(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.
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.