Remembering the Departed

Sometimes I forget that the Political Scientist is gone.  The forgetting is not so bad.  It’s the remembering that crushes me.

The meetings with Tokyo Productions went well – better than expected, even.  But what does it mean when afterwards I can’t talk about it with my friend?

I was so excited to get home from Shibuya to tell her all about it; then I remembered she was probably deplaning in Moscow at about that time. I used to tell her all my business stories, but now that she’s gone it’s harder to reflect and process everything that’s going on.  It’s easy to lose track of why the fuck I make the life choices I am bound to make.

I saw the Yamanote-sen’s new ‘1 minute English’ video and thought about what I would say to her when I saw it with her.  Then I realized I probably won’t need that material after all.  Instead, I just watched it.  Joyless.

I rode my bike home, taking the back routes as if she were there.  We had some nice conversations on the way home that way.  I liked when she’d snuggle up against my back.  Something about the wind in our faces while we talked about life.  For me, that is us in Tokyo.  forever.

I come home and ‘Naked Lunch,’ the video we wanted to watch together but didn’t have time to before she left, is sitting on the floor and I want to see it, but I will not.

I am not crying, I am paralyzed.  I do nothing.  I can do nothing.

This sadness comes faster than I expected it would.

But it is OK.  I enjoyed every moment with her these last three weeks.  Since our first day in Korea, she was constantly in my life, and I was living in her aura, trying to soak it in so that it would last that much longer when she finally left.  No sadness, no thinking about how this bike ride or that trip on Yamanote-sen would be our last one together for a while.

Instead, I got to have that last train ride home with her – that last illegal bike trip with her – only all by myself.

It was almost like having one more day with her after she left.

And that was worth everything right now.

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College Redux

Do you feel old?

I discovered a little pocket of international youth in Tokyo while biking home with The Political Scientist last night.  About five minutes from our house is an international dorm for one of Tokyo’s language exchange universities, and they just happened to be having their first barbecue party of the year that night.

We stopped by for a drink and some multilingual ambience in the 60 minutes before the police biked over in formation to close us down.

It was silly and fun, talking with college sophomores.  It made me remeber what I was like 8 years ago.  It made me remeber my friends from circus school from 3 years ago, where I was the oldest by far (I was 23 in my first year, the median age of my class was 18).

I think that there is a difference between ‘feeling old’ and just ‘seeing youth.’  At least in my case, I am still dealing with the same questions at age 28 that I was at age 20, but I take them much more seriously.  I also have about 3000 more days of mistakes and good fortune and love in which to float; I have a deeper emotional pool in which to splash.

The difference between ‘extremely happy’ and ‘extremely sad’ has increased by orders of magnitude, and the size of the world has shrunk accordingly.  I have been penniless; I have been more wealthy than I deserved; and I found that my sense of personal worth or well-being did not seem to be correlated to any fluctuation therein.

28 minus 20 equals a lot more emotional and mental space in which to wander and a lot more voices from your past to guide you on your way; it seems the magnitude of your observable future is linked to that of your recall-able past.

(My new Uzbekistani friend from the party challeneged me to a handstand contest last night, and I am sorry to report that he lost.  He expects a rematch as hope springs eternal.)

Happy Birthday to The Political Scientist

Well it has been a weekend of nighttime debauchery and tomfoolery mixed with chaotic daytime preparations for The Rocker’s two day visit to Tokyo.  We are meeting with a lot of different cultural entities in preparation of potentially bringing a touring show to Tokyo or even creating a new show in collaboration with Japanese artists.

But overshadowing all was the 36 hour birthday party for The Political Scientist, my best friend in Tokyo.  We celebrated at the Refugee Camp starting from midnight, and then got together with friends in Shibuya for the evening, night, and following morning.

In true Tokyo fashion, it was an international event with five nationalities present in as many party guests.  We were Lithuanian, Slovakian (with the heart of a Hungarian), Libyan, Argentinian, and American.  Conversation and drinks flowed freely and proportionally.  All in all, a fine evening of erudite conversation with interesting people (at least the parts I can remember clearly).

And everything ended in relative civility and respectability, without any ‘accidentally’ discharged fire extinguishers, which is more than can be said about last Sunday night’s get-together, but that, of course, is another story altogether.

Tokyo Social Life

Our quasi-weekly picnic in Yoyogi Koen two weeks ago with The Author was excellent with lots of fine wine and imported continental delicacies.  An interesting mix of Japanese and American perceptions of what a Sunday picnic might entail.

