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.

Casting Calls

The former Cirque du Soleil Chinese straps duo has dropped out of our show.  They have only a military passport and no papers that allow us to process their visas for Taiwan. Because of the artist database I am building, I already have at least three options for replacements and one of those options is The Contortionist. As it turns out she will be available after August when her contract with Cirque Theatrical terminates, I suggested her as a possible replacement.  I haven’t told her anything about the Taiwan project, but I can definitely say that she is a real asset to any project she is involved with, so I mentioned it to The Rocker.  We might be able to use her skills in the creation.  Contortion, Contact Juggling, Aerial Hoop, Singing, and Tango Dance.  I’m not interested in trying to get back with her or anything; this is strictly professional.  I could do straps at the same time that she does her hoop number like I did in Shawinigan.  That always worked pretty well, the audience likes the two simultaneous aerial acts. I would need about a month to get my number back up to speed, though.

Playboy, Humor, and Cultural Comparisons

All the Nudes Without Fear or Favor

I have a collection of Playboy magazines that consists of one issue bought in every country I have ever visited.  I collect them not for the articles, and only partly for the pictures.  The main reason I collect them is because I am interested in how editors in different countries market the commodity of sexy women to the consumer.

I could probably do such informal marketing research with something like bread or breakfast cereal, but starting an entry with “I have a collection of bread…” sucks.

My most prized artifact is (appropriately enough) a sextet of July, 2003 Playboys (Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany) from my first European tour. All of these issues received the same photo essays from Playboy central, USA, but different offices’ photo editors had freedom to choose how to present that material.

Editors sometimes featured different photos; a photo that was a full-page spread in one issue is part of a montage in another.  In the French issue, an essay seemingly about girls that sit and lie on racecars was 75% text while in Italy not a single paragraph distracts from all the breasts.

Most editors chose the USA head office’s Spanish-American beauty as their Playmate of the Month, and ran a companion “Our Country’s Playmate of the Month” pictorial.  The notable exceptions were Germany, whose German Playmate elbowed America’s sweetheart out of the picture entirely, and Spain, who saved some trees by forgoing their National Playmate pictorial to run more photos of American-born Iberian thigh.

I think that it is a trap to draw conclusions from such informal study.  I don’t even try.  What interests me is the fact that differences exist, and then figuring out what those differences are.  I recognize that they arise as much from the tastes of a particular editor as from the tastes of a given nation’s audience, but I do content that the two are related.

I also used to save a daily newspaper from each country, but that newsprint doesn’t conserve nearly as well as the glossy pages of “Entertainment for Men.”

Is it unreasonable to imagine that the same unintentional international editing in Playboy exists in the pages of an “objective” daily journal?  The commodity of information is as vital (though arguably less popular) than the commodity of sex, but the pressure and desire to take editorial license are surely greater in the former than the latter.

In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie uses a metaphor of a movie theater to describe the uselessness of defining the human experience in terms of the present.  To do so is like trying to watch a movie with your nose pressed up against the screen.  I think that the same is true when we are speaking of cultural differences.

What can be simpler to understand than a Playboy?  And yet, if you never read anything but Playboys from your own country, you might be surprised to find that different editions from other countries are anything more than word-for-word translations (as if such things could exist; read Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat for a great treatment of the subject) of captions and articles.  Looking over my international collection of Playboys (not nearly as often as I’d like, I’m afraid) I get a very different picture of the subtlety of multinational culture.  For me, it is an abstract picture that is always in motion.  Usually, I see no identifiable patterns or forms, and even if one does emerge, I force myself to look see it as just a transient, meaningless island of logic that caught my eye.  But like any abstract object, it makes a distinct impression on the viewer.

Imagine the complications that would arise if we had the time to explore less intuitive cultural institutions country by country; legislation, foreign policy, environmental issues, etc.  How far would we need to step back to see this picture?  We are forced by circumstance to make sense of these patterns, forming policy based on blind hopes.  Is it any wonder we have had the level of success that we have?  Can future generations afford to be as rooted in one country as their great-grandparents, grandparents, and even parents have been?

Yo momma’s so Japanese she has a Louis Vitton carrying case for her Hello Kitty purse!”

Another unit-less but omnipresent social metric is humor.  When I was growing up between Japan and the USA, the notion that two types of humor (at the time, I took these to be “British” and “the rest of the world’s”) seemed bizarre.  Something was either funny or it was not.

I guess that that is true, actually, something is either funny or it is not, but it is the audience that defines what is funny, not the performer.

In Barcelona, I made thousands of Euros performing on the Ramblas with my best friends.  After about a month of perfecting the show, we took it on tour.  To our surprise, the show that we had been working on and fine-tuning over hundreds of performances was a total flop just across the border in Italy – it just wasn’t funny anymore.  Sure, an audience in an Italian beach town is different from the cosmopolitan Barcelona public, but we felt that we had to tweak our show a little in order to meet local tastes.

