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


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 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.