick if you’re 6 ft tall or more. Now, 6 foot ain’t shit back in my neighborhood. It’s average. If you got a wicked crossover and hops like Spud Webb maybe you can make point guard on a junior varsity squad in high school. Don’t get me wrong; no one’s going to call me Shorty but I ain’t raising any roofs, either.

Saying I had to learn how to bow is a little facetious. Tongue in cheek aside, I had to learn how to not get a concussion on a daily basis. I had to pay careful attention to where I was going and what I was doing, at all times, even more so than when I was home in Brooklyn. Why? Because many of the things I took for granted back home- from complicated ideas like the general direction danger comes at you from (primarily from the left, check me if I’m wrong),  to simple ideas like the height of doorways- could not be taken for granted here. And so upon entering restaurants, trains, homes, anywhere with a doorway, I often have a Gandolf at Bilbo’s crib, Lord of the Rings type experience. Like most things in Tokyo, the price for not staying alert is high, and the scar tissue on my head can attest to that.

Even if a Japanese person is cursed with the height of a foreigner, by the time they’re adults they are so accustomed to bowing that low clearance is a non-issue. But, I’ve never bowed, except as a joke or in mock humility. I can see myself as a child performing before an imaginary audience, strumming, blowing or hammering the keys of some imaginary instrument, singing a song so heartfelt, so lovely that the crowd in my mind roars and applauds their gratitude. I’d bow low and thank them. “You’re too kind!” I’d say.

But, the doorways here in Japan are not kind, and too frequently I find myself on the losing side of a clash: the forehead of my 6 foot person versus a doorway an inch or two shy of my height. It is remarkable how deceptively adequate a 5’11 doorway looks. Your brain tells you, it’s a doorway, by God, designed for care-free entry and exit. And you trust your brain, don’t you? That 30-something year old bundle of pink and gray matter you’ve grown to trust and distrust, adore and despise, who, along with your heart, has conspired to bamboozle you into believing you are at the helm, and that you make of your life whatever you set your mind to and put your heart into. Equipped with this consummate hard drive of veins and nerves, slow to acclimate and accustomed to rooms that offer, at least, minimum clearance and virtually unfettered access to subway cars, you rush head long into a collision so painful that it’s all you can do not to scream murder.

A pain as merciless as sitting on a ripe boil on your ass that’s dying to be lanced, as ruthless as the scolding spray of your own shower if someone flushes the toilet depriving your perfect mixture of cold and hot water of the cold in a brownstone. It’s the kind of pain that clears your mind of everything, aside from the pain. First there’s a paralytic silence for an incalculably brief moment during which you try to will the synaptic responses of your nerves to take a coffee break- just this once, PLEEEEEZE- and not perform their sworn duty to alert your brain to any and all sensations…this moment is just long enough to wish you were Paul Maud’dib, the Kwisatz Haderach, with your hand in that box of pain, chanting the Bene Gesseritt litany against fear, opening your mind, expanding your consciousness, and sometimes, yes, sometimes, enabling your often disabled link to the Creator…yes, suddenly, your spiritual inbox has one unread message, you’ve got mail from the almighty himself: Call it what you will, a sign, a signal, an overactive imagination…

And its timing is often impeccable. Don’t let me be planning to do something of dubious morality, or in the middle of doing something that my conscience had been pinging me about. For instance, like that booty-call I’d just made and succeeded in setting up, and while rushing around my bedroom getting dressed to go do the deed, wondering if I should do at all, knowing that my girlfriend would not approve at all, and this is just the kind of thing that has lead to the lost of most of my previous girlfriends, one of which attempted suicide as a result of my betrayal, and that’s when I would stub my corned pinky-toe on the razor-sharp wooden foot of my bed frame, or bang my knee-cap on the solid oak TV stand, the one with as much give as the IRS. Well, while I’m gritting my teeth and my eyes are popping out of my head, and I’m kneeling– prostrate in this temple of mind-numbing pain, searing, throbbing agony, tears threatening if not streaming, so alive, too alive, mind cleared of all delusions—at this, of all times, clarity makes a rare appearance, like a message from the Creator. Actually I shouldn’t say appear…I should say that’s when I tell myself that whatever dastardly deed I was about to embark on, or whatever mischief I was involved in was something I ought not to, for there’s no evidence whatsoever of any other intelligence involved. And, sometimes, depending on the severity of the pain, or the clarity that follows the pain, I would postpone or even refrain from the act I was about to commit.

Yes, my private little superstitious practice; to hell with black cats, broken mirrors and ladders. I couldn’t care less about them. Pain was my primary prognosticator.

This clarity had saved my ass on many an occasion so it’s infallibility and perhaps its divinity is rarely questioned.

That is, not until I moved to Japan. Now I question every goddamn thing.

Here in the land of all that is Meek and Humble, the kind of pain I attributed to clarity happens regularly, so my superstition has subsided some. It wasn’t easy, I tell you. I still connect that omniscient pain with future events, but just as often I connect it with the failure of my brain to adapt to the challenges of a new environment and remain alert at all times.

Case and point: my home, full of doorways and furniture and appliances which require a bit of stooping, kneeling and bending on my part which means, basically, that I have to genuflect before entering my apartment and any room within. Just a little bow for the toilet bowl, show some respect for the shower room, a little obeisance for the bedroom, a little curtsy for the contents of my closet; the kitchen sink is lower so I have to defer to the dishes; the table is about a foot from the floor so I have to be meek to eat, humbled by hamburgers, show humility before hanging light fixtures… I don’t have a problem with the cultural differences…well not a big problem and, I guess, what must be the worst kept secret is that I want to fit in here and be respectful, as well. I have this idea about other cultures: They are to be shown the same respect that you would expect your culture to be shown.

And I want to learn…Though all I’ve known throughout my life is the Eurocentric idea of civilization I’m not convinced that theirs is the best (and not for lack of their trying either.). In fact, knowing historically that my people were forced to adapt to these Eurocentric ideas, and that it’s unlikely I’ll ever learn my actual ancestor’s ideas, I’m extremely open to other ideas, if for no other reason then to spite the ideas that were forced on Great grandma and grandpa. I grew up in a household that held these ideas in contempt, as much as one can do so in a Eurocentric society. My mother was as African as an African American separated from the bosom of her ancestry hundreds of years ago, living in a Europeanized culture that equated Africa with primitive, savagery, barbarism, and cannibalism can be. We didn’t eat with our hands or anything but you better believe I was wearing Dashikis and speaking Swahili at home.

And, from her I learned not to judge to harshly another’s culture for that’s exactly what was done to ours. Yet and still, my relationship with my Creator or my superstition, was mine, and not easily discarded. So, with the pain in my head acting as my guide, I bowed good bye to Natsumi.

 

23
Oct
08

The Dance

Maybe the problem is I’m too sensitive and wayyyy too observant to live stress and anger free in Japan. I mean, I have a tendency to notice almost everything. Great for writing – terrible for living.

The one thing that vexes me the most about Japanese people is something I’m sure many foreigners living here don’t notice. Or, if they do, it simply doesn’t get under their skin the way it gets under mine. Because, if it did, I wouldn’t be reading so many weblogs from foreigners living in Japan gushing about how great their lives in Japan are and how wonderful the people are, in general. Maybe they’ve found some way to ignore this thing. I, decidedly, have not!

Japanese call it shyness, but it certainly looks more like terror. It’s not only that they avoid contact with me but the incredibly insensitive ways they go about this tactless task.

Case and point: Today, I was walking from the station to my job. A ten minute walk I take the same time every Monday through Friday. On this walk I must pass a couple hundred people going the way I’ve come. The sidewalks are pretty narrow on certain streets. Barely enough room for two people to pass one another without one giving a little way. And If I were Japanese that’s exactly what would happen. A little way would be given by either myself or both of us in the spirit of keeping it moving. I know this because I observe this daily. I wish I didn’t but I do. But, I am not Japanese.