Our research methodology: watch a lot of TV in our hostel when we were not performing.  Comedy shows and MTV (as internationally syndicated and altered as Playboy) were indispensable.  What is funny in Italy?  What is sexy in Italy?  What is taboo in Italy?  Unsurprisingly, once we had adapted our show to fit the style we saw on the TV screen, our show was a success again.

As a side note, does this bother anyone else?  The optimist in me maintains that it is culture itself that creates TV programs and not the TV programs that create the culture, but I have my doubts.

As a performer, I have seen this time and time again.  Japanese audiences clap less than Western audiences at acrobatic shows because they feel like they would be disturbing the performers.  For the Ukrainian trapeze artist, though, it feels like the audience is not enjoying the show.

With humor it is even more complicated.

What strikes me about Japanese humor is that it is devoid of irony.  Turn on the TV or watch Japanese people out drinking together, and you will quickly get a sense of how physical, simplistic, and childish Japanese humor is by Western standards.

Conversely, American humor, more than any other country I have visited, depends almost exclusively on sarcastic irony and, to a far lesser extent, on absurdity.  Think of an American sitcom, and now remove any joke that involves a sarcastic statement or action.  What’s left?  Now think of funny Americans: Jon Stewart and the Daily Show cast, Jim Carrey, stand-up comics, Jerry Seinfeld, Mad TV, Saturday Night Live.  Sarcasm is an intellectual tool, and humor in America often comes down to a duel of wits with the winner getting the laugh.  “Yo momma” jokes exhibit this most clearly, but our friends from “Friends” are in the same tradition.  My ninth grade English teacher taught that irony is the basis of all humor, which I still think is true, but sarcastic irony is only one flavor.

Sarcasm does not work in Japan or Taiwan.  If a twenty-year old says sarcastically that she is 35, her friends’ jaws will drop, and they will nod their heads saying that she really doesn’t look it.  Say something absurd, that you are 100, for example, and people will accuse you of lying before finding any humor in the absurdity.  Walk out of the Bolshoi Ballet saying “I could do better than that” and your date would likely respond with, “You are a dancer?”

It is no wonder to me, then, that Japanese people do not get American humor.  Often, my Japanese friends will sheepishly ask me why Americans laugh at a certain movie.  After my explanation is lost on them, they nod their head. “They say the opposite of what they mean.  I see now.”

After seeing how the humor of “Friends” dies in translation (the Japanese language is largely flat-toned with little rhythmic variation, so “Really, I love you so much” and “REEEEEALY, I love you SOOOOOOO much” sound roughly equivalent to the Japanese ear), it made perfect sense to me that it is watched more as a drama than a sitcom in Japan.

The absence of irony is present in other aspects of life as well.  I think that it is part of what accounts for middle-aged women dressing in pink and carrying Hello Kitty accessories.  I think it also contributes to Japanese women consider Louis Vitton bags as exclusive status symbols despite the fact that everyone has them.  It is also no wonder that Americans, born and bred on cynical sarcasm, are quick to rip into this soft underbelly of Japanese popular culture.

Here is the point: all I can say about humor in Japan versus humor in America is that they are different.  The Western half of me is tempted to write off Japanese humor and irony-free pop culture as naïve and childish. Conversely, there is a large part of me that sees the American dependence on sarcasm and absurdity in its humor as symptomatic of the wall of defenses that they seem to build up over the course of their lifetime.  I know that such interpretations ossify negative stereotypes and reflect my own personal frustrations more than reality.

For example, we could just as easily view Americans as being childish and naïve for being such one-trick-ponies in their battles for supremacy of wit.  We could also see the Japanese sense of humor, toothless and immature, as being symptomatic of the wall of defenses that the Japanese are expected to build up over the course of their lifetimes.

It is clear that the difference exists, but any interpretation can be countered with an infinite series of on-the-other-hand’s.  My personal conclusion from all of this is that it is the duty of someone from Culture A to be aware of how their culture is perceived by Culture B, Culture C, and Culture D, and also to be conscious of their personal perceptions of those other cultures.  One both sides road are two equally dangerous traps: the trap of Cultural Bigotry and the trap of Cultural Fetishism.

Despite my best intentions, I am sad to say that I have fallen victim to both traps in the recent past; it is easier to see when two other cultures are misunderstanding each other than when you are the one misunderstanding and being misunderstood in return.

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.

A Continually Developing Film Starring Us

Things did not go as smoothly with The Contortionist being in Hawaii as I had hoped, but at least it gave us a chance to say goodbye face-to-face instead of over email.  I miss her, but it is hard for me to think about how I can write to her feeing this strange push and pull; understanding that I am choosing not to be with her despite this being a choice that I make as much for her as for me.

We are in a continually developing film starring us.

