Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mannerisms

Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I developed a keen affection for impersonations, an avocation that kept me in front of the television during commercial breaks awaiting a particular 15-second Skin Bracer spot featuring Jack Palance. “I don’t need some fancy cologne to tell me I’m a man,” I’d say, same as Jack Palance said, and I’d say it again and again, practicing the septuagenarian growl, that perfect mix of refinement and menace. And once I’d gotten it just right, I recited this monologue to pretty much anyone who’d listen, and indeed many who didn’t. I mimicked the commercial to my elementary school teachers and my friends. I trotted it out once or twice at my parents’ house parties. I remember once reciting the commercial on a Little League diamond, after a pitching change; it was issued as advice to a relief pitcher, fresh into the game: “Confidence is very sexy. Don’t you think?”

In retrospect, Pittsburgh, my hometown, proved the perfect incubator for my hobby, this joy for talking the way others talk. Pittsburghers have their own set of mannerisms and their own provincial vocabulary, which includes some words that are entirely made up. “Yinz,” for instance, is a Pittsburgh word. It’s the plural version of “you.” My grandmother once heard two Pittsburghers discussing “yinz” — the etymology n’at — and one companion told her friend that “yinz” was in fact incorrect, by the dictionary definition. Proper English required one to say “yous.”

At 13 and 14, I spent so much time honing the Pittsburgh dialect — the wholesalers and auto mechanics are its true curators — that “yinz” actually (briefly) slipped full-time into my vocabulary, its use no longer ironic. I went out of state to summer camp one year and people thought I was crazy. On the flip side, I was perfect for wicked smart-assery during the 11 p.m. news, where just about every house fire prompted a three-news truck race to the scene, invariably ending with an interview on the neighbor’s front porch, where the neighbor would dutifully testify to the home owner’s character, and oh yeah he’s a huge Stillers fan n’ at. Just as a general rule, Pittsburghers standing on their front porches don’t see much utility in the plural use of “you.”

Pittsburgh’s most famous voice belonged, of course, to a football broadcaster, Myron Cope, who sounded a little like an audio recorder on fast-forward. It was almost a civic responsibility to imitate him, not than many could. (I could never do it quite right.) It’s strange, I know, to retrace one’s life by following the thread of mimicked mannerisms, but this is what happens to a middle schooler who imitated Larry Beil (obscure SportsCenter anchor) during intramural basketball games. In college I watched HBO’s “Real Sports” not so much for the journalism but for the hyper-taut hilarity of its host. (I can still do a spot-on Bryant Gumbel.) A few years later I moved to Australia, and though I didn’t quite go there because of the great accents, I left eight months later with profound regret about not having one to borrow for myself. And not for lacking of trying.

I should mention, before going too far, that a lot has happened since the previous blog entry. (In related news, a lot of time has passed.) I spent about a week in Indonesia in early November. I spent a few days in Okinawa after that. Then I went home for an awesome two-week holiday, originally timed for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately it was also timed perfectly for Kim Jong Il’s carpet bombing of a South Korean island, meaning I was 14 time zones away from a huge story I should have been — and wanted to be — covering. For a brief time I thought my editors would send me straight from Pittsburgh to Seoul, and indeed I talked about it with my main supervisor, Holly. But in the end Holly instructed me to just enjoy the vacation and forget about the news, which cleared about half of my guilt and gave me the chance to take a five-day trip-within-a-trip to Montana, which might be as far away from Tokyo as you can get, especially judged by the density of yous.

But now I’m back. And I sort of started thinking about speech patterns and mannerisms more intently a few days days ago, when walking back to my apartment in Tokyo. And OK, full disclosure: I wasn’t just walking. I was talking to myself. I was repeating a sentence fragment, the Japanese equivalent of “Um… recently I.” On and on I went — あの... 最近 は (Ano… saikin wa) — practicing without shame, trying to copy a particularly terrific habit shared among expressive Japanese men, who often begin sentences with all the eye-twinkling glory of a magician whisking away the cover from a rabbit cage. These Japanese men start their sentences with a long, pensive Annoooouuu, letting the vowel warble just so, and then — clash! No warning, there’s this spectacular crescendo; the voice jumps a full octave, and maybe their folded hands separate and rise like the sun itself, and clearly one of the top 20 ideas in human history has just been hatched.

Right now I’m lucky. If you’re somebody who enjoys mannerisms, Japan is your Louvre. Not sayin’ my cologne doesn’t stink, but at this point I’ve traveled a fair part of the world, and I’ve never been to a country with such a hilarious, preposterous set of idiosyncrasies. The body language here matches none other on the planet. It’s almost like there’s a certain element of Japanese-ness that reaches into the musculature: There’s a straightness in the back; there’s a rigidity around the neck and the shoulders; there’s a perpetual stiff bend in the knees, as if every citizen has been positioned on the hot corner, awaiting a ground ball.

Some Japanese habits I find absolutely delightful, and like particular bird species, they can only be found here. Almost all Japanese women, for instance, have this particular restrained set of hand gestures, as if they’ve been told to keep their hands within a space no larger than a shoebox. When I sit in coffee shops and do my writing, I get a small sense of giddiness, watching these amiable women and their conversations. Oh, those refined, obedient hand motions! They can be seen everywhere — at this very moment in three conversations to my right, in two to my left, with women sorting things into imaginary piles; tracing the unseen perimeters of round and warm objects; inscribing little curlicues on the underside of their palms. And of course there’s lots and lots and lots of vigorous head-nodding.

Here’s another one: When I go on morning runs, I tend to pass a surprising number of police officers, all helmeted and uniformed in blue, decked out in yellow vests, frozen in perfect posture like Lego characters writ large. Anyway, it’s a great thrill to pass by these officers. That’s because almost every one of them responds to the sight of a runner in identical fashion: He raises his left arm, extending it to the road ahead, as if to say, “Good morning sir. I strongly approve of your aerobic workout. And I will approve even more so if you continue along this advisable route.”

For the most part, what I describe here is my idle, ugly brainvoice — a projection of my biases, proof of my inability to see a new society in all of its shades. I offer only one defense, then, for why I fixate on these societal quirks. For a foreigner, imitation is a survival skill. It is a means to adapt. It is the only reasonable option, here in this strange place where you’re suddenly self-aware of all the minute things you do that make you strange. And clearly I still have some work to do.

Late last week, I attended a business meeting. It took place at, let’s say, a Big Japanese Office Building (BJOB). I guess you could call it an interview appointment, excusing the facts that 1.) I had not requested an interview, and 2.) The company had invited me, and 3.) It was altogether unclear, even once I was seated at a massive conference table with many BJOB employees, that I was supposed to ask questions of some sort. And here I thought we’d just grab lunch.

Oh goodness. I was lost. There were seven men in the room, all experts in the same code of quirks, and they were handing business cards, rising and bowing, rising and bowing, arranging business cards on the table space in front of them, dispensing a flurry of documents and pamphlets and spreadsheets, requesting tea, pointing out the significance of the chart on Page 14, expressing their great pleasure about the outcome of the recent study — and here I’d already lost track of the men and their names because my business card lineup had just been blown into disarray, dealt a fatal strike by a wind gust from Pages 1-13. For a moment — with all the charts and cards and graphics in front of me — my personal space resembled the cockpit of a 767. I started sweating. I didn’t quite know what to say. I stammered and eeked out a few feeble questions. I wanted to kick myself, because shotgun meetings like this are sort of Japan 101 — and I should have been better equipped. But sometimes, even now, Japan moves about two times faster than I can handle, and I am left saying あの (Um…) with no idea of what to say next.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The similarity between copperheads and roadside bombs

So let's start with the facts, blameless and final. Let’s start with a road, almost entirely dark, but for the lights of five vehicles: In order, a bulletproof Humvee, a Hyundai SUV, a white minivan, another Hyundai SUV and a KM 450 cargo truck. It was a Thursday. It was 6:25 p.m. I was sitting in the middle row of the white minivan, alongside a youngish Philippine army colonel named Benedict Arevalo. We’d been together all day, and I liked him. I was no longer interviewing him, and my notebook was closed, and he was talking about something I still cannot recall. It is only the things hereafter that I remember with frame-by-frame detail.

Along the straight road, cast in the peripheral halflight of the military convoy, one could observe something far less than a town. More a muddy marketplace/village, with rows of leaning houses, tinny, almost perishable, and women stood sentry in front of almost every one. They tended to rows of assorted salty snacks and candy bars clipped to chickenwire. Shirtless kids played in the streets. A few fires burned. Every so often, I spotted a place that looked like an open-air restaurant, where men sat on plastic chairs, smoking, legs crossed. Garbage collected in divots along the street. It’s here, precisely, where the global supply of RC Cola bottles come for their afterlife.