So, daily, I have to watch a couple hundred people do variations on the same dance I’ll call for the sake of this article, The Xenophobic Waltz. Picture one of those waltz scenes from a movie where the dancers have blank faces and they bow, join, turn, step and twirl and everyone is just as tranquil and syncopated as syncopated swimmers. Synchronization is so important here, as is predictability. The salaryman bullying through two office ladies in a mad dash is as expected and accepted as the schoolgirl paying more attention to her cellphone than the car, though in the right, waiting for her to cross the street without even touching his horn. That’s Japan. You can almost hear the waltz playing in the background. Everyone doesn’t do it the same way, but it’s the rare person who doesn’t participate in this dance at all. The essential elements to this dance are the facial expressions and the accompanying body language. It’s all about attitude. Ask any dance instructor or choreographer.

I can’t dance, by the way.

Now, imagine something totally incongruous entering that ballroom. Something scary yet… Man, it’s not easy to explain this. I mean, if a wolf was in the ballroom, then people would run. That would be the logical reaction. Rarely do people actually run from me. It’s more like if there were a deaf, dumb, clumsy, mentally-challenged dancer among them that no one knows but everyone believes or has heard is prone to do something stupid, unexpected, or in some cases even violent, and this is horrifying for it is a distraction and ruins the syncopation that generations of rehearsal have honed into a rhythm most know by rote. At best he is representative of that which is strange and potentially dangerous, like two left feet or the weak link. At worst, he is the anti-Shinto, and goes totally against Natural Law.

So, as a salaryman approaches me, and I’m in observant mode, like some kind of glutton for confirmation of my long since confirmed belief that the Japanese people are cowardly xenophobes and racists, I watch his every move. I watch as he passes people ahead of me, confidently in stride and uneventfully. I watch as he finally notices me. The recognition of “the other” in his eyes is plain to see. He glances across the street, considers crossing, checks me to see if I’m watching him and on seeing that he has my undivided attention puts his hand up to pick something out of his eye, turns sharply and crosses the street without checking for traffic and causes a car to have to stop a little short. The driver of the car notices me and glides his car as far away from where I’m walking – on the sidewalk mind you- as possible. I guess the suddenness and carelessness of the the other guy’s crossing made the driver sense a danger about. And upon seeing me decided I was that danger. His glide away from me causes the oncoming traffic from the opposite direction to slow, and the driver at its lead looks around to see what caused the other driver to perform such a dangerous detour, sees me, and nearly pulls on to the sidewalk.

I shake my head and keep moving. This kind of shit goes on daily, I swear.

A woman further up the road, missed all of that and is still coming towards me, she notices me and suddenly has a intense desire to check her cellphone for text messages. She whips it out, stops, turns her back to the area where I was to pass, and fish-eyes me until I reach her. Exactly as I pass, like if she were facing me, her body arches forward in order to avoid any possible contact and her head turns to confirm that I had passed. Once I’m pass, and the danger I represented to her has passed, the message she had to see suddenly wasn’t so important anymore, at least not as important as making up for the few seconds she’d lost by stopping, and she ran to catch up to where she ought to have been if it weren’t for, well, me.

Another man is approaching. He notices me and places his back against the wall and aims his head at the sky, while at the same time craning away from me like if I had a chainsaw sticking out the side of my head with the blade aimed at his neck. All of this while he is somehow still moving forward. He never stopped, like one of Spike Lee’s signature shots in his films where characters appear to be moving without walking,  kind of floating down the street.

A woman approaches with her child. I brace myself, emotionally. I can almosttolerate the older people and their ignorance, but when they impress it upon the next generation, like it’s some kind of common sense, that really hits me where it hurts. I can almost hear them spewing ignorance. “Be careful of gaijin,  Hiro! They are dangerous!” I really hate this stuff, when the kids are purposely infected with this disease. She picks up the toddler, at least he appeared to be a toddler, and steps off the sidewalk, walking along the gutter with her head thrust towards the opposite side of the street until she’d passed me, and then gets back on the sidewalk, places her son back on the ground, glances back at me, sees me watching her behavior and shifts her glance to the cloudless sky, then turns back around to continue on her way. Her child never noticed me, thank god.

Another woman is coming towards me. She is texting on her cellphone. I wondered if she’d seen me while I was looking around at the previous woman. I hoped so. I hate to come upon people without notice. It’s almost worse than than coming upon them when they have preparation. She’s dressed in a black pants suit, thin, short, pretty cute, pushing her mid-thirties. Pretty typical looking Office Lady. A couple of feet from me she glances up and her our eyes meet. I register. Her eyes wander around in her head as she tries to figure out what to do…has to do something…what can she do…life flashes by her eyes…two steps away…will he kill me…rob me…touch me…help me, Buddha! She stiffens, braces for the pending assault….passes without incident. I turn around to see if she shows sign of shame for clearly overreacting, an inkling of the offense she’d just committed against a relatively innocent man. Nothing. Just relief. She regains her composure with a deep breath, not slowing her pace at all, glances back at me, meets my eyes again and turns head back to face what lies before her.

I can just hear her telling her co-workers later about her terrifying encounter with a foreigner on the way to work, and how she was lucky to escape with her life!

By the time I get to the school, each day, I’m in no mood to deal with the foolishness I have to with the people I see everyday.

But, here in Japan, the foolishness never ceases.

21
Oct
08

The Crush

           I woke up to my chirping cell phone alarm at 6:30 feeling well rested. The crows were cawing, the bluebirds were whistling and Aiko was typing in the next room.

             “Ohayou,” I groaned, feeling a slight twinge in my back. I’d played basketball the day before at the gym, and though I don’t look it or feel it usually, I am getting up there in years.

              “Ohayou,” she sang. “Ne, ne,…eeeto, desu ne…” she said and paused which meant she was slightly hesitant to say the words that would follow. But, at the same time she had that distant, thoughtful tone she took on when she was working on something…and she was always working on something, which is one of the things I admire about her. The downside of this distant thoughtful time, however, is she tends to ask questions or say things she’s asked or said a 100 times before. But when she’s in the moment, she’s a slave to her rhythm. “Do Americans like Manga?”

              I felt the blood rush to my head. I opened my mouth to reprimand her… and caught myself. This took all of 15 seconds to do today. It used to take hours, sometimes days; marked improvement if I must say so myself.

              But before I could respond she added,  “chigau yone. Anoo, I mean, do black people like…chigau…anoo, is manga popular in America?” she crooned.

              I was beyond impressed! She had self-corrected a style of asking questions that I had been correcting her on for over two years without any success. For the past couple of years questions like those would really get under my skin, or rather, I’d let them get under my skin, and embrace the righteous anger that resulted. Almost everything else I’d told her about the English language and American culture, as I saw it, she’d absorbed readily, but this was an obstacle I was in the process of surrendering to. It seemed to be culturally hardwired into her psyche. But, I was wrong. She could learn to stop stereotypically thinking about the world if she applied herself. It wasn’t a hopeless cause but new evidence that anything is possible.

              I climbed out of bed, pecked her, seated at her desk, on the forehead and made my way to the kitchen. My routine is to get the coffee brewing first so that by the time I finish shitting, showering, & shaving the coffee would be waiting. But, on my approach to the kitchen the junkie in me relished in the caffeine in the air.

I let out a long “Eeeee!” of surprise and Aiko called after me.

“Nani?”

“Ko-hi tsukutta jan!” (Wow, you made coffee!)