She wrote me today telling me that she finds it difficult to move on.  I know she can no more forget me as I can forget her, but I told her that she should not let our past paralyze her.  She wanted to come visit in a few weeks, but I said that it makes more sense to wait for the Taiwan project.  My reasoning is that my schedule is even more hectic here now that it was when our relationship trouble started, and I might be leaving for Taiwan even sooner than expected as I am now co-director.  Even if she is free in the next couple of weeks, there is no guarantee that I will be, and I will not necessarily be in the calmest of moods the next 6 weeks or so.  I may have looked like a bastard, but I would have looked like more of one if I invited her here and could not spend time with her.

The Contortionist tells me that she is feeling stressed about the next step in her life after her tour with Cirque Theatrical finishes.  She must feel a bit like how I’ve been feeling since last August when the end of expo was just around the corner.  It’s a crazy time.

She’s planning to start studying to finish her academic education that was interrupted when she came to Montreal for circus school and asked me how she should think about choosing subjects; if she should do as few as possible or as many as possible, what subjects to choose, etc.

My advice to her was to try to do as much as possible for as long as she can.  She might be surprised at how well she learns under pressure or that she naturally does better at some subjects than others, and just go with that.  Having a variety of subjects to work on at one time is also important because often, if she’s sick of one subject, like math, studying French might be a great way to relax from it.  If she’s only studying French, she might not get that sense of “ah, finally, something I enjoy…”

It’s just like how flexibility training can be such a nice change from strength training that it almost feels like you aren’t really working, even though you are getting the benefit of working hard at two things.

But everyone is different.  I know that if I just do one thing I get bored; I need to always have a choice and have to feel like there is more to do than I can ever accomplish.  For her, it might be easier to do just one or two subjects at a time.  I would say at least two, though, or she may get bored quickly!

It’s important for her to keep drop deadlines in mind so that she won’t get stuck with a class you are struggling in.  Maybe some of the classes she thinks will be hard will not be so tough after all and she will surprise herself.

She tells me that she hopes I will find someone extraordinary to be “my girl” but that she is having a hard time moving forward; that she is sorry about what happened.  I think we should maybe talk about us again after her tour is finished.  Maybe she’s right – maybe we could put this ugliness behind us and start over.

End of a Trip Abroad Back Home

I am sitting here, needing to leave in five hours to get to the airport and return to Japan.  Madness.  Looking forward to it, actually, but I’m sure I will be missing this vacation soon enough!

I finally did get a chance to do that hike, and it was perhaps the highlight of the trip.  Walking out, watching the humpback whales leap out of the water right next to the horizon, watching dolphins jump over each other in perfect synchronicity, watching the waves crash over the volcanic rocks below me.  Stopping here and there to explore tidepools or caves.  Having to steel myself to cross a bridge consisting of a single timber precariously balanced over a chasm.  I saw wild albatrosses feeding their young; chicks the size of their parents.  I walked on the only native and protected sand dune environment on the island out to the skinny westernmost point of the island where you can stand on a small jetty of volcanic rock and have the waves breaking on both sides of you.

Sitting there at the edge of the world with the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands crouching on the horizon under a blanket of clouds, I am surprised to find that I have been sitting not 5 meters away from a member of the endangered monk seal population.  Formerly numbering about 50, now growing in population to around 500 or 1000.  I am illegally close to him.  If I am caught, I will face a fine and prison time.  But there is no one around for miles, so I relax and converse with him in silence.  He has been attacked by a shark.  A tiger shark by the size and the shape of the bites.  He is missing a pectoral flipper, but seems to have taken it in stride.

This is the most remarkable beach… the sand is not sand at all, but bone-white coral shards, smoothed into round, palm-sized pebbles that are rough enough to keep from sliding over each other when I walk on them.  They hurt my feet; remind me of Taiwanese foot massages.  I also see a giant sea slug.  The older brother of the two I tried to rescue earlier in the trip.

After an hour of sitting there, seeing this place as hard as I can, I head back, scanning the darker lava for other monk seals.  I am not even surprised to find another one there, just on the other side of the rock that my shark-bitten friend was lounging on.  The third monk seal of the trip, the fourth of my life.

I body surf on Makaha Beach on the way home, knowing full well that there is a great white shark out there today, preying on the dolphins and seals that I have been communing with all afternoon.  He won’t bother me here, though, I think.  And he didn’t.

A man made blow-hole, glass on the ground, the way these mountains look after all this rain…  It is impossible to describe, and infinitely frustrating that way.  The whole trip has been that way a little.  Other stuff happened too, Hanauma Bay, dinner with my uncle, a trip to an American club, my last ever goodbye to The Contortionist, bookworm-infested paperbacks.  All impossible to explain in writing, I know, but these little journalings have been my humble attempts to capture some of this month-long journey abroad to my home.