We were in the Philippines, reporting this story about local elections. And more specifically, we were on the main southern island called Mindanao, a dangerous place. And more specifically, we were in the bloodiest part of this dangerous place — a province called Maguindanao, a haven for Muslim rebels, warlords and private guerilla armies. And more specifically still, we were on a road without a name, and we were moving fast, as military convoys tend to move. We were heading southwest, toward the barracks of the 29th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We were one kilometer away. Arevalo had suggested we grab dinner at the barracks’ mess hall, where they serve rice, canned tuna and canned corned beef, a danger unto itself.

We were at coordinates 6.931509 N, 124.421242 E when the road pulsed and a light flashed. I heard a noise — or two noises pushed into one. Not even PowPow! More like P-Pow! The noise(s) came from the right-hand side of the road, and for a split-second I saw an orange sky, and then I saw only dust. Dust, and maybe shrapnel, and it rained down on our minivan. My Filipino translator, Carmela, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, instinctively crouched low. I sort of froze. You might say I froze in fear, but my heart never raced. I remember saying, slowly, “Oh my god.” And I remember being acutely aware that nothing yet bad had happened. And I remember waiting for something worse to happen. And I waited for about three seconds. Our driver hit the gas, and we emerged from the dust, and we saw the road. And we were all OK.

Now, a disclaimer: We were all OK — that is a damning sentence. It was true at 6:25 p.m., as our minivan blitzed toward the barracks, arriving 30 seconds later, plowing up a gravel road — safety. But that sentence became less and less true in the minutes and hours that passed, as adrenaline loosed its grip, as tunnel vision receded, as gossip spread through the barracks, as I gathered more facts about what happened on the unnamed road after we sped away. There had been a firefight. Roughly 15 enemies — presumably members of a Muslim rebel group — emerged from both sides of the road, firing at the three convoy vehicles that hadn’t rushed back to camp. One bullet had splintered the driver’s side window of the Humvee, wounding the driver, Jackson Martinez. Two civilians, driving a car that got stuck behind the convoy, were killed in the army-rebel crossfire.

Within two minutes, the gunfire went quiet, and everything was over. Soldiers returned to the camp, breathing heavy, repeating themselves. They gathered around the damaged vehicles, speculating about the angle of the gunfire, trying to impose order on chaos. In the end, the army devoted hours to this process: Trying to make one story out of many. Trying to figure out what the hell happened, there on the street with the soda bottles and the well-hidden, well-armed rebels.

It was — and I cringe at this word, but this is a story with only wrong words — … well, it was quite cool. It was cool to hang around soldiers, there in their most unguarded moments, as they wanted to tell you everything. It was cool to spend time in the army conference room with Filipino West Point graduate Mario Feliciano, as he recreated the battle with a GPS system, determining that enemy shots had come from 162 meters away. It was cool to review Arevalo’s stack of intelligence info, which detailed speculation about IEDs planted throughout the province. I filled two notebooks with info. I had a story, which is sometimes the only thing a journalist needs to feel happy. Late that night — way later than planned — I sat elbow-to-elbow in the mess hall eating godawful tuna and corned beef. The men of the 29th Battalion offered me a guest cot, and I slept well.

The next morning, I returned with Arevalo and several others to the blast site. We saw the little cell phone fragments used to detonate the roadside IEDs. Two 3-foot-wide craters, about 25 meters apart, indicated where the bombs had been planted. The first bomb, constructed from a 105 mm howitzer, had exploded just in front of our minivan. The second bomb, constructed from a 66 mm mortar round, had exploded just behind us. Each had been half-buried in yellow plastic bags, resembling garbage. Arevalo felt certain our vehicle — and he, in particular — had been targeted. Lord knows why the bombs didn’t cause greater damage.

The military’s story had now ossified into something worthy of a document — an “incident report” that the public affairs office would send to newspapers and television stations. Action reduced to jargon:

“While heading back [to barracks], convoy was roadside bombed (2 IEDs), ambushed and strafed from both directions by MOL (15) fully-armed men of Basit Usman of the 105 BC at vic Lower Salbo, GC Datu Saudia… Immediately troops returned fire at enemy position. Firefight lasted for about 15 minutes and perpetrators scattered in different directions… Said incident is believed to be in retaliation for the arrest of Hadie Abdul Maguid and Eduard Guerro, both linked to international terrorist groups… Jackson Martinez (left cheek) slightly wounded, and two civilians killed whose vehicle was following convoy. Brgy captain Salik Talipasan. Brgy counselor Ustadz Nasser.”

So there you have it.

Or rather, there you have part of it.

Since Thursday night, I’ve told almost nobody about what happened. I don’t really know what to say. It’s easier to survive an IED ambush than tell your mother about it. Already I can joke about this incident, but I don’t dare. I don’t blame anybody, but maybe I should. I don’t feel traumatized, but perhaps that’s reason itself to worry. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been really happy, giddy to be eating and writing and exercising. I’ve been really happy, and yet two people died in a firefight as my minivan sped away. We are all OK. We are NOT all OK. I think I’ve still got some work to do.

Sunday morning, I spoke to my dad via Skype and told him pretty much what I’ve written here. I’ll give him this: He does have a gift for saying the right things, sometimes even without using sailboat allegories. In this instance, he told me a story about a hiking trip he took with my younger brother, Isaac. I’d heard the story before, but not in many years. Anyway, while walking along this remote mountain trail, Isaac nearly stepped on a copperhead snake. He was 6 or 7 at the time, probably wearing a Pirates hat and synthetic Little League pants (or at least that’s how I picture him), and if he’d stepped on the snake he would have been a gonner. He didn’t, only because my dad spotted the copperhead at the last second and yanked Isaac away.

What’s interesting about the story, though, is what happened next: There was neither fight nor flight — no instinctive reaction to trauma. Rather, my dad just pulled out the camcorder. They stood there and videotaped the snake that almost killed my brother.

But this is a story, too, about the strange ways in which we react. A few nights later, my dad woke up in a cold sweat. And then it happened the next night, and the next night after that. “It was almost like a delayed reaction,” my dad said.

And of course now it’s a story that he tells from time to time. Just a story, and it could have been something much more, or much less.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A comparison of East Asian metropolises with incongruously styled baseball uniforms

Weeks before I left Washington, D.C., my then-editor, Kevin Sullivan, advised me to use the direct flights connecting Tokyo and Seoul with the frequency that others might use a “commuter bus.” On that count, perhaps only that count, I’ve met expectations. Since August 1, I have spent 32 nights in Seoul. I have spent 32 in Tokyo. I hold business cards printed in Japanese and Korean. I own cell phones for both countries. The back-and-forth has gone thusly: Sixteen nights in Seoul, 20 nights in Tokyo, 11 nights in Seoul, seven nights in Tokyo, six nights in Seoul. And now four nights in Tokyo.

I should say here that, by the standards of my Wash Post East Asia predecessors, I’ve been in Seoul with unusual frequency of late. But this was a big month for North Korea-related news, and Seoul is where journalists head to cover the nation they cannot enter. This is a little like covering the Super Bowl from the parking lot, I admit. The upside is, that I owe my 2010 Marriott rewards status to Kim Jong Il’s hereditary succession plan.

Anyway, I like the back-and-forth. And maybe I’d feel different if Seoul and Tokyo shared much in common, but they don’t. I cannot state this clearly enough. In fact, for further emphasis, I punched ‘capslock’ twice before writing that previous sentence. Maybe you’re surprised to hear this; I’m not sure. Maybe the cities share some vague spot in your imagination, because they’re both homogeneous East Asian metropolises where the subways arrive on time and the businessmen move quickly, speaking to nobody. That’s true.

But. In Tokyo they drive on the left; in Seoul they drive on the right. In Tokyo they serve mild food; in Seoul they serve spicy food. In Tokyo there’s no problem with traffic, but a 20-minute cab ride costs $45; in Seoul the traffic never relents, and a 90-minute cab ride costs $45. In Tokyo men wear scarves and rock star shoes; in Seoul men wear short-sleeve dress shirts. In Tokyo, every product — detergents; foods; etc. — is labeled strictly in Japanese, and sometimes I’ll walk into a drugstore, looking for dandruff shampoo, and spend 15 aimless minutes in the aisles, comparing brand names, trying to discern if this is dandruff shampoo or just regular shampoo, invariably guessing wrong. In Seoul, they sell Head & Shoulders in convenience stores.

And then we have the cultural differences, which are like the shampoo differences, only greater. To put it simply, the Japanese culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of hiding things. The Korean culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of saying things. You can argue all day about which mode is better — though if you’re arguing in Japan, you better apologize before the argument begins, and you probably ought to apologize at least three more times when the argument ends — but from my perspective, I’ll just say this: The differences are a blessing. The differences are amusing. The differences have made my adjustment to East Asia way easier, because Tokyo neutralizes Seoul’s minor annoyances, and vice versa. No complaints ever fester. I spend so much time comparing Japan and South Korea that I almost never compare either country with America.