Aiko isn’t a coffee junkie like me (so she says) but becoming increasingly fond of her lattes I’ve noticed, and had already brewed a pot. She’s the equivalent of an alcoholic who only drinks pretty cocktails with fruits and ornaments or a crack head that prides himself on his ability to maintain his job and his addiction simultaneously.

“Chigau yo,”(It wasn’t me) she giggled. “Chuugokujin kanaa.” (Chinese, I guess)

 

It was a running joke, one of our inside, intimate jokes. I once told her that all the problems in Japan, according to the newspaper, are caused by foreigners. And the foreign target of choice at one time was the Chinese living in Japan. According to the News, if you followed the paper trails of organized crime or the blood trails of violent crimes or the trail of discarded valueless contents of purses and wallets from the scene of a petty crime, they would all lead to foreigners, and in many cases, eased by their ability to blend in with the Japanese masses (more so than, let’s say, me,) to the Koreans and the Chinese. One time I accidentally left the back door open and when I arrived home, Aiko gave me an earful. I thought she was being ridiculous. We live in an extraordinarily safe neighborhood in an extraordinarily safe city in perhaps, statistically, the safest country in the world.

“Do you think some Chinese burglars are going to sneak in here and take…what…our computers? Or maybe some Chinese Otaku will steal your Manga collection,” I laughed. But, she was dead-ass serious and not finding humor in my carelessness at all. So, I straightened up and added, “With all these rich people around here, you really think the burglars would target us? You must really thing Chinese people are stupid!”

She laughed, and I could see in her face that she realized how ridiculous the notion was but she still felt compelled to hammer home her value of ‘safety first!’ However, from then on, whenever anything in our apartment was misplaced, she’d blame the Chinese.

“Who drank all of the Sake?” I’d ask.

“Wakannai!” she’d say. “Chyugokujin kanaa” (Beats me! Probably Chinese.)

“Who ate all the toufu”? she’d ask.

“Wakannai! Chuugokujin kanaa,” I’d say.

Soon, we began to use the joke for good occurrences, too. If I cleaned the house while she was at work and she’d come home expecting to have to tackle domestic tasks only to find they’d been done, I’d say, “Chyugokujin, kanaa…”

 

“Chyugokujin yasashi deshou?” she sang. (Chinese are very nice, aren’t they?)

“Sou desune,” I replied and headed straight for the shower. I opened the door to the shower room and eased my head through the threshold, inspecting the walls, floor and window for bugs. I hate bugs! And bugs always seem to find there way into the bathroom.  Actually I don’t mind spiders that much, but Goddamn slugs, centipedes and cockroaches- they’re the worst! Actually it has only happened a handful of times in the two years I’ve been living here, but one time is one time too many. And I was actually traumatized the first time. I was naked, of course, in a soapy, tile walled and floored room, vision impaired by soap, totally relaxed, singing about the good times with Al Green. Needless to say it was a rather vulnerable state to be in when a cockroach the size of a bat decided to take flight brushing me as it passed, making that nasty insecty buzzing clicking noise when in flight and landing with a solid thud on the opposite wall. Armed with a shower massage nozzle and a washcloth I practically broke the spring door off its hinges as I retreated providing my own cover fire aiming the shower spray at the creepy antennae’d multi-legged star of my nightmares. But, today, once again, the coast was clear.

After my shower, I brushed my teeth, taking note of their darkening shade. Tobacco and caffeine have been unkind to my smile, and for someone who loves to smile as much as I do, I was seriously contemplating using a bleaching agent.

Coffee and smoke within reach, I checked out MSNBC, CNN and even FOX news to find out the latest news on the man I credit with presenting me with an indisputable demonstration of anything being possible if you set your mind to it: Senator and  Presidential Nominee Barack Obama…his campaign providing a blueprint for success in virtually any arena and for most anyone, especially for a black man dealing with the ignorance I have to tolerate here. I still have a brief moment of anxiety as I wait for the MSNBC main page to open up, afraid the Breaking News headline will read something like one of the following:

“Obama and Farrakhan planning New Millennium Million Man March, claims the controversial Black Muslim leader,” or “These Crackers are Crazy!” says Michelle Obama on a recently discovered phone call between herself and Obama after the Pennsylvania Primary.” or “Obama Lynched as Secret Service looks on,” or some other kind of horror story. But, no, once again it’s the usual good news- bad news type stories, Obama’s up with this group, down with that group, needs to reach out to the other group, needs to consider so and so for such and such a position, was endorsed by so and so, blasted by so and so for flip-flopping on something or other, tweaked his stump for such and such a place, etc…

Relieved, I got ready for work, or rather for the world outside the relative sanctuary of my apartment. While I was getting ready Aiko was heading out.

“Nanji kaeru?” (What time you coming home?)

“Jyu-ji goro,” I said. “Anata wa?” (Around 10. You?)

“Konya shamisen kurasu wo shimasu. Dakara, jyu-ichi ji goro.” (Tonight I have my shamisen class so about 11.)

“Wakatta. Ganbatte!” (Gotcha! Break a leg!)

“Doumo. Ittekimasu.” (Thanks, later)

“Itterasshai.”(later)

I blew her a kiss and counted my blessings. Against her cultural judgment, she has stayed with me, listening to me for two years tout the virtues of a book I’m working on. It’s gonna be great, I’d tell her. But, every time she’d come home from work I was either watching the news on Obama or something else I’d claim I derive inspiration for this book from; real truth stretches like: I was re-watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for a sense of the heroic I wanted to imbue my characters with, or I was studying reruns of “Ally McBeal” for a sense of comedic timing and the effective use of absurdity. She doesn’t buy it, of course. She knew I was sitting there letting the days go by, stuck on stupid and oppressed and trying to hide from the anger I can’t seem to manage well (and the shame of that failure,) but she has hung in there like a mother would for her only son.

On the walk from my apartment to the train station, I encountered my first outside world nihonjin of the day. I could feel that old tension coming on so I inhaled deeply, and asked myself, what would B.O. (Barack Obama) do? My new mantra.

It was three boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, headed for school, uniformed in khaki short pants, box-shaped yellow and black backpacks, as big as their backs, and bumblebee yellow baseball caps-altogether cute as all get out. They hadn’t seen me, yet, and so they were chatting and joking freely and easily, paying no attention to the well-traveled and predictable road ahead of them. One laughed raucously and in doing so glances ahead and noticed me. I braced myself for…nothing? No reaction? The usual would be for that kid to sort of stumble in the shock of seeing this incongruous being before him. Then, whisper to the other kids who hadn’t noticed it yet something either to the effect of “Don’t look now, but here comes a cool ass black guy,” or “be careful, ya’ll, danger at 12 o’clock.” However, he looks back to his friends just as naturally as he would if he hadn’t seen me at all, or if I were a Japanese person, or a lamppost. I waited for his friend’s eyes to dart my way- children usually being incapable of adhering to the subtleness and craftiness of a “don’t look now.” And then all the hilarity and animation in their conversation would vanish, replaced by something I’d become accustomed to seeing everyday in nearly everyone: extreme caution. But…nothing! I was shocked! Had he seen me? I was certain he had, but no reaction made me question that conviction. One of his other friends noticed me and he too registered nothing untoward or even unusual about what he beheld.

I was absolutely blown away then! It had to be a fluke.

I had long since given up on the adults doing what these kids had done but I’d held on to hope for the children up until recently. Their typical reaction was one I could easily attribute to fear of strangers, the way kids in NY might react to any strange man who happened to be following them around, or who offers candy, drugs, a lift to school, or something conspicuously dangerous like that. Encountering a black person, in Japan, is the equivalent for Japanese, I’ve come to believe.