But questionable weather conditions last week led to a generally lukewarm response for Thai festivities resulted in that week’s festivities being cancelled.  Unlike the weather, it seems like the Tokyo social scene as I know it is hitting a dry spell and in springtime, cabin fever is dangerous.  Last night, The Author and I may or may not have played a part in a giant flaming bag of dogshit of a mess (in the form of an unnecessarily triggered fire extinguisher) that was left in The Politician’s apartment building stairwell.  I really hope that there is no major fallout from it from him.  Late night and drunken fools.  Apologies sent.

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Social Chameleon

As a person leaps around the world, one can’t help but encounter other world travelers.  Quickly, one notices that there are many genii and species in the international vagabond family.  For example, every traveler has their own particular skill at integrating themselves into a new culture; some people can blend in the moment they walk off the plane, whereas others (by choice or chance) stumble through their host country in an alien haze for the duration of their stay.

Since I was six, my father conditioned me to adapt to foreign cultures, and despite my personal shortcomings in this regard, I am eternally grateful for the training.  From Tokyo to Hong Kong to Korea, to New Zealand and even to Hawaii, my father would point out tourists behaving like “Ugly Americans” and whisper to me that I must never exhibit such tendencies.

To be fair, one does not have to be American to exhibit traits like speaking loudly in your mother tongue in hopes that it will help the desk clerk understand that you don’t consider fish and rice a “continental breakfast.”

I have seen rowdy Japanese tourists in Taiwan announcing to their tour group that certain Taiwanese cultural treasures could be improved “if only that lady’s tits were hanging out!”  The tour group roared with laughter.  The Taiwanese tour guide smiled wanly.  I left the room.

I have unwittingly been an “Ugly American” on many, many occasions.  I remember that on my first visited to the Netherlands, I was so concerned about making a good impression on The Clown’s family that I grilled him mercilessly about Dutch etiquette and manners.

“Should I take off my shoes at your house?”

“That would be a little strange.  To come to someones house and walk around in bare feet is not too normal in the Netherlands.”

And so on and so on.  But it is impossible to think of every situation, and even the most obvious ones sometimes escape me.  For example, I had never eaten a fancy meal in Continental Europe, and was unaware that American table manners (chew with your mouth closed, don’t burp, keep you elbows off the table, try a bit of everything, and offer to clear the table after the meal, don’t reach for food, pass the serving dishes, etc) weren’t going to be sufficient.

I went out with his sister and parents to a particularly important family reunion, and proceeded to embarrass them by eating like a pig: I did not keep both wrists on the table while chewing, I did not know the proper signals to tell the waiter that I was done with my course and ready for the next one, I did not keep my fork at the right angle, I brought my head down too far to the soup bowl, and all while remaining blissfully ignorant of my behavior.

Luckily, The Clown’s family is a particularly forgiving and worldly sort who were able to see the humor in the situation, but I became a fanatic about international table manners after that.

And it was a nice little exchange, too, because I was able to teach them the intricacies of table manners in Japan, some of which were as subtle and counter-intuitive to them as the Dutch customs were to me.

In Japan, chopsticks must be set on the table behind the main dish and parallel to the edge of the table, not pointing at anyone.  If you are not sitting in classic ‘legs folded position,’ you must verify that you are not pointing your feet at anyone.  Slurping of the soup is permissible, and in fact, expected, as is lifting bowls to your mouth to eat.  It is more acceptable to bow your head slightly while eating to hide the act of opening your mouth and revealing your teeth.  You must never pour your own drinks, and insure that no one else ins placed in the awkward position of having to ask someone else to pour their drink for them (especially if you are a woman; yes even in modern Japan).  Chopsticks must never be left sticking into food, especially bowls of rice.  When passing food, you must never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.  Contrary to the popular (and personally unverified) Western notion that burping in China is considered a compliment to the chef (is this true?) it is not so interpreted in Japan.  If you want service in a restaurant, you must call loudly over the din to your server who will otherwise ignore your table so as not to disturb your dining (it is funny to watch first-time diners at fancy Japanese restaurants sitting anxiously, tables empty and menus closed, wondering why they are not being served.  Angrier visitors might attribute this to xenophobic refusal of service to foreigners, but in this case, at least, they are just being paranoid.)

These experiences made me wonder if an antithesis to these “Ugly Americans” or “Baj Ganjos” (any Bulgarians in the house tonight?) might exist: An individual so skilled as to be able to blend in perfectly from culture to culture as he traveled.  What would such a person be like?