(TANGENT: The takeaway lesson here, which I haven’t yet stated explicitly, is this: Tokyo is a Galapagos of weird obsessions, fetishes, opaque customs, behaviors that occur nowhere else. Seoul is a bit like Dallas, but without the obesity. For Westerners, Seoul is far more penetrable. Given this, it makes no sense — absolutely none — that Japanese professional baseball players use Roman characters for their uniforms and Korean players use Hangeul.)

Anyway, in both Tokyo and Seoul, I’ve managed recently to have some fun nights out. I think I’m starting to make some friends. On rare occasions, I also feel like I’m starting to figure out my job.

Ahh yes, my job. Since beginning this blog — and reliably ignoring it 29 days out of 30 — I haven’t written about my job, but that misrepresents its importance, the way I obsess over it, worry about it, feel unworthy of it, feel inspired to do better. I have made the mistake before of publicly complaining about my old job (link widely available, but unprovided), and that was, I suppose, an instance of incredibly stupid honesty. But this job is different. I love the subject matter, I love the variety, I love the possibility — even though I’ve tapped so little of it. On the topic of honesty, I could complain only about my own competence.

Among the challenges so far: Mastering the nuance of so many topics (the Japanese economy; the Kim family tree; the Japan-China sea dispute; etc) at once. Conducting interviews via an interpreter, where so much nuance is lost. Researching stories, when so much of the best info is available only in Korean or Japanese. Planning my time. Keeping track of expenses. Developing sources. Applying for visas. Writing authoritatively about places I’m just starting to understand.

This job’s learning curve is so high, its peak is snowcapped. But here’s the good news. I will be good at this job someday. I know this because I won’t accept any alternative, and I have the motivation. North Korea, in particular, has captured my interest like no other subject on the planet; I’ve always loved journalism, but I cannot say — until now — that I’ve ever loved a particular subject. At the risk of sounding overcaffeinated or over-enthused, I could spend the next 10 years of my life writing strictly about North Korea. I would never get bored, and I would never know enough. If North Korea collapses some time in the next few years, I’ll be covering one of the biggest stories of the 21st Century. If it doesn’t, I’ll have the chance to write about a country that imposes the 20th Century — 1984, to pick a year — on its citizens. Getting the chance to write about this mysterious country, it’s a privilege.

Hmmm…

Realizing now, it’s time to wrap up this blog entry, because I have an interview appointment to get to. Unfortunately those prior paragraphs of heavy earnestness sort of spoiled the mood for the de rigueur final sign-off, where I say something pithy and remind everybody that nothing too important was meant by all this. So I’ll just stick with the heavy earnestness mode. For those reading far away from here, thank you. Aside from sporadic job anxiety, I’m feeling healthy and happy and well. Not sure when I’m heading next to Seoul, but in the meantime, I’m rocking the short-sleeve dress shirts in Tokyo.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A story about the girl who sold me the bookshelf

So two days ago I met a girl. I met the girl because I walked into a furniture store called Francfranc. And I walked into Francfranc because I needed a bookshelf. And I needed a bookshelf because my predecessor at the WashPost Tokyo bureau, Blaine Harden, recently bequeathed two huge cardboard boxes containing several hundred East Asia-related texts — a well-worn library of history, military strategy, political structure, agriculture, horticulture, and plain ol’ human-specific culture. Three books are devoted entirely to advice on weekends in Tokyo, each targeting a separate niche. (Are you seeking adventurous things? Tasty things? Free things?) An additional three books cover the topic of Japanese etiquette, and all affirm the message found on pg. 54 of “Culture Shock! Tokyo.”

The book advises: “Japanese people tend to avoid saying things directly… When declining a proposal, for example, Japanese people might say, ‘I’ll think about it.’ ”

The books, if nothing else, are pretty direct about the importance of indirectness.

Also, for the last few weeks, they’ve been sitting in dusty piles on my floor.

So anyway, after taking a lap around the store, I spotted a fine bookshelf. I stared at it, kind of in that “Antiques Roadshow” sort of way, as if to appraise its craftsmanship and storage capacity. Really, I was just trying to remember a few Japanese vocab words, so I could ask an employee for help.

Too soon, as my brain sputtered, a smiling female employee came by — and just to be clear, this is not the girl I am now writing about. In fact, our conversation went badly, and it really wasn’t a conversation at all; just some stammering on my end, which had the effect of a buckshot, sending her off into the deep recesses of the furniture store, scampering to retrieve a fellow employee who could speak English.

And it was moments later that I caught sight of this English-speaking employee, selected to lend some help with the bookshelf. In reality this was the moment when my preoccupation with the bookshelf hit its terminal point.

I don’t want to say too much, because the adjectives will just run together — plus, even now I’m struggling to remember things too precisely. I just remember a little dimple on her chin. An inviting smile. A certain body language that suggested confidence, self-assuredness. She was just beautiful. I remember feeling, at least for a second, almost weightless. I see many beautiful women, of course, but something here had an almost chemical effect on my mood, my feelings about the future and the afterlife and the life after that. All the world’s riddles had just been solved. And yes, I bought the bookshelf.

Of course, the story does not end here — and though indeed I walked out of the furniture store without even the slightest effort to ask her out or propose marriage, this was not some instance where Anxiety conquered Courage. I just needed some time to figure things out. To plan something appropriate — even by the guidelines of a culture I’m still learning. I’d read that, because Japanese language works on various levels of formality — salespeople talk to customers as if to revere them — it’s almost impossible for a customer and a salesperson to broach that gap. In other words: It’s pretty darn impossible for a guy to walk into a store, meet a woman who works there, and talk to her as an equal.

But then I pondered it some more — the mechanics of how my bookshelf purchase might someday be the story I could tell our six cute children. She had given me her name, Ayako. And we’d talked briefly about things other than furniture. (Where I was living. How long I’d been in Japan. Etc.) Plus, and maybe most important, we had been speaking English. I suppose each language offers its own conversational entrance signs and passageways — cues for what’s acceptable and what is not. Japan works with subtleties and innuendo, messages delivered at 45-degree angles, like the tacking of a sailboat. English works more like a speedboat — straight at the point. So what the hell. I took out my Johnson 45. I decided, irreversibly, to return to the store the next afternoon and ask her out.

In some ways, living as a foreigner in East Asia (that is, when traveling outside Japan) invites directness. I’ve found that people in Vietnam and South Korea, for instance, will often talk about my physical traits as if examining a cantaloupe. Sometimes it’s flattering. A teenager in South Korea once told me, “I admire your nose.” (Huhh!?) A woman, days later, unsolicited, told me I was handsome. But I’ve also been told that I wear my socks like a teenager (Why? Don’t know) and that I’m small for a Westerner. (Well, that I knew.) I’m often asked — even during interviews — if I’m 1.) married or 2.) looking for a South Korean wife. Often, after I answer “No” and “Umm, well, I don’t know,” some sort of match-making ensues.

On the day of the big return trip to Francfranc, I had some business to first take care of — a lunch interview/meeting, and some reporting with Tokyo assistant Akiko Yamamoto. I told Akiko (or Ako, as she prefers) about my plan — the plan to walk in there, keep it simple, but make it clear what I wanted.

“To me,” I said, “that feels very natural. I just don’t want to embarrass her.”

“Well,” Ako said, “it definitely will shock her. You know, not many Japanese would do something like that. But I think she’d be flattered. I think you can get away with it.”

So off I went. Back into the store. Up the escalator to the third floor. Over to the area where she works. I spun through a few reminders: Take a deep breath. Smile. Enjoy it. And truth is, I felt good. Nervous, but not in a way that made this hard.

I spotted her at the same time she spotted me, and there was immediate recognition — a good sign. I told her, “I know I was in the store yesterday to buy a bookshelf. But I didn’t come here today to buy anything.”

Some sort of trace recognition spread across her face.

And I continued, “I really really don’t want to embarrass you. So I’m really sorry about this. But I just moved to Tokyo two months ago. And I think you’re absolutely beautiful. And I was wondering if sometime in the next few days when you finish work if we could meet up for some drinks or dinner.”

Oh boy.

Now, time for a tangent — ahh yes, top of the rollercoaster. In Asia, I have a weakness. I’m more or less unable to measure somebody’s age. Girls/women between, say, 18 and 30 look the same to me. That is to say: Everybody looks young. Somehow I’ve heard it’s true in reverse as well: Westerners look young to Asians, but that leaves me suspicious. Suffice to say, I thought Ayako, if anything, was too young — maybe even a student.

Well, she wasn’t too young.

Here’s what she told me:

“I don’t quite know how to say this,” she said. “But I’m… um… married.”

“Ahhhh,” I said. “Oh my goodness. I am so sorry. I am really really sorry.”