However, these three kids passed without another glance at me, and…I don’t know…my heart started pounding a little and a lump swelled in my throat. I mean, I had truly lost all hope, and I didn’t know it until these three boys passed through my life without remark or reaction. I felt such an intense sense of gratitude. In Japan, it is stuff like this that makes or breaks my day. And, they had definitely made mine. Hell, they made my month! I wanted to, at once, turn around, catch up to them and show my appreciation, and also try to understand how they could be so different from what seems to me to be about 98% of their comrades and fellow citizens. But, I’m sure that move would have backfired. I probably would have scared them half to death and they’d never ignore someone who looked like me again.

Maybe the explanation was something simple like their English teacher just so happened to be black. Even so, I felt, for lack of a better word, human, and in feeling that emotional jolt I realized how intensely inhuman I had been feeling lately. I’ve placed such a high premium on being ignored, but as a black man in a yellow land, the raisin in the custard so to speak, I’m rarely if ever ignored. It’s the price I pay for being different in a land of likeness much the way I imagine celebrities must feel when they try to pass themselves off as ‘regular’ people, only my notoriety is not one of envy or amazement. Predominantly it’s one of fear, like if I were a panther strolling down the street. How these kids managed to ignore a panther strolling by them I may never know. But, man, did I appreciate it.

The closer I got to the station, the more people I saw. I live in an area with hills rising in all directions from a centrally located station at the bottom of all the hills, so all the roads funnel directly to it. I live in a duplex on one of these hilltops, nestled in an alcove, surrounded by homes owned by some affluent people. The hilltop road I take to the station is a two-way street but only the width of two very small cars at best, and is lined with large homes with manicured gardens and 2-car garages where BMWs and Mercedes are kept. It abruptly becomes a San Francisco-esque sharp slope that without strong legs you must run to negotiate downward and damn near need climbing equipment to negotiate upward. At the bottom is a rotary where 4 slopes converge into a single road with bikes and cars and racing people pouring in, jockeying for position, half running or trotting. Some of them have seen me before. Some have not. Not that it matters much. I’ve been living in this neighborhood for nearly 2 years and not a single neighbor has so much as said, “Konnichiwa,” so I don’t expect much.

Along this road there is a busy railroad crossing. And missing the light could cost you anywhere from 2 minutes to upwards of 10 minutes, depending on how many trains are passing at the time. As I approached the crossing I could see that a crowd had gathered and the queue of cars waiting to cross was about 10 long. Usually, as I approach, those that became aware of me would begin to maneuver themselves so as to stay as far away from me as they possibly can causing others who hadn’t noticed me to discern the disruption in the natural behavior of the people around them, which in turn would cause them to look around to learn the source of the disruption, spot me, and adjust according to their particular respective feelings about my presence among them. Some would shift, apparently, with the desire of not looking like that was their intention, god bless them, while others would do so unaware of what that they were inching away instinctively, and others would apparently do it as an overt snubbing, as if to say this is exactly what anyone in their right mind would do considering the reputation people like me have.

Today, as I approached, a woman was digging through her purse, looked up, saw me a meter or so away, smiled a little awkwardly, but returned to searching her purse without any excitement. A man in front of her turned his head to check the time on his watch, caught a glimpse of me in his peripherals, gave me a second take,-a little bow / nod, then turned back to face the train tracks before him. Like he wasn’t moved at all! This was odd, indeed. It’s so rare to meet an adult that doesn’t react to me. Even mild surprise or discomfort is the minimum I’ve come to expect. But, nothing? First the kids up the hill, and now…Well, I didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it. Maybe he had a black wife at home, I laughed to myself, for even though I’ve heard of it happening, and black men certainly don’t have a problem being with Japanese women from what I’ve seen and lived, in four years I’ve yet to see a black woman with a Japanese man. Or, maybe it’s simply that he works at an English School. Yeah, that would explain it. He works with foreign people everyday so of course I didn’t intimidate him at all.

With that self-reassurance that I hadn’t gone off the deep end or woke up in a country drastically changed from the one I’d gone to sleep in, I continued on my way to the station. Holding my head high and asserting the fact that I’m black and, though you might not think I have cause to be, I’m very proud. And, I smiled. Joie de vivre is my weapon of choice. I’ve been told my smile is infectious, disarming, and it’s my hope that it says to the beholder, “though I respect your right to be afraid, you do know that your fear is groundless and ignorant, don’t you?” It’s my latest in a series of efforts to deal with the xenophobia and out-and-out racism I’ve endured since my arrival here. It’s something I do more for my own esteem than for any affect it might have on the behavior of the people around me. It’s been only a few weeks since I’ve adopted this new approach, and it’s been effective thus far but I’ve failed so many times in the past that I’m not convinced yet that it will garner any better results those previous failed attempts. My esteem is plummeting.

The path to the station leads through a bicycle parking lot. One of the staff people there, an old man with ears that fan out like a monkey’s and a smile that always makes me smile, was smiling as usual. Several times over the past two years he has made an effort to engage me in conversation but he has very limited English and my Japanese, though improving, was still way too poor to have an extended discussion. We spoke a couple of times, but those interactions quickly changed into interviews, a series of questions to satisfy his intense curiosity specifically about foreigners, and in a general sense about Americans and myself in particular. There was a time when I was eager to answer questions like do Americans know how to use chopsticks and why do Americans like guns so much, but after a while I found myself coming face to face with not so much a genuine curiosity but a propaganda machine that confuses stereotypes and opinions with facts and statistics, and a questioner looking to confirm what he already believed to be true. And, fancying myself as some kind of American Ambassador, I found myself, whether I believed it or not, answering the exact same questions over and over, and I heard myself repeating the same rhetoric that had been shoved into my head over the course of my lifetime about diversity, like I were some kind of politician and this was my stump speech, and I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into an abyss of ignorance not only about what being an American means but about who I truly am.

He bowed and smiled at me as automatically as he would anyone other familiar face and I nodded and smiled back as I passed. It was kind of unusual of him not to single me out with a special greeting like I were a special guest in his neck of the woods but I was happy he didn’t. He couldn’t have had any idea how desperate my need to be treated typically was. Unless he was a mind reader, how could he? He simply accepted me as part of his daily life, I concluded.

The train platform was packed, as usual. I got on the line queuing before the 4th door of the 8th car because at the station where my school is located this door would put me closest to the escalator. Many people have the same idea so it’s usually pretty crowded but crowds are difficult if not impossible to avoid in the morning so I choose to be closer rather than farther away. Not that crowding affects me most often. Once my fellow commuters get a glimpse of me, a pocket of space usually materializes around me but only if I board the train with enough time to be glimpsed beforehand and if it is humanly possible to provide me this pocket. The pocket is sometimes only big enough for me to read a book or play Tetris on my cell phone (which is substantial considering the other people in the train car are packed so tight they appear to be merging into a single being) Sometimes it’s big enough to do calisthenics or perform a Savion Glover routine from “Bring in da noise, bring in da funk.”

Standing on line, I behaved conspicuously, coughing, clearing my throat, unzipping my briefcase bag audibly, nothing unusual, just enough to draw as much attention as possible, hoping people would have the usual response to my presence and move to another line or (in the case of the people in front of me in the line,) race headlong into the car in a effort to board quickly and get as far away as possible from the area they anticipate I might eventually reside.

As the train pulled into the station and I could see through the windows going by that it was packed, appearing almost as if it was being expanded outwardly like the walls in that hallway when Neo flexed his cyber-muscles in the 1st Matrix movie, until the train looked like a metal sausage. The sausage’s doors opened and people who had been penned against the doors kind of spilled out; some to transfer to yet another sausage, some only to allow others behind them to exit so that they jam back into the car and continue to their destination.