Personally, I think that even if I had such a mutant super power, I wouldn’t be willing to use it at all times.

When I first started travelling, I believed that a visitor to another country has the responsability to learn as much as possible about local customs and to act like a good visitor.  I still believe that this is true, but I no longer go so far as to believe that the perfect traveller assumes the identity of the country he visits.  An attempt to do so is a vast, presumptuous, oversimplification at best, and is actually another form of closed-mindedness at worst.  A visitor is an outsider, and must assume this role while remaining pathologically open-minded to his environment.

Open-mindedness speaks to our ability to accept, but does not imply that we must adapt.  Sure, for the most part it is a good idea to adapt to your host country, but I think it is unreasonable to force yourself to wear a costume 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know that in Japan, absolute silence in residential areas is mandatory after 10 o’clock, and almost every day of the year, I try to comply with this (strangulating, oppressive, depressing, bleak, antisocial, boring) neighborly and considerate custom, but sometimes, when there is that certain smell in the summer air, and just the right music is playing, and the company is perfect, we can let ourselves live life like we are on an Arnhem terrace with our best friends for just one night, can’t we?

Is it really so ugly?

Is it really?

Is it?

It is.

But that’s the problem.  I can chameleon myself as much as I want in residential Japan, but I can’t permanently hide my identity inside myself.

Most grumbling locals have the benefit of having known only one cultural reality.

I think that in order to be a perfect cultural chameleon one must first master cultural amnesia.  As I would consider such a gift a curse, I remain a twisted, ugly little chameleon happily scarred by a  fortunate life amongst eternally foreign cultures.

Reconnections

Turns out that the daughter of my German teacher (who I always has a little crush on back when I was in high school) will be in Korea visiting friends at the same time as me.  Her mother told her I visited in Minnesota and she’s interested in finding out more about what I’m up to.  Evidently, she’s interested in seeing some breakdancing in Korea.

It’s been almost 12 years so I’m not sure I’ll even recognize her.

I’ll be arriving late, so if I can just find a place to leave my bag and a place to sleep on the 30th we’ll have one night to hang out, drink, and then I’ll head to the festival after.

Acupuncture

I have had stiffness and pain in my neck for the last week or so, which is very unusual for me.  One of my good friends in Japan, The Journalist, knows an acupuncturist whose office/apartment is not far from my house, so after my training on Monday, we meet up and head over there.

The office is not unlike the acupuncturist ‘office’ I knew in Boston.  Basically, it is a thinly disguised house, with massage tables and an electrical stimulation machine in the corner.

The Journalist, the wife half of the acupuncturist couple and I sit in the kitchen, and I listen as the two banter a little about life.  She strikes me as an unusual Japanese woman.  Very outspoken, and rips into The Journalist a little with biting sarcasm.

I am the first to get acupuncture treatment that night, preceded by a nice bit of shiatsu massage.  She sticks five needles into my neck and then hooks me up to a machine that delivers low-level electrical impulses through the needles causing deep muscle contractions in my neck. It doesn’t really hurt, but it does feel strange.

I hear the husband return and exchange some barbs with The Journalist before sticking him with pins and making him scream.

By this time, my acupuncture electrocution is over, and he comes over to me to massage my tendons and ligaments with needles.  This hurts a little more, and I could really feel it when the needles hit nerves and blood vessels.  Again, not really painful, but very strange, like electrical shocks that come from inside my own body.

After the treatment, I really do notice that most of the stiffness in my neck has dissipated, but there is a residual pain from the needles, so it is hard to say what the net effect is.  The acupuncturists advise me to take it easy on my training for two day, and after The Journalist and I pay a nominal fee for their services, they take us out for dinner at an izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) near the station.

There, as the alcohol flows, we speak freely about all kinds of things.  Acupuncture, life in Japan, my job, and The Journalist’s foolishness.  Most of the food was delicious except for some of the more exotic parts of the chicken (the skin, gizzard, tail, ovaries, and heart) that I neither The Journalist or I have been able to get used to.  I learn the Japanese euphemism for ‘this tastes terrible’: ‘natsukashii aji,’ literally ‘nostalgic flavor.’ Think, ‘wow, that taste really takes me back…’  I guess the idea is that you get so lost in reminiscence that you forget to eat the rest.

But my God, go out for an hour of acupuncture and end up spending the evening with two new friends.  A whole new world for free.  I love my job.