And she told me not to worry. She really was flattered. We talked for another one or two minutes, just so the conversation didn’t end with a cold smackdown — but I gotta admit, I walked away a little shellshocked. I might have even muttered something out loud. Only in retrospect did I realize how my mind had run wild, building an imaginary future with Ayako at its center, and I realized this when I returned that night to my apartment. My fridge was empty. I hadn’t bought groceries, assuming I’d have a dinner date with Ayako.

And so it was. I settled back into the regularly scheduled embarrassment of everyday life. Ako, our Tokyo assistant, had been curious to hear the resolution, so I e-mailed her with the news of rejection — though heck, it did come directly. I added that at least I found my bookshelf, which I would have bought even without the influence of an adorable girl.

“Oh, I am sure you would have bought it, no doubt :) :) :),” Ako wrote in reply.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Home

Last Sunday, after 16 days in South Korea, I returned to Tokyo. And it felt good to be back in the city that, with the help of two quotation marks, feels sometimes like home. Now let’s be clear: Even 2-1/2 months into this whole new adventure, I know almost nothing about Tokyo. Were it not for an iPhone app with an interactive subway map, I suspect certain garden animals would be able to better-navigate the city. But I guess it’s sort of amazing, the way just a short time living abroad can reboot one’s standards for measuring familiarity. Even as I walked through the Haneda airport concourse, I got this giddy buzz. I knew how to order an iced coffee. I knew how to compute the drink’s price in US dollars. I knew how to find the bus that stopped at the Monorail. Even the particular Japanese mannerisms/verbal ticks that sometimes frustrate me — not worth explaining at present — in this moment seemed like welcome cues for Home.

So this is a blog entry about Home, and there are some positive developments here to report; just some. My apartment is pretty cool. Or rather, it’s cool when I have the AC on. While in Seoul, considerate of carbon footprints and all, I’d turned it off. This was only a bad idea because, just before my South Korea trip, buddy Jeff Passan had sent a care package containing several fire-log hunks of Vermont cheddar cheese. During my absence, this stockpile of cheese sat on the kitchen counter — in a smoldering apartment. And evidently, based on posthumous evidence, the cheese must have spent several days baking in its own heat. And I suspect it must have swelled. And swelled some more. And swelled some more, until at last mass deformities of molten cheese goop pushed through the wax encasement. And then the goop turned into actual liquid, maybe even making threatening popping sounds. And at some point — again, speculating — there was, perhaps, an actual cheese explosion. And magma fired everywhere. And the oily mixture of chedder and wax spread across the countertop and floor, dripping into the oven and dishwasher, finally hardening as a yellowish film.

Needless to say, it was a fragrant homecoming. I spent a good 45 minutes cleaning, fighting the oil but hopeless against the reek. My apartment smelled like a Cheez-It box.

Or it did, until the very next day. That’s when I received delivery of the furniture/kitchen supplies/clothing that I’d shipped (by sea) from Washington, D.C. before this whole move. Just to illustrate the underwhelming advances in transoceanic speeds since the Santa Maria era, I should note that I signed away these belongings to the moving company on May 27. Among other items, my sofa, several hundred books and CDs, and a panini press spent the entire summer on the high seas. And a summer at sea —I speak now from experience — has a way of making even the sleekest stainless steel panini press smell like a pair of gym socks.

Hmm… anybody want a grilled cheese sandwich?

I should reserve this paragraph, by the way, to express some gratitude. Seriously, God bless that unique Japanese gift for discretion. I’m talking, in particular, about the two gentlemen who lugged the 13 sea-weary corrugated boxes from their moving van into my apartment. They worked like champions, slicing at the duct tape, removing the various items, disposing of the bubble wrap, decompressing the emptied boxes into 2-D, and ultimately, introducing a second ungodly smell into what quickly became a 700-square-foot olfactory boxing ring. In this corner: Mildewed Gym Sock. In that corner: Molten 94-Month Aged Cheddar.

But here’s the amazing thing: The moving men, God bless them, they said nothing. Even the nonverbal cues — nothing. Pure valor. They finished with the whole unpacking job after about 90 minutes, and just before departing, they thanked me again and again — maybe ritualistic, yes, but there were at least five thank-yous. I could have donated a kidney and not gotten more sincere gratitude. When I finally closed my apartment door, I kind of hoped they at least had a good laugh in the elevator.

But now for the serious part of this blog entry. Because here’s the truth: Since that moment when those two fellows closed my apartment door, I’ve spent way too much time in the company of two smells and zero fellow humans. For three days this week — and this is painful to admit — I don’t think I had a single human encounter that didn’t involve work. Sure, I had a few of those 12-word interactions with baristas. And I said hello to the people at my apartment building front desk. And just to practice multisyllabic conversation, I conducted a few interviews via Skype with North Korea experts based in Seoul.

But this week it became quite clear to me that I still lack a social life here. I need to work at it. Hopefully, I can stay in Tokyo for at least another week or two and gain some momentum. The good news is, I had a fun weekend, and I spent some time with quality people. But the overall theme of this week, for me, was isolation: Isolation, coupled with all of its resulting neurosis. Without an office/bureau, helpless without the language, life can fast turn into a tiny echo chamber, and let me tell you, some ugly things can happen to the thoughts I deposit there: A sense of self-loathing, a sense of failure, a sense of being overwhelmed, and did I mention a sense of failure? I think, in part, these are rational thoughts: I am overwhelmed by my job. And it’s OK to be scared by it; indeed, fear is a potent motivator. But I’ve let these thoughts grow too large. Especially given the size of my apartment.

This morning, in a bold bid to avoid an honorary subscription to the Hikikomori Association Newsletter, I exited my apartment and went on a run. I followed a canal for about 8 miles, and though it was steamy outside I had lots of energy. In fact, I kind of felt terrific. I let my mind wander, and started thinking of goals — maybe a race in September or October. (I picture a two-hour road trip and a mountain. Now I just need to find the race, the mountain, and the language skills to locate either via Google.jp search.)

Anyway, just less than halfway through the run, I came across a baseball diamond. Two teams. Kids, maybe 8 or 9. The team in the field wore blue uniforms and called itself the “Rainbows.” Every child wore stirrups that stopped halfway up the leg, like mid-80s big leaguers. The Rainbows had at least seven coaches, stirrups similarly cropped, stationed along the foul lines and behind the backstop. Naturally, I paused my run and watched; you can’t pass this stuff up, a sniff of Home at “Home.” Five minutes turned into 10, and 10 turned into 20. I saw the Rainbows take two turns in the field. They looked pretty competent. The team fielding percentage, I’d guess, was around .640.

Just before I resumed my run, though, something sort of memorable happened. A batter scorched a ball between short and third. It skipped toward the left fielder — I was standing just behind the left field wall — and the poor left fielder, who’d been pantomiming his pitching wind-up for several minutes, let the ball roll past him. He had to chase it to the fence — a single turned into a triple.

And what happened next? Well, the poor kid, head down, heard his name called out by one of the coaches. And then — I swear, this never happened in Mt. Lebanon Little League — the left-fielder was pulled off the field. Replaced mid-inning. Tongue-lashed, with a firm lesson on keeping your glove to the ground, while some other kid stole his job.

At that point, I resumed my run. It was an out-and-back route, so after hitting the landmark bridge and U-turning again in the direction of my apartment, I passed the baseball field one final time. The chided left-fielder was back as his spot, to my relief, and I called to him, “Gambatte” (頑張って) — or, roughly translated, “Try your best.”

It was, I think, advice for both of us.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Control, or lack thereof

I begin today with a confession, and in turn, an explanation of what you’re about to read. I realize that this blog, ‘til now, has given a misleading sketch of my life, filled as it is with actual stories of actual people, some of whom even engage in conversations with me. There might even be, in these stories, a glimmer of adventure — Mother Earth feeding memorable experiences from out of her very palm. And if you’ve gotten this impression, I attribute it to the fact that I haven’t yet blogged about the entirely un-glimmering things that consume 90-percent of my life, like taking special subway rides to buy cheese, and using the Internet to research Japanese haircut vocabulary, so I can finally beat my fear and go to a barber shop.

(A charming outcome, by the way. For reasons unknown, I never even put the barbershop vocab lesson to use. I just sat down in an empty chair, made a few snipping motions with my fingers, recited a quiet prayer and somehow ended up with a haircut identical to the one I've had, uninterrupted, for at least 8-1/2 years.)

For two months now I’ve been living in Asia, and I suppose there are two ways, both equally honest, to depict the experience. I could count for you the number of countries I’ve visited, the number of new foods I’ve tried, the number of improbable conversations I’ve had. (Such as: a Vietnamese man describing how two of his nine dogs were poisoned by a neighbor, so they could be sold to a restaurant for meat.) Or, I could count for you the number of times where, rather than hitting the streets to discover some great metropolis, I’ve found a nearby Starbucks, popped open my laptop and read preview articles about the Big Ten college football season.

There’s a push-pull, I think, when living someplace faraway. In many circumstances, you develop new routines, or even lose routines altogether. But in other circumstances, you fight for your old ones. To put it more simply: Lameness is a survival skill, or mine at least.