As I boarded the train something happened that had happened so infrequently in the past 4 years that I had assumed it was virtually unthinkable: I was pushed! I had noticed that it was common practice, and acceptable to an extent in Japan, to push one another but that custom was rarely extended to me. It was so surprising that I almost had a New York response to it. In NY, pushing, even on the subway, meant that the person was either out of their fucking mind or looking for a fight. In either case, the response is to turn prepared for an altercation of some sort. But, I didn’t. I’ve been here too long to expect a fight.

When I glanced behind me what I saw was that not only had a line formed behind me, but that they were coming towards me! And they hardly took notice of our glaring differences. They seemed not to notice anything about me at all. They were focused on cramming into this car, for the platform alarm had rung which meant that it was time for the train to depart- something that is taken very seriously here. I was shoved against the wall of people in front of me and I instinctively whispered sumimasens and gomen nasais and received nods and half-bows and Iies that indicated I shouldn’t worry about it. No one freaked out at the face of the apologizer or looked as if he couldn’t understand the English I wasn’t speaking, or acted like AIDS incarnate had entered the car, or gave me the fisheye. Or patted their back pockets confirming their wallets had not been tampered with, or anything else I had long since accepted as typical Japanese behavior when put into the unfortunate position of being uncomfortably close to a black man. No one at all!

No, all I felt was the crush; like a tightening vice, threatening injury. I could feel my back beginning to arch inwardly in an awkward way and the air being forced from my lungs, and I could hear the whispers of sumimasen in my ears, from the woman whose hand was accidently wedged between my ass cheeks and the guy whose briefcase’s sharp corner was damn near impaling my kidney…and in my conscience, above my annoyance at what would surely be a rough ride to Yokohama- for the next stop would only bring more people and wedge that hand deeper into my backside and that briefcase sharper into my kidneys, and push my mild claustrophobia to its irrational limits, at the same time I felt a sense of belonging, perhaps for the first time since I’ve been living in Japan. I was part of this society, a human member, at that. It was like the feeling I had had with the boys earlier only now it was more physically affecting. It said welcome home like the crush of a bear hug from a mother or your family upon your returning home from a prolonged war overseas in which you were held captured and tortured; like winning a championship after 20 years of underachieving and the embrace of a team who’d never stopped believing, and of all the fans who had turned on you and all but given up. I was lifted above the masses, riding on their shoulders.

I felt pathetic, suddenly; ashamed of my longing to belong. I’m not Japanese, will never be Japanese, and so to want this so badly felt not only like a cry for approval but like betrayal of everything I’d been taught over the course of my lifetime was just and true, a disloyalty to the rich culture from which I sprang. Which is ridiculous after all. Was it not my idea to come here? No one forced me. No one put a gun to my head and said, “Expatriate or die!” I simply wanted to get away from it all for a while, and that I have done, unquestionably…far, far away. So far that I wonder if I’ll ever find my way back to New York. Maybe I can never go back. Maybe that’s why I want to feel the crush so much. Because I know I’m here to stay.

Here to stay? Hmm, like that’s an option. Sure, I just got a three year extension on my visa so if I don’t get locked up for some violent crime I’m good till 2011. 2011??? I remember when 2011 was something you’d only see or read about in science fiction…now it’s a very real number.

Then, my alarm started chirping and I instantly realized that I had been half-dreaming half-sleeping. I opened my eyes and checked my cell phone. It was 6:30. The crows were cawing, the bluebirds were whistling, and Aiko was standing over me, looking at me…

“Nande waratteita? She asked. (Why were you laughing?)

“Wakannai.” (Beats me.)

“Okashi jan.” (You:re nuts!)

“Sou desuyone.”  (You can say that again!)

16
Oct
08

King Kong VS Godzilla

Typically, when I put together a lesson for JRHS students, I begin it with a listening exercise, followed by a matching exercise and then finish it up with an opportunity for them to practice the English I’ve just taught them. Of course, the emphasis is primarily on Grammar, but there’s a bit of propaganda incorporated into their lesson, too.

The textbook used by the school is filled with little biased cultural references. Very subtle stuff. I almost feel paranoid even detecting it. Though it tries to paint a colorful, multicultural world outside of Japan, it still reinforces the idea of “They are different and we Japanese are better / special!” I guess that’s ok. What the fuck, it’s not my job to tell them what’s wrong with their cultural misrepresentations. Or is it?

Like today, I was co-teaching a lesson on comparatives and superlatives with Yuki-Sensei. She’s this sweet girl, not far removed from the University where I presumed she studied as hard as she could to become a top notch English teacher. Her grammatical knowledge is solid, probably better than mine but from a lack of exposure to native speakers her spoken English leaves much to be desired. She’s about as kind and gentle as people get in Japan which is saying a great deal. She has a tote bag with Peanuts characters on it. She loves herself some Snoopy.

So, to illustrate the grammatical functions of er vs est and more vs most she writes on the board “Godzilla is stronger than King Kong,” followed by “Godzilla is the strongest of all.” It’s the example used in the textbook. At first I just want to dispute her on her Hollywood trivia misinterpretation. If I remember correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, Godzilla had his ass handed to him by King Kong. But, I remained silent. The power dynamic in the classroom demanded that I do so. She is the teacher, after all, and I am just the native speaker there to support her. So I took a deep breath and sucked another load down for the team. Then she has me read the sentences aloud so that the kids could hear how a native speaker enunciates the words “King” and “Kong” versus the Japlish version which sounds more like “Keengu koonggu”. The kids are aghast at the difference. Then, Godzilla, which is a Japanese word in the first place (no matter America’s adoption of her as a hero and symbol of nuclear fears) and thus is pronounced incorrectly in the West, I draw laughter. The Japanese pronunciation, and in this case the correct pronunciation despite America’s confiscation is more like gojeera (there’s no zil or la sound in Japanese) so I’m the butt of a few jokes, fanning the flames of my simmering anger.

Then, she comes with the more/most example, which happens to be more of the goddamn same: “Godzilla is more powerful than King Kong” and “Godzilla is the most powerful of all.”

And, I realized, suddenly, why I resented this comparison and superlative: When I was a child, I related with King Kong on many levels, several of which I wasn’t even conscious of until that very moment. On the surface, my offense came from the fact that King Kong was a hero of sorts. I mean, he was a victim that fought back and was killed for it. Kidnapped from his native land in the jungles of some crazy island where the natives reminded me of every Tarzan episode I’d watched when I was a kid. An island where he was worshiped and nurtured and feared and respected…where he was in many ways a King, a master of his fate, living in harmony with the inhabitants of this island. Then, some white men came and discovered him, And since he’d only been exposed to that African pussy the natives had been sacrificing to him periodically, when he got his first whiff of some Caucasian pussy, he went crazy and had to have it. So, they used a white woman to ensnare and entrap him, chained him up in the hull of their ship and brought him back to the new word to exploit and make themselves rich.

The story sounds familiar because it is. I didn’t make the connection when I was a kid. I can’t imagine why, it’s so blatant, unless it’s a recurring theme, a theme so redundant, especially in Europeanized societies, and that to associate it with one particular crime against humanity is to minimize and limit its scope.

But, I don’t think so. The King Kong story is a metaphor for the European slave trade, no question. Replace millions of Africans with a giant ape, throw in a damsel in distress, a little interspecies erotica, some stop-action special effects, and you have a Hollywood blockbuster.

“King Kong won,” I blurted out, uncontrollably, shocking the students and the Japanese teacher. The students didn’t understand me, but Yuki-sensei did.

“He did?” she asked, letting my strong emotional response roll off of her but probably recording it in her memory for future use.

“Didn’t he?”  I asked, because she looked perplexed.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Anyway…it’s not important,” I said when I realized that the students were eying this interchange with a great deal of interest. And she let it drop.

Later I checked on the Internet, intent on showing her documentation to support my position and justify my outburst, as if that were at all possible.

Guess what I found out? (The following was clipped from Wikipedia)

Dual ending myth

For many years a popular myth has persisted that in the Japanese version of this film, Godzilla emerges as the winner. It isn’t known where this myth of the dual endings actually originated, but it’s been reported as far back as Famous Monsters of Filmland in the early 1960s. Decades later in the 1980s, the myth was still going strong. The Genus III edition of the popular board game Trivial Pursuit had a question that asked Who wins in the Japanese version of King Kong vs Godzilla, and states that the correct answer is Godzilla. As well, through the years, this myth has been misreported by various members of the media[15], and has been misreported by reputable news organizations.[6]

But as more Westerners were able to view the original version of the film especially after its availability on home video during the late 1980s, the myth became dispelled. Both versions of the film end the same way. Kong and Godzilla crash into the ocean, and Kong is the only monster to emerge and swims home. The only differences between the two endings of the film are extremely minor and trivial ones.

  • In the Japanese version as Kong and Godzilla are fighting underwater, a very small Earthquake occurs. In the American version, producer John Beck tacked on stock footage of a violent Earthquake from the film The Mysterians to make the climatic Earthquake seem far more violent and over the top destructive.
  • The dialogue is slightly different. In the Japanese version onlookers are speculating that Godzilla might be dead as they watch Kong swim home, and speculate that it’s possible he survived. In the American version, onlookers simply say “Godzilla has disappeared without a trace”, and newly shot scenes of reporter Eric Carter has him watching Kong swim home on a viewscreen and wishing him luck on his long journey home.
  • As the screen fades to black and Owari (The End) appears on screen, you hear the roars of Godzilla followed by Kong’s. This was akin to the monsters “taking a bow” or saying “Goodbye” to the audience, as at this point the film is over. In the American version you only hear Kong’s roar on the soundtrack.

Ain’t that something? Don’t you just love the Internet? Well, after reading that I decided not to present my evidence and instead went to Yuki Sensei and apologized for my irrational outburst. She accepted but I’m sure she’s going to walk very lightly around me for a while. I think I scared her.

But, hell, King Kong was my hero. I wasn’t about to stand there and listen to him be disparaged.

Loco

16
Oct
08

The Empty Seat

Just relax and ignore it, I’ve told myself umpteen hundred times since my arrival here and today was no different. It was just too blatant! The empty seat beside me, on the crowded train, exclaimed what the people and the culture would find unseemly to say verbally: we don’t trust you, we don’t like you and we don’t want you here.

I thought of ways to avenge myself, to appease my fury…a gesture both satisfying and effective. I thought hard. Many wicked thoughts went through my mind. Thoughts so venomous and downright malicious that even contemplating them should’ve brought the Thought Police crashing into that train car brandishing weapons with orders to shoot to kill. Just thinking such thoughts made me feel a whole lot better. You might ask, why the hell am I so angry? Well, I’ll get to that later, if it’s necessary. I mean, I’ve always had anger issues, ask anyone who knows me well. But, these people had no idea what kind of explosive they were tampering with. I almost warrant their fear, epitomize their stereotypical image of my kind. Only a couple of obstacles stood between me and really anti-social acts, almost sociopathic behavior: My wickedness was held in check by an awkward mixture of curiosity as to what makes this system work, envy of a people who managed to maintain their culture, somewhat, against incredible adversity, fear of the consequences of following through on these thoughts (not only to my person, but to my soul as well) and, ironically, a little shyness.

The train pulled into a station and many people got off as many others filed in. Some seats had opened up and, with a maniacal surge were snatched up. It’s like an aggressive game of musical chairs (only imagine the game if there were dozens of contestants, one chair, and they were not allowed to touch one another). Two businessmen and an Office Lady were on a beeline for the empty seat beside me…all were both focused on the seat. The woman was in trouble: chivalry hasn’t passed away here…it has never lived here. In fact, the opposite of chivalry has been the order of the day since time immemorial. She noticed the two guys and stopped short. Then, one of the Salarymen looked up, at me, and rather startlingly by-passed the seat in favor of a pole a good distance away-from me. The other rushing Salaryman noticed the first’s behavior, and then, peeping at the cause of it- me- briefly showed his true feelings on the matter, with just the barest momentary eye contact with me. I’m not great at reading the emotions of these people…or any people for that matter, but I’m pretty sure I saw shame. What he felt ashamed of is a mystery, but I’m not above speculation. Maybe it was the flagrant rudeness and/or bigotry of his countryman…but that would just be wishful thinking on my part. It was more likely that he was ashamed of his countryman’s fear. His body language all but hollered, “I am not afraid of you (even though I should be as everyone else clearly is)…not even a little bit! I saw that footage of flood-ridden New Orleans and the behavior of those “people” in a time of crisis. I’ve seen you coaxing my fellow Salarymen into those Yakuza hostess bars. I’ve seen what your people have done to one another in Nigeria and in Los Angeles, on TV. Hell, everything I’ve seen and heard about you reeks of un-civilization and danger, or at the very least unpredictability, which is almost as bad. Yes, I know you and yet I refuse to be afraid of you- Not here; not in my fine country, arguably the safest country in the world until we started allowing your kind in.” And, with swollen chest, and masculine care-free gesticulations, with chin thrust forward and with a violent plop, he landed in the seat beside me.

People were aghast, and by aghast, in the “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil,” or more appropriately “the outstanding nail that gets hammered down” cultural context of the people here, I mean he drew attention to himself! At least the people whose glances I managed to catch looked aghast. But, every time I tried to gauge the other passenger’s reactions, the eyes of the quicker people, those who’ve become quite skilled at avoiding eye contact through a creepy intuitive anticipation of movement, suddenly seemed to find the ubiquitous cell phone, Manga comic book, appointment book or make-up mirror of immense interest, and the slower folks awkwardly found things in the vicinity of my person of immense interest…like the advertisements just above my head, or the window behind me- the one with the shade pulled down to ward off the sun’s glare, or the pattern on the tiles of the floor near but not quite beneath the tips of my shoes, or the hand of the man standing nearest to the standing room in front of me that noticeably remained vacant, or hell the atomic particles in the space between us, the vacuum of air that encircled their heads, eyes glazed in a Zen-like state. It’s really something to see.

Well, with the seat beside me now taken, as well as the extra room I take for granted most of the time, distracted by my humiliation and rage, I’d had to unfold and close my legs. A child nearby was playing with his father’s hand. Oblivious to the annoyance of overcrowding, a glee that I presume was derived from the fact that his rarely seen father was on his annual summer holiday and foregoing the chaos of traveling abroad during this peak season, opted to spend this precious father-son time fairly locally at a water park or some such a place. He hadn’t noticed me yet, I knew. It was the rare child who could resist gawking at me…they are simply the most honest people in this as in any culture. He must have sensed my eyes, because he suddenly turned around and looked. His shock was open. If he had a heart condition, he would be a goner. If an octopus was climbing out of my nose, he couldn’t have looked any more frightened. He grabbed his father’s leg so suddenly and fiercely that it triggered a protective instinct in Dad. He turned, prepared to defend his child’s life against what obviously had to be a clear and present danger. When our eyes met, there was instant understanding, for I was nowhere near his son, and the alarm subsided a bit, and suddenly Dad, too, found the advertisement for a new breath-freshening chewing gum, the one just above my head, most mesmerizing. No more mesmerizing than his son continued to find me. Not hard-wired into the matrix of cultural do’s and don’ts, he stared unabashedly. I tried to extend a smile that as much as said, “I won’t bite you, I promise. I might look different than you, or than anyone you’ve ever encountered in your short life, but underneath this unusual exterior beats the heart of an Ambassador. I’m here in your neck of the woods on a humanitarian mission of sorts to introduce your culture to the outside world. And give you an opportunity to grow up in a country that doesn’t view difference or change as dangerous, but simply as natural. So, reward my efforts with a smile why don’t you? And show these grown-ups that the next generation won’t be half as xenophobic as they are…” But, maybe my gap-toothed, tobacco and coffee coated smile was a little too much for the tot, or maybe my subliminal message went over his head…I don’t know, because he didn’t smile. He seemed to get more comfortable staring, however, so maybe I had successfully transmitted my conflicted and contradictory message of Unity, Peace, and the dental hygienic consequences of caffeine and nicotine addiction.