BUT — I do want to give myself a little credit. For far too long, I’ve cared way too much about control. In fact, the desire for control explains a large portion of my life. It explains the sports positions I most enjoyed as a kid (pitcher, goalie). It explains why I’m organized. It explains why I’m risk-averse. It explains why I’m a good driver. It explains why I look at nutritional labels. It probably explains why I like not only marathons, but also the training. It almost certainly explains my career choice, because I love nothing more than sitting down in front of a computer, reporting already completed, and somehow converting information into a story. (Or at least trying to. Either way, it’s a process in which the writer is entirely dependent on his/her own devices.)

Oh, but I’m already losing track of things here; let me explain why I started the previous paragraph with an allcaps BUT. I did that because, as I am now proud to announce, the control-crazed, centerfield-hating, passenger’s side-averse Chico has been purged from the universe, and this is by design. I took this job for a lot of good reasons, and I had plenty of time to think them all through. But a small part of it was the desire to change things a bit — to force a personality shift, because I felt like I needed it. So far, it’s working out just fine. Maybe even better than fine. It turns out, I can get the same ol’ haircut without even having a say in the matter.

Months before arriving in East Asia, I read a great book by one of my favorite writers/journalists, Peter Hessler. The book is called “River Town,” and Hessler wrote it while spending two years, during his mid-/late-20s, working as an English teacher in Fuling, China. I have to paraphrase, because I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but Hessler wrote something the lines of this: When you live in a foreign country, you have to let go a little bit. You give up control over your own life. And to an extent, you just have to trust others.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went on a harebrained journey through Seoul in search of flu medicine. My recent sickness, which developed about two days ago — chills, fever, etc. — is even more troubling because I was already sick. Indeed, I developed the first symptoms of a cold on June 24. (I remember the exact date for reasons not worth elaborating on here.) At the time, my colleague Blaine Harden was still around, and when I mentioned to him my developing cold, he recalled for me the experience he had at the beginning of his stint in Asia, when he caught a cold that lasted for four weeks.

This sounded improbable to me at the time — that is, until my cold symptoms lasted for five weeks. Then, just as my congestion was finally clearing up late last week, I flew from Tokyo to Seoul, and whatdaya know, I suddenly needed a whole new kind of medicine in a country where I don’t even know the word for medicine.

It’s all a bit difficult to take, because as a kid, I probably got sick a grand total of three times. Once, it was the chickenpox. Twice, I just wanted to hear some yodeling music coming from nine-double-oh-three-six. So yeah, perpetual sickness is a new thing for me. I suppose one’s immune system, like one’s personality, takes a little time to adapt.

Yesterday afternoon, before attending a press conference at the South Korean U.S. Embassy, I found a pharmacy. One man, maybe 50 years old, stood at the counter — a barricade separating customers from the stockpiled pharmaceuticals. I asked the man if he spoke English, and he provided a convincing argument, using silence, that he did not. I then pointed to my forehead, pretending to dab it. I gave him a mock shiver. He nodded, and pulled something from the shelf. He held two fingers, then three, and it occurred to me that he was informing me not about price, but about how many pills to take, and when.

So I nodded, and said thank you.

But then he shook his head, and held up one finger, then three. And then he double-checked the box, this time flashing three fingers twice, like a catcher calling for a forkball.

I paid and decided that I’d just pop two pills in my mouth, hoping for the best.

I felt better.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vietnam

It's been a while since the last blog entry, and just to make up for the inactivity, I figure I’ll use the first sentence here to satisfy the July quota for adverb use, by saying that I’m just about to depart Vietnam, and I really really really really really don’t want to leave. I haven’t even boarded the flight back to Tokyo, and already I’m scheming to come back. I saw zero pagodas, zero rice paddies and zero rivers, so long as we’re discounting flooding alongside the highways. One night, I tried a fruit that actually smells like a diaper, all fecal and plasticy, with just enough squish. One day, after a two-hour motorbike ride through industrial traffic, I got so dirty that the smog stuck to my face, hardening into scales. In fact, I think the dirt actually burrowed under my skin. Days later, Q-tips still return from the depths with payloads of black. Needless to say, I love this country. Also, I loved the fruit that tastes like a diaper.

Tuesday afternoon, I stepped out of the Ho Chi Minh City airport and met my translator/friend Luan Nguyen. I say ‘translator’ because, in the pursuit of all things journalism, that’s what he did. I say ‘friend’ because, during five days of rainstorms and great food and $7 hotel rooms, that’s what he became. We’d exchanged about 36 e-mails before my arrival, and in our final exchange, Luan told me to wait at the airport pick-up gate for a young guy with a pig graphic on his T-shirt. This turned out to be the only pig of the week whose various parts weren’t promptly wedged between basil and sprouts, rolled in rice paper and dunked in fish sauce.

Right from the beginning, Luan became a brotherly partner in our weeklong mission to report a good story about education in Vietnam. And for all the fun I had this week, he’s to thank. He’s 23, a recent Dickinson grad. He has a few free months to spend in his home country before a September return to the States, where he’ll begin a consulting job, so that’s the backstory. Last night — my final one in HCMC — he took me out to meet his girlfriend and four other buddies; we started the evening at a restaurant specializing in snail cookery and ended the evening at an outdoor picnic table, sitting as all Vietnamese tend to do on one-foot plastic kids’ furniture stools. And I gotta say, the whole experience was a blast; maybe even more than that. And it’s hard to describe why, because yeah, it was just a good night out, with the temperature just right and the drinks sweating. But it was also this feeling of optimism, of possibility, of being from there and still feeling so welcome here, and this morning when I woke up in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — a country that bans access to Facebook — I’d received three friend requests from people who alter their IP addresses to circumvent the block.

(In an unrelated note, before accepted said friend requests, I brushed my teeth twice, because my breath still smelled like the diaperfruit.)

Given that this blog entry is already 500 words long, and clearly lacking in any purposeful direction, I should state here that I have no great realizations to share about my time in a developing country. In fact, I’m a bit nervous about saying too much of anything. According to Blogspot.com’s User Guidebook for Travel Blog Regulations, any resident of a fairly controlled country who returns from a trip to a fairly totally-out-of-freaking control country is advised to promptly blog about something important, using phrases like “new appreciation” and “hidden beauty,” plus maybe one or two others that satisfy the obnoxious quotient not just for July, but also for August and September. But I’m sorry. I can’t do it. During the last five days, I’ve had a lot of weird thoughts about how to measure fortune and privilege, etc., and it’s particularly poignant because I now live in a country where the trains run on time, where the water is OK to drink, and where the toilets sometimes operate with automated touch screens. And here I am now in a country with such obvious misfortune, where the average person earns about $1,000 USD per year, where fires burn for no explicable reason, where people push dusty street carts along the highway… sometimes against traffic. Witnessing the squalor in such proximity — and with such contrast to your familiar settings — cannot help but set off a lot of profound questions, none of them original to me. But for now, I’ll just say this: Even countries where the trains run on time have their problems. Even countries where the street carts run against traffic have their delights. I could absolutely live in either sort of place, so long as there’s a grocery store that stocks breakfast cereal.

Vietnamese traffic actually deserves a full blog entry by itself, but I’ll settle for an abridged version. Here are the basic things to know. In Vietnam, almost everybody owns a motorbike. Almost everybody, too, owns a keen skill for ignoring traffic lights, stop signs, and other explicit guidelines designed to limit extreme danger. People wear helmets, but according to Luan, they are traditionally tested by being dropped once on the ground, from waist-level. If they do not crack, they pass the test for structural integrity. Kids 12 and under need not wear helmets. From what I observed, full families of four sometimes ride on these bikes. Sometimes with bushels of bananas bungee-corded to exposed engine parts.

When I first met Luan at the airport, we walked to the parking lot (filled with motorbikes), and there he asked me two questions. The first being, “Is this your first time in a developing country?” (No, it wasn’t.) And the second being, “Are you ready for the ride of your life?” (Umm, umm, umm, hand me the helmet.)

Thusly helmeted, we navigated Vietnam for the next several days. This was not altogether advisable, especially given the driving distances (far) and the weather (lousy). In a later moment of reflection, Luan admitted he pushed his motorbike to limits never before tested. But a note to my mother: Our helmets were of sound structural integrity.

Tuesday afternoon, all for the goal of an interview in a rural town 80 km away, we headed out of HCMC carrying little more than two backpacks, some bottled water and some mosquito spray. The first few kilometers were pretty fun. Luan, of course, did the driving. I mostly did the sitting and looking at the driver’s neck. But step-by-step, road conditions worsened. We encountered traffic — like, 140,000-motorbikes-at-a-Springsteen-concert traffic. We witnessed the sort of road impediments that almost defied belief. Miniature Mississippi Rivers alongside the highway. Detours that led over gravel, through potholes and under rope. (It was designed to keep people out. People ducked under.) Then, as we entered an industrial zone, we encountered lots and lots of big vehicles representing companies that just sound aggressive: Trang and Cong and such. And their tires kicked up furious amounts of dirt. I’ve encountered circumstances like this before, of course, and there’s always been a solution. Wiper fluid. This time, I just tried to close my eyes.