I needed a distraction desperately. And, then I remembered my Kanji cards. Kanji is one of the three written languages, not including English, used here. It’s an ancient written language, used by the Chinese for centuries before it made its way across the sea separating these two historical foes some time ago. I find studying Kanji very gratifying. The only thing more aggravating than the shit I have to put up with on the train on a daily basis is the loss of my independence. Back home in New York, of course, I was very independent. And why shouldn’t I be? I could read, write, and speak fluently- three capabilities I’ve added to my long and growing list of things I’ve taken for granted that I’ve been keeping since I’ve been living here in the land of all that is cute and small. The truth is, that little boy who couldn’t stop staring at me if there was a gun to his head was more literate than I. I couldn’t even read that gum advertisement behind my head that everyone seemed to find so compelling every time I looked around. I’d stared at the various characters, the 3 written languages used to concoct a message oh-so-subtly associating sex with fresh breath, (if I was reading the message in the eyes and smile of the slightly suggestively dressed girl in the ad correctly,) and I couldn’t understand it for the life of me. So, I’ve undertaken the fairly insurmountable task of studying a foreign language, spoken and written, so completely different from the Romantic, Germanic, Greek and Roman based languages I was reared on and exposed to as a youth that I literally have to change my way of thinking, the goddamn polarity of my brain just to comprehend it. It’s a challenge, to say the least. But, I love a good challenge, sometimes.

So, I whipped them out.

By the way…need I mention that everything I do, every move I make, every thought I think, every feeling I feel, what I wear, what I eat, where I live, how long I sleep, and in what position, what I do in my free time, what I did before I came here and most importantly why the hell did I come here in the first place, is in the forefront of nearly every mind in my vicinity? I do? Ok, consider it mentioned. I should also mention that in addition to speculation I’m not above exaggeration, either. Hell, I’ve always been a little on the dramatic side, and accused of thinking too much, so speculation and exaggeration suit me. However, I don’t believe I’ve exaggerated thus far and don’t intend to exaggerate moving forward, but I might. I know what they’re thinking because I’m asked these questions and many other similar questions so often that I’ve taken to playing with the answers, flirting with absurdity and even with brutal honesty depending on my mood, just to see the reaction:

“Well, I came here because I’m infatuated with your women…they’re so damn cute. Everyone back home wants one but they’re virtually inaccessible or completely Americanized, and who needs that shit? But, here, I can’t keep them off of me!” “I came here because you’re country is so friggin’ safe! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live in constant fear for my life back home in NY. Thank god for Guiliani! He really cleaned it up, but there’s still too much crime for me.” “I eat Macdonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner…sometimes I make Macdonald’s microwavable meals at home, when I’m feeling lazy, which is often as you all well know. By the way, how is the Mickey D Corporation doing in this market?” “Well, I like all Japanese food except two things: Natto and Goiya. Oh, you love Natto? You eat it everyday? It’s very healthy, is it? Well, as we say back home, if it smells like shit and taste like shit…” “On my days off I go to strip bars and pay inordinately large amounts of cash for pretty girls desiring Louis Vitton bags and cute doodads for their cell phones to drink and do karaoke with me, and treat me like a king after a day of long hard slave labor…and then I go home and whack off to mosaic-ized censured videos of these same girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms performing fellatio on farm animals. You, too? Stop lying!” “Actually, it’s about a foot long…sorry I don’t know metrics. Like a baby’s arm I suppose would be the best image…No, a Japanese baby’s arm, I’m afraid.” “Yes, I can speak a little Japanese and I’m studying Kanji. It is difficult, isn’t it? Yes, the English ABCs are much easier. And, I’m pushing my limited attention span and intellect to the limit just to be able to read at the average Japanese child’s level.”

Yes, like Natto, Kanji is one of those Asian things that is held up as virtually indigestible by western minds and taste buds, which I gotta tell you, motivates me all the more to tackle it. Whipping out the Kanji always causes a stir. I can only feel the tension around me, thick as molasses. I wish I could view it through a hidden camera. So powerful in fact that the businessman who’d so fearlessly claimed the seat besides mine felt compelled to take it further than anyone had in my 2+ years.

“You’re studying Kanji, aren’t you? How wonderful!!” he said in Japanese, presuming I must be able to speak it if I was endeavoring to read it.

I smiled and nodded, “yes, I am,” in Japanese. “But, I’m not very good.” Humility is the rule of the day I’ve long since learned. But, by using Japanese I’d made a mistake. Maybe I was in shock that someone had actually spoken to me, in Japanese. It was the rare occasion that a stranger spoke or even replied to me in any satisfactory fashion. But I’d forgotten my golden rule; a rule I’d set for myself, which should have made it all the more memorable: Always speak English in a confrontational situation. Language is power, and in Japanese I remain essentially powerless. But, in English, in this English-crazed society, lay my power base and I had stupidly forfeited it.

He proceeded to tear into me in Japanese, at natural speed. And though I could grasp the gist of his speech, and the soft reprimand in his tone, I certainly hadn’t comprehended enough to reply substantially. He was talking about how foreigners usually don’t try to do something, and how very few are able to do something, and how he used to do something, etc…You can probably tell where my weak area is in Japanese. It’s my vocabulary, especially nouns. Subjects and objects get entangled in a web of complex sentence structures, honorifics, and a whole host of particles with multiple meanings. Yeah, I was caught in a web and he knew it. He’d humbled me, I felt, though I doubt anyone else in listening range felt gratified aside from him. I’m sure my face said “I’m embarrassed that I don’t understand a goddamn thing you’re saying,” but my mouth said, “Yes, that’s right, isn’t it?” A typical non-confrontational response I’d picked up from listening to conversations on the train and what-not. And, in doing so, I’d broken my golden rule #2: If you don’t understand, by no means should you pretend to understand. And from his smile I could tell I’d given a totally inappropriate response to what he’d just said, illustrating my ignorance for all to see and hear, or that I had confirmed some stereotype about westerners he’d proclaimed in all ignorance.

Now, I felt like shit, and was angry enough to eat glass. But, I held fast to golden rule #3, which is to smile at all times, which was a mistake as well, for after breaking rules 1 and 2, rule #3 became a moot point. Smiling was a way to alleviate the uneasiness Japanese have with communicating with foreigners. Our propensity to display emotions, especially anger, disgust, or confusion, went totally against the basics of Japanese communication methods. The smile is an essential communication tool. A Japanese person could be talking about anything from root canal to the recent death of a loved one after a 10 year painful battle with cancer, and smile through the entire story. And if they did have a lapse and exposed their true feelings on the matter, would apologize profusely for upsetting the listener. One of my students had brought this to my attention when I explained to her my frustrations with constantly being misunderstood when I tried to speak Japanese…she suggested it was because I was displaying too many emotions and should try to default to a smile at all times. Not a crazy shit-eating grin like some kind of puppet but just a look of pleasant interest, or unperturbed tranquility, or just plain good humor. But, this was not the time for any of the above. This asshole had just tried to humiliate me and I should have come at him with both barrels blazing…but I didn’t. Why? Because I really don’t know what he said…for all I knew, he’d said that he really admired me for undertaking the study of Kanji, something most foreigners would never attempt. Maybe my studying had changed his whole view of Westerners and from now on he’d be able to see foreigners as individuals rather than as a group. Maybe he’d spend the rest of the day re-evaluating all of the judgments he’d made about westerners, questioning the stereotypes he’d held up as truths, and actually share his thoughts and this experience with his co-workers or family. Maybe one day when his teenage daughter comes home talking about her new gaijin boyfriend he won’t kill her, only beat her senseless, then disown her…

And, that, I decided, was why I was angry. It was because, after 2.5 years here in the Kawaiiland, living among these cultists, I still don’t understand a goddamn thing! (Now, that’s an exaggeration…)

At the next stop, there was another mad revolution of passengers, incoming and outgoing, including the man who’d been sitting beside me. He bowed to me a bit on his way out, extending me a courtesy that I found to be both exhilarating and ironic. And, once again, the seat next to me was free. I waited to see who the next brave soul would be. It turned out to be a girl this time. She was tall, in heels, and mulatto tan, possibly from the beach the likely from the salon. She gave me “the glance-” a once-over where the dangers of coming near me are pondered. She stumbled a bit in her pumps in her hesitation, but, to her credit, at least she didn’t jump out of her skin (watch “Scooby-Doo meets the creature from the black lagoon” for an illustration of this) like most people do. She peeked around to see if there were any other seats available, and upon finding none, and with the body language equivalent of “Fuck it, I have a long ride and I want to sit down,” she gingerly planted her sweetness beside me. And I do mean sweetness. She could have been 16 or 32, there’s no way of knowing for sure…unless you’re Japanese. White silk ruffled mini-skirt riding high on her upper thighs, long, slim, hairless legs down to there (knees locked, to the point of buckling, which was the norm,) hanging from the crook of her arm- the ubiquitous Louis Vitton mini duffle handbag overstuffed with shit, mostly pink, mirror and cell phone jutting out of it, Pikachu or some weird cartoon character dangling from it, tiny pictures of her girlfriends posing, flashing the “peace” sign surrounded by tiny pink flowers and Kanji (I couldn’t fucking read) all over it, designer shopping bag from “Pinky Girls” in her other hand…super–padded wonder-bra enhanced cleavage peeking from beneath a barely-enough pink blouse that matched her pumps. Hell, she even smelled pink.

Her skirt rode up so high when she sat down that she had to place her bag in her lap to keep her panties from becoming part of the spectacle that she obviously wanted to be. At least in the NYC subway she could accurately be described as seeking attention. Hard to tell what the girls here have in mind, drawing attention generally speaking being such a cultural no-no. And this kind of style and dress- so prevalent here in Tokyo- for some reason, (as a full-blooded man, I can’t explain,) often goes ignored.

The flesh of her thigh was against mine, and lusty thoughts entered my mind. I peeked at her sideways. I could just barely see her eyeball peeking at me from the corner of her socket, for she was looking down, and when people look down here it often appears their eyes are shut. I always wonder why the Manga characters in the cartoons and comic books always look all big-eyed while the life-like characters on official stuff, like post discouraging public drunkenness, and request for courtesy for the elderly and pregnant, always had eyes that looked closed. The latter seemed more accurate while the former seemed to be the goal of the younger girls. She was digging through her LV bag pulling out little pouches of make-up and utensils to apply it, and then began doing so. She planted a mirror, that seemed too big to have fit in her bag, on top of her bag, and got to work. Teasing eye brows, attaching false eye-lashes, applying powder, and sprinkles, and lip stick and liner. All under the scrutiny of passengers displaying little or no emotion. She obviously didn’t care what people thought. This was the style of late. And she was definitely in-style. She could’ve been a spoiled rich girl or a hostess going to spend last night’s hard earned loot. Office lady or student seemed unlikely.

She reminded me of one of the two “Pinky Girls” I’d been able to pick-up since my arrival here. One, Tomomi, I had had an episode with last year. She wasn’t a hostess, but a spoiled, rich girl. She could speak English enough to understand and use some chosen erotica I’d taught her to use when we were together. I’ll never forget our first date. We went to dinner. She insisted on paying. Then we went to an internet café, with private booths, so that I could show her some pictures of my family and hometown, and wind up staying there all night- me, watching movies with headphones, drinking coffee and smoking Black & Milds, while she performed fellatio on me until I was drained several times. This girl could be a carbon copy my erection informed me. I tried to keep my lascivious thoughts at bay, and focus my mind on penetrating this written language, but the warmth of her thigh rubbing against mine and her periodic surreptitious glances at me through the reflection in her mirror were distracting me from my Kanji study.

Finally, I couldn’t hold back anymore and, driven by visions of another Tomomi moment in an internet café I turned and asked her could she help me out for a moment.

“This Kanji is so difficult,” I said, in formal Japanese.

“It is, isn’t it?” she replied, turning red and smiling, exposing what had to be the most busted set of choppers I’ve seen in this land of busted choppers. She had the triple threat: Egg-yolk yellow, crooked and those double layered numbers that are so common here.

I pressed on…I wasn’t going to let those choppers stop me. Shit, even Tomomi had the back-up choppers, but they didn’t affect her oral skills whatsoever.

“Can you speak English?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, but my English is terrible,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if she was being modest or trying to hold on to her power-base. The women here may be cute and shallow but what they lack in imagination, they more than make up for with- hell, I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s as effective as anything I’ve encountered in the US. There’s really no way to tell what they’re thinking…I wonder if it was the same in the US. I really can’t remember. But, one thing is for sure. Talking to a stranger on the train- especially a stranger from another planet- an uncivilized planet at that, where people carry guns and steal from one another, and have strange, deadly diseases, and openly show their emotions and have no shame whatsoever- was definitely not on her to-do list. Well, maybe definitely is too strong a word. Of course, the order of the day is politeness and tolerance of my flagrant rudeness so I just capitalize on that notion and sometimes it pays off. Politeness can lead all the way to the Internet café or a Love Hotel here, and has on several occasions.

“Really,” I said. “Well, my Nihon-go is terrible too.”

“You are really skillful at Japanese,” she said, exposing those choppers again. “How long have you lived here?” she asked, pressing on herself.

“About 2 years, but I still can’t speak.”

“You are mistaken, I wonder,” she said, I think. “And you are studying Kanji, too? That’s wonderful! I can’t read Kanji well.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s the truth.”

Everybody says the same thing when they learn I’m studying Kanji. I found out what it really means through my constant questioning. What that means is: I can only read and write the essential Kanji, roughly 2000 or 2500 or so. Or, it means, I don’t write Kanji very often because I’m always using a cell phone or the computer, and I’ve forgotten many because I seldom read books. Only magazines and newspapers which pretty much stick to the essential Kanji. In other words, it’s a bit of humbleness. Only being able to read 2500 Kanji is like a New Yorker saying I can only read anything you put in front of me but I may need a dictionary for some of the technical jargon or rarely used words.

“Well, do you know this one?” I asked.

She glanced at it and was about to tell me when a cell phone started playing a cute little J-Pop jingle. “Please excuse me for a moment.”

She answered the phone and started talking a mile a minute in muffled tones to a girlfriend about something I couldn’t quite catch. I did hear the words “foreigner” and “cool” several times, however. Abruptly, as we pulled into Shinjuku, she leapt up and begged my forgiveness. “I am very sorry, but I get off here. Do your best with the Kanji! Take care, see you again, maybe.” She gave me a little bow and made her way, heels clopping, knees knocking, to the exit, along with most of the people on the train. I was headed to Shibuya, so I didn’t get off, as tempted as I was to follow her and get her e-mail address.

I sat there a moment mourning yet another lost opportunity. And then I looked around at the many seats that had become available wondering whether someone from the next swarm of boarding passengers would throw caution to the wind and fill the seat beside me.




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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