I took two videos from the road. First, you can get a sample of the flooding. Second, you see the results of two hours on a motorbike. Watch below. It’s a little taste of my trip. Because I’ve saved you the smell, the taste is all good.

video


video

Friday, June 25, 2010

Agreement

In this blog's one-month lifespan (estimated), I’ve carefully cultivated its reputation as a provider of sporadic, arguably worthwhile content and, foremost, vast periods of silence. Trust me, I want to amend this. This webspace might straddle the line between Blog and Defunct Blog, but never shall it cross. At some point during each of the last 14 days, I reminded myself that I needed to update the blog. And at some point during each of the last 14 days, I started to write. The only problem was, a proper blog entry — some tale with dialogue and resolution and realization — requires a good hour of writing/thinking, and for me at least, an hour of thinking provides just enough time to briefly consider that what I’m writing is stupid. So almost every day for the past 14 days, I stopped writing, deleted everything, and moved on to other Internet endeavors, like downloading Entourage episodes in 23 seconds with super-super-high-speed Korean broadband access.

(Last week I was even gonna blog about Korean Internet speed. I decided not to.)

So a recap is on order. Since last Wednesday, I’ve spent four nights in Seoul, South Korea, and four nights in Okinawa, Japan — both for reporting trips. In Korea, I traveled to the demilitarized zone with colleague Blaine and took at least one grainy in-the-distance-picture of a North Korean soldier. One night, when South Korea played Argentina in a World Cup match, I joined 50,000 frenzied red-clad people mobbing streets, and though I was wearing blue, having packed a light suitcase, I still felt that warm buzz of communal spirit, and world was nothing but song and painted faces and twinkling eyes. This feeling sustained itself until about the seventh minute of the game, when it became apparent that Argentina was gonna kick South Korea’s butt.

If you’re curious, I’ve posted on Facebook a few photos from my first weeks here. Captions, which require additional work, have been categorically omitted. If you see a picture of food, or even something that looks possibly non-toxic, you can rightfully assume that I’ve eaten it. You’ll also notice one photograph of cash, tucked in an envelope. This merits explanation. South Korea’s currency is called the won, and a single won coin — such a thing exists — is so worthless as to be almost theoretical, like absolute zero. If you pulverized a penny into snortable powder and isolated one speck, it would still have greater value than the won. Thus, in Korea, you need about 17 pounds of cash just to buy coffee. My wallet has permanent stretch marks.

But I guess every new place offers its surprises, and I’m foolish to complain. These surprises often account for my greatest joys and delights. Just a few days ago, for lunch, I headed to a Seoul food hall. I came upon a glass display case containing heavens-knows-what, probably various pickled spicy bits of cabbage and seafood, and I asked a vendor for her recommendations. Maybe people just like a clueless guinea pig, but within 15 seconds the vendor called over a vendor friend, and then two more vendor friends, and soon about a half-dozen middle-aged Korean women were squawking, gesticulating, handing me free samples and arguing over what I ought to try. I thought, This never happens at Giant.

Another of the mundane pleasures: The Japanese street address system is so complex and nonsensical that, from what I can tell, nobody is eligible to drive a Tokyo cab until completing at least eight years of secondary education. Sometimes even that’s not enough. Tokyo cab drivers have 3-D GPS systems on the dashboard and thick street-by-street address books on the passenger’s side seat. It’s quite common, indeed, for cab drivers to unfurl these books mid-red light, inspecting page after page while making various contemplative sounds. Every so often, when heading to an interview, I’ll get into a cab, say hello, and hand the driver an address. And every time, I think to myself: Today’s the day my driver won’t really stress about it. But I’m always proven wrong. There’s a kindness, a paternal resoluteness, in Tokyo cab drivers, and observing it has become a daily delight. You hand them an address, and they care. They get lost, and they agonize for you. They apologize again and again, and they moan, and they show you their street-by-street map books, and they are working with you, not for you. They adopt your mission so fully, I sometimes think they’d continue looking for the appointed street address even if I got out of the car.

So far, I miss only two things, really — friends and cheese. Also, when in Korea last week, I missed watching the World Cup on Japanese television. You might surmise that an English telecast would be preferable to a near-unintelligible foreign broadcast. (You might surmise, too, that 3-1/2 weeks is plenty enough time to secure a new apartment!) But in both cases, you would be wrong. Watching soccer on NHK never, ever ever gets old. NHK, for its soccer broadcasts, uses a two-man booth. I don’t know the broadcasters’ names, but evidently they were selected for their razor-sharp diction, which they maintain even during scoring opportunities, when they talk faster than anybody on the planet. Let me tell you, it’s a symphony of mellifluous past-tense verbs.

Then, there’s the matter that Japanese people like to agree with one another. They relish consent and harmony. In America, our broadcasters argue and debate. Or one acts as the analyst, the other as the straight man/devil’s advocate. In Japan, this dynamic inverts, and the broadcasters take turns making salient points. Whoever is not making the salient point must, by rule, interrupt the other with sounds of agreement. I think this is my favorite part of the Japanese soccer telecast. Because all things come in threes, one broadcaster will make a statement, then another statement, then a final statement. And each time, the fellow analyst will bring himself to the brink of hysteria with agreement, climbing a ladder of harmony, saying things like (first) “Hai!” and (second) “Mnnmmmmm” and (third) “So-des-neeeeeeeeh!”

It never fails.

Statement.

“Hai!”

Statement.

“Mnnmmmmm!”

Statement.

“So-des-neeeeeeeeh!!!”

And by the end, it’s just a go-round of scrumptious, munchy-sounding Mnmmmms and Neeeeeehs, as if the broadcasters are feasting from a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes.

So that’s why I like the World Cup.

Now I’m returning to Tokyo, heading back from Okinawa. I’m on an airplane. I haven’t written much about Okinawa here, and not for lack of desire. (I’ll post my story, written yesterday, once it’s published.) Okinawa is the southernmost island in Japan, and the vibe is far different than what you see elsewhere in Japan. The businessmen wear Hawaiian shirts. There’s lots of pork and goya in the diet. The island has its own phrase, なんくるないさ, which has a distinct Bob Marley-ish don’t-worry-be-happy connotation.

In Okinawa I also made my first real Japanese friend. Her name is Wakana, and we spent parts of the last four days together. She’s a student at the University of the Ryukyus, and though she served during interviews as my translator, she also guided me around the island. By the end, I really admired the hell out of her. She’s adventurous. She’s energetic. She takes belly dancing classes. Even better, she told me about the Japanese equivalent to Netflix, which means I no longer have to download American television on iTunes. She honed her English during a year in the United States, when she attended classes in Durango, Colo., so we talked last night over dinner about what it feels like to go somewhere far away, about why it’s difficult and why it’s worthwhile. There was lots of agreement and consensus on this matter, but because were speaking in English I didn’t imitate any Japanese soccer commentators.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Friday night

I really like the Japanese term for hangover. Futsukayoi (二日酔) — that’s the word. It’s an amalgamation of three characters, which, combined, translate literally to Two-Day Sickness. This nugget of semantic trivia isn’t necessarily important, and it isn’t even that pertinent to the purpose of this blog post, but it does lend a distinct clue about the Japanese vigor for intoxication. It also informs the general feeling of purpose one discovers in Tokyo at around, say, 8 p.m., when all of a sudden half the city is ducking into food stalls and izakayas and karaoke clubs, assuming a place in the murky, smoky, barely-lit underworld where fun nights begin. And this, more or less, is the starting point for my story about a Friday night out in Tokyo.

Just a few weeks back, before I moved here, nights out were predictable affairs; predictable in the best way possible. But now I’m in Tokyo — a fine nightlife city, and a city of 13 million people, and a city in which roughly 12,999,992 of those people are total strangers, not counting a Starbucks barista and my real estate agent.

(Still apartment-hunting by the way. Many frustrations there; I’ll blog some other day about rental properties.)

Anyway, the properties of nightlife, for me, have now inverted. I do not plan my nights, and I do not have any favorite spots to recommend, and there is not even a speck of predictability. Nights now begin like this: With a meeting in my hotel lobby, a friend of a friend who just finished his workday. With a ride in a taxi to a neighborhood I don’t know. With a busy street intersection, lights everywhere, and then a turn around the corner, and then a narrow staircase, and then a back booth in a yakiniku restaurant whose name I don’t know and probably never will know.

For about two hours, we drank beer and roasted pieces of raw meat over the coals on our table. And things actually got really fun. My buddy (I’ll call him Kazu) was sort of reserved at first, asking questions about Obama and British Petroleum and such, but based on very unscientific observation, Kazu can engineer quite a drastic personality change after 2-1/2 beers. Soon there were grand stories of Vegas trips and clubs, and I got the sense we were in for a futsukayoi sort of night.

So OK.

There were more drinks ordered, and another round of beef. He was doing all the ordering, but I told him I didn’t want the gentle foreigner treatment; please, I said, order the non-gaijin food. And so we soon we were presented with a plate of raw beef liver, eaten sashimi style, and then another jar of raw beef, served with a raw egg mixed in — a veritable porridge of FDA violations.

The night gathered a sort of momentum, and we left the restaurant. We found another open door, another establishment, and here we found two women, drinks in hand. They were cute, and they clearly welcomed our company. For about 15 minutes we talked as a group, and Kazu told them I’d arrived in Tokyo last week. On cue I offered up a few catchphrases in Japanese, and one of the girls remarked that I didn’t have a foreigner’s accent — a misjudgment I’m gonna attribute to the thumping music, and to the delightful Japanese tendency to be easily impressed. Kazu then told the girls that I’d just eaten raw beef liver, and when they squealed with delight it was just another reminder that Japanese women are remarkable, and that some jdate.com taboos actually work here.

After some undetermined length, one conversation became two, and I found myself nose to nose with a girl named Nozomi. Kazu nudged my elbow and said, “I’ll leave you two alone.” And so there we were, alone. In retrospect, it’s sort of stunning that we maintained a conversation, maybe even with some chemistry. Her English was even worse than my Japanese. But it didn’t matter. I guess the takeaway lesson is, being dumb and agreeable isn’t altogether the worst posture one can use for flirtation. She basically talked, and whenever she stopped talking, I weighed the context and either responded, “Yes,” or “Wow, interesting.”

Today’s work schedule required a super-early wake-up call, so around midnight, after a good hour of talking and drinks, I told Nozomi that I had to be on my way. There’s no other way to say it: Nozomi was extremely nice. I almost felt sorry for her. Could this conversation have had less depth? Maybe if she’d been talking to a furry woodland creature. But we exchanged telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, and on the way home, I sent her a quick note (in English) thanking her for a good time.

This morning she wrote back:

おはよ♪ こちらこそ きのうは ありがとう!
楽しかったよ
またお話しましょうね☆
お家 はやくきまるといいね!
希 NOZOMI

I needed about three minutes to translate the note.

What it means, imprecisely:

“Good morning. I should say, ‘Thank you for yesterday!’ It was a really fun time. We’ll have to talk more sometime, don’t you think? I hope you find an apartment soon.”

What it means, more precisely:

As of this morning, in a modest sign of progress, my cell phone now contains nine telephone numbers.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A trip to the gym

Monday morning, I took a trip to the gym. This story, like most trip-to-the-gym-stories — an understandably small subgenre of the expository form — actually begins a day prior, when I spent four hours in a six-hour span strictly eating things that looked light brown and crispy. I woke up Monday morning, then, with grease and duck fat pumping through my veins, thinking it might be a good time to sweat a little.

Since I last wrote, I’ve been reasonably busy. I’ve done several things that felt like 75-percent of a worthwhile blog post. I visited the Meiji Shrine, a nearby landmark with its own official English Web site. I continued my apartment-hunting. I started planning a reporting trip (for later this week) to Okinawa. Also somewhere in these last few days, coinciding with presumptions of my craziness, I developed the distinct suspicion that 1.) Japanese water smells different than American water, and that 2.) I now smell like Japanese water, and that 3.) when I go to the gym, my sweat smells like Japanese sweat. My diet might have some influence here, too, but that’s a story for another paragraph.

So let’s get on with another paragraph. Sunday turned out to be a good day, dedicated to social contact, fried food and a 10-year reduction of my life expectancy. For lunch, which actually lasted almost until dinner, I met up with two new friends — a local AP reporter and a British ex-pat who writes for a tech magazine. Together, we took a pilgrimage to a restaurant famous for tonkatsu, a Japanese-specialty — pork cutlet bathed in panko breadcrumbs and oil. The food was as grand as the company. I returned to my hotel at 4 p.m., spent two hours recovering oxygen flow, and promptly joined Washington Post colleague Blaine Harden for dinner. He’s an amazing journalist, and he spent much of the evening offering sage advice, starting even with his first suggestion, which had to do with dinner plans. He suggested that we head out for Peking duck.

Now, Monday morning.

Just about first thing after sunrise, I headed to a fitness center up the street from my hotel. My goal: Explain to the person at the front desk that I wanted to use the gym just once, and was willing to pay a small fee.

In the U.S., particularly while traveling the country as a baseball writer, I made these sort of transactions a habit, and never once did they amount to even 75-percent of a blog post. But in a place with a language barrier, every tiny exchange carries the sick, wonderful potential for disaster. There’s always a chance to you’ll wind up doing something abhorrently inappropriate. There’s also a chance you’ll figure it out, that you’ll do it right, and you’ll be proud and your heart will be pumping.

There’s an addictive joy in this, and I’m its junky.

Also sometimes its victim.

The fitness center straddled the 9th, 10th and 11th floor of a tall office building. When the elevator doors swung open, shooting me toward the gym welcome desk, I did something bold and stupid. I took out my iPhone and created a voice recording, just as a way to document what happens when one member of a conversation has the verbal skills of a toddler.

Please, have a listen.



You’ll notice that the conversation starts out fine enough, so long as we’re not deducting points for grammar. In polite Japanese, I say good morning. Then I make the requisite statement that my Japanese skills suck. (Girl at desk managed a smile.) Then, haltingly, I explain my life story. I tell her that I arrived last week in Japan. Lacking the capacity, I don’t explain why. I then hit her with two questions: First, if it’s possible to use the gym just once. And second, how much that might cost. We’re 21 seconds into this exchange, and it’s all good.

Then she mentioned the cost for one-time gym usage: Y 3,000.

You’ll notice that I twice recite the stated price, and that’s because my brain still moves slowly when converting phonetic sound into understanding. About five seconds after she explained the price, I realized that this one gym trip was about to cost me, roughly, $32.87. Which is not exactly a bargain, no matter how much duck fat you can sweat.

Given the freedom of English — at a Gold’s Gym in, say, Dallas — I would have hereby expressed my dismay with the asking price, and maybe tried some good-natured empathy to bargain for a deal. Maybe I would have backed out entirely, opting instead for a run around the city. But now that I’m in Japan, some decisions just get made for me. I’m fine with conversations that lead to a goal, but I’m not quite equipped for on-the-fly adjustments. So oh well. I handed her the bills.

Once I turned the voice recorder off, things only devolved. Turns out, Japanese gyms (or at least this one) don’t let you just walk in with any ol’ pair of shoes. They require all occupants to wear unsullied, never-touched-the-concrete “indoor shoes,” and just by chance rentals are available for an extra Y 300. Frankly, the poor gym girl from the welcome desk spent so much time trying to explain this to me, she probably deserved even more. After about two minutes of fitful measuring and calculating, we determined my Japanese shoe size (28) and uncovered a proper pair of snow-white New Balances. I was up to code.

So that’s the story of my trip to the gym. It was a thrill, and it was sort of educational, but in retrospect it was also a defeat. I paid $32.87, and all I got in return was a 60-minute workout, plus an unfortunate lesson that even gyms on this side of the ocean play Hoobastank music.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The first full day in Tokyo

This is the sort of blog entry that I write with dread, and I say that only because I’ve been in Tokyo for 22 hours now, and I have nothing even close to a full thought or a final answer — just fragments and fears and joys, all warped by fatigue and caffeine. Whatever I write here, I’ll go back and read it someday and cringe. I’ll feel foolish. I’ll feel naive. But oh well. I’ll also look back on these first moments in a new country — 13 time zones and 5,000 Kanji characters removed from familiarity — as one of the weirdest chapters of my life, remembering all the sensations. It’ll probably be worth a good smile.

I’ll start with the part I feel most confident saying: The first day, including the trip here, was easier than I feared. In fact fear was the hardest part. Leaving DC was brutal; Monday night, I watched “The Hangover” with my closest friends, Eli and Rachel, and even that didn’t make me laugh. On the way to the airport, I listened to sports talk radio, 106.7 FM, and thought about how I might watch my next Super Bowl in 2014.

But attitude is truly a choice, and let’s be honest, this new journey is something I chose, and I chose it for many reasons. Even at the airport, I reminded myself to think about those reasons — to think about the upcoming adventures, the parts of the world I’d get to explore, the people I’d meet. My dad sent me an e-mail, subject, “As you embark on your new life…” and for the sake of his dignity I won't excerpt his metaphors (one involved a frog; another involved an elephant), mostly because the message was a great one. I actually boarded the plane with a smile.

The flight lasted 13 hours, one less than expected. As far as 13-hour plane rides go, I’ve never had a better one, and it was at least 160-percent better than my 16-hour flight to Australia.

I’d summarize the time thusly: There was 30 minutes of chit-chat with seat neighbor, followed by one hour of reading, followed by two hours of watching “The Blind Side,” followed by one hour of the “This American Life” podcast, followed by four or five hours of Advil PM-induced sleep, followed by two more hours devoted to Ira Glass, followed by another few hours of reading and chit-chat and eating. When we landed, I turned on my BlackBerry, learned that it still received e-mails, and promptly learned that Japan’s prime minister had resigned.

For a reporter, the resignation of a prime minister typically falls under the broad category of what we in the industry call “news.” This is true even in a country that disposes of its prime ministers as if they were decomposing produce. My intuition was to break through customs, grab my notebook, B-line to central Tokyo and write a breaking news story that landed hours later on A-1. Of course imagination, especially Advil PM-enhanced imagination, is always better than reality. The reality was, my outgoing colleague Blaine Harden had already written and filed the news story about six hours earlier. Tomorrow, I’ll cover the selection of Japan’s next prime minister.

So, now it’s time for the segment in this blog entry wherein the newcomer in a strange land gives his fresh-off-the-plane observations. (Ex: The heat is really dry in Las Vegas! And all the people smell like cigarettes and chicken drumsticks!) There’s probably only nominal value in these observations, and again, I’ll soon enough realize the folly of what I’m saying here. But that disclaimer out of the way, here’s my conclusion: This country would not work too well for Michael Oher.

Indeed, after a 90-minute bus ride from Narita airport, I arrived at my Shibuya-ku hotel, my short-term home while I apartment-hunt. The hotel room isn’t just smaller than what you get from an American hotel; it’s smaller than what you get from an American hotel as a complimentary fruit basket. The room’s desk chair, which is really just a stool, sits approximately 14 inches off the ground. Two of my four suitcases are lounging out of necessity on the bed. And the shower stall is tiny enough to create its own amusing dangers — namely, when some mysterious gust of air catches the base of the shower curtain, it takes on some distinctly cobra-like qualities, and I become its mongoose, just trying to avoid a slimy suffocation.

But let’s move on. More quick-hit Tokyo observations, mostly pleasant. The electronics don’t need converters. People drive with extreme care and politeness. It’s much quieter than I expected. There are lots and lots of beautiful women.

Last night, my first in Tokyo, I just walked around the neighborhood a bit. But today was my first proper exposure to the city. To mark the occasion, I rose from bed at about the time when I heard the first faint signs of street life. I was ready to go. Not just awake, but ready-to-lead-the-Second-Line-through-New-Orleans awake. It was 4:04 a.m.

So I started the day with a quick run through the mostly empty streets, eventually finding a circular public park for a few quick laps. At 9:30, I met the Washington Post’s full-time Tokyo-based assistant, Ako Yamamoto, who immediately showed herself to be the most competent, friendly, organized person I’ve ever encountered. If only the Diet knew about her, she could probably grab the prime minister’s seat.

Being in a new place always drives one, I suppose, to be more willing to give your trust to another. You have no choice, really. But Ako made it easy. With the help of a local realtor, we spent the morning on an apartment-hunting speed-chase, cabbing it from neighborhood to neighborhood. The routine basically went like this: We’d arrive outside some modern looking apartment, take the elevator up, remove our shoes and look around. Every apartment impressed the heck out me, to be frank. Once I settle on a place I’ll devote more blogspace to living arrangement details, but suffice to say I’m gonna be alright here. Oh, and when we used the metro, Ako handed me a pre-paid plastic card to swipe upon entering.

My mid-afternoon, I split ways with Ako and did a little more neighborhood strolling. There’s a special tension that comes during this — mostly established by the language barrier standing between you and your efficacy. Every little exchange, there’s the possibility of joy or embarrassment. I’m only slowly getting better at finding the courage to try. Today’s successes: Asking the front desk for an ironing board and ordering a coffee at Starbucks. Today’s failures: Follow-up conversations in said exchanges.

As a general rule, my best Japanese conversations end after somewhere between 15 and 25 syllables.

There’s plenty of space in a Japanese hotel room for my vocabulary.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A blog launches, for the reason one always launches

Dear reader, welcome to my blog. It’s about me. I hope you like it. Please, have a look around; take the grand tour. In the last few weeks, with misguided desires to launch this forum, I conceived the title and designed the banner. I thought briefly about using Thai characters instead of Japanese, but their alphabet too much resembles a store shelf of flowerpots, and I didn’t quite like the aesthetic. I thought briefly, too, about entitling this real estate “Big in Japan!,” but I have this new goal to go at least the next three years without publicly embarrassing myself. Just as a deterrent, of course, I’ve constructed a first paragraph that slashes total readership to four. (*)

Now, before I get too far along — before I board the plane, even — let me provide some background. Sometime early last December, I received an offer from The Washington Post to cover East Asia as a foreign correspondent. Acceptance of this proposal required a three-second lag time only because my new boss first offered his congratulations in Japanese, meaning I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. This, in retrospect, was probably the first good practice for my new life. Tuesday, I fly to Tokyo, my new home. Within a week, after finding an apartment, I’ll be responsible for The Post’s coverage of Japan, North and South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. (‘Etc.’ doesn’t include China.) Though I’ve taken full responsibility for preparation — memorizing a fair portion of Kim Jong Il’s family tree… meeting with D.C.-based East Asia experts… honing and developing the Japanese vocabulary of a 3-year-old — nothing quite erases the fact that this is a remarkable job, and I am a wholly unremarkable person, and I am now very excited and very scared.

When people hear about this job, they ask, invariably, if I’ve ever been to Japan. (And the answer, invariably — until now! — is no.) But they also ask, almost reflexively, if I plan to establish a personal blog. It is by now, I suppose, an accepted part of the modern human condition, a predictable sequence whose steps I list below, having dutifully submitted to each of them.

Step 1.) Person X obtains new job, requiring a move overseas.

Step 2.) A small number of people in Person X’s life suggest, even if they don’t really mean it, that, Hey, you should really start a blog, and Yeah, you’ll have to send me the link.

Step 3.) Person X starts to realize that, Hey, it’s true; everybody has a voice; everybody has a story to tell, and maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Maybe, in fact, it’s a good idea. Person X tours the blogosphere, trolling for possibilities. He realizes that there’s a good chance no American citizen since 2005 has relocated to East Asia without establishing a blog. Generally, as subsequent research reveals, these blogs begin with the photo of a frenzied Tokyo intersection, the only thing motionless and in focus being, in the foreground, a white and somewhat flustered face, possibly framed by the display of a double-thumbs-up sign. The rest of the picture is a hallucination of warp speed life — lights and pyrotechnics and indecipherable signs and anime billboards, all the confusion and untamed beauty of the world’s most populous vortex. Ahhh, Tokyo! Here I am, “Big in Japan!”

Step 4.) Person X joins the blogosphere.

Step 5.) The world becomes a better place.

So, here I am. I’m in. I was at least 93.4-percent committed to the frequent upkeep of this blog and then my parents bought me a flip-cam, which pretty much sealed the deal. Since then I’ve applied for and received Blogspot.com’s official Waiver To Write With Unapologetic Immodesty, which is really just a formality around these parts.

I am going to miss America, and in particular Washington, D.C. I am going to miss my parents and my friends. I am going to miss a world that makes sense. As a writer — or rather, as somebody who loves to observe eloquence — I will miss the way people talk. A few weeks ago, I heard author Tim O’Brien speak at a local bookstore, and with words — only words, and just the right words — he told stories for 60 minutes, and many in the crowd who probably didn’t expect to cry were crying. Strange, I know, but that’s the moment when I got really sad about leaving America.

Leaving is not easy. But it’s right. I know this intuitively like I’ve known nothing else. A few weeks ago, foreign editor Kevin Sullivan, who himself has spent years in Japan, termed it like this, and I paraphrase: “Look at it this way. Right now your life is too easy. Nothing is a challenge. Soon everything will be a challenge, but it will be fun. You just have to go in with the right attitude.” And that, to me, made sense.

Now all the goodbyes are mostly over. My apartment is empty, but for the techie gadgets and clothing. Last Wednesday, I had my final Japanese class with my fantastic tutor, Kohriki-sensei. Last Thursday, in the latest sign that I no longer cover the National League East, I went out to lunch with my boss, who suggested I buy a Kevlar vest. Then, Friday, I took a 24-hour trip to New Orleans for a buddy’s bachelor party. It was a debauched, terrific, poignant time, and in tribute we all conducted small-scale “top kill” missions — calling for a violent clash of unsavory substances — within our own stomachs. Saturday, I came home. Sunday morning, I wrote this, and now there’s basically nothing else standing between my old life and my new one.

(*) And even those four will be tested by future blog entries dedicated entirely to yearnings for American breakfast cereal.