Saturday, September 29, 2012

Origami Cranes

The leaves are changing. Today I venture out of the Ohtaki International Guest House to buy veggies from Hashimoto-san. As usual, he wants to give me things. First, it's a bag of carrots. Then, a melon. Yellow or red? he asks. I point to the smallest one but of course he chooses the largest.  I know such melons go for at least ten bucks a piece, so I try to buy more veggies even though I don't need them. Two kilos of eggplants. A gigantic hakusai cabbage. But every time I spend more money, he adds another gift. It's time to leave.

I drive to Seicomart. It's here you can buy anything from pizza-flavoured breadsticks to apricot sake. There's always a trucker or two perusing the porn mags (located beside the whisky and laundry detergent).  Now I have my very own Seicomart card and can rack up points. I've already won a white café au lait mug. Of course, I can't understand the rules for the point system or the gifts I'm eligible to win. I rely on the kindness of an elderly cashier to pass me mysterious slips of paper and gesture to tuck them away in my wallet. She's the same cashier who gave me a calendar last year. She's the same cashier I'm embarrassed around every time I buy a mini-bottle of red wine (which seems to be often these days).

I've always thought it takes a minimum of six months to feel at home anywhere, but that was before Japan. It's clear I'm a guest here—just as the sign above my front door proclaims. The Ohtaki International Guest House has become my refuge. It's here I can put on a pair of sweatpants and do what us foreigners like to do—be free.

If I've learned anything during this past year, it's that we in the west enjoy a freedom difficult to define.  Sure, there are rules to follow but they're pretty simple once you've learned them. Most can be mastered by Grade One. The rules here seem to become more and more complex as one enters different phases of life, or even just the different rooms of a house. The rules are as ancient and multi-faceted as an origami crane. It's the perfect place for those who thrive on tradition and routine and knowing what to expect.

But for those of a more spontaneous nature, repression sets in.  Repression makes you want to do crazy things. It makes you want to serve guacamole in the miso soup bowls. It makes you want to throw the toilet slippers in the garbage. It makes you want to ride your bike to work during a typhoon—heedless of your hair-do and freshly-pressed blouse. It makes you realize you didn't even know you were free once. 

Repression makes my neck tense. It makes me bow and shuffle. It makes me apologize before I even begin to speak. It makes me want to jump in a cold Canadian lake and float on my back all day looking up at the sky.

It's an interesting state of being. And it's also a choice. For I am still free, technically. There's nothing stopping me from booking the flight that's on sale right now from Tokyo to Bangkok.  Except for a fridge full of veggies and a melon. Every time I open the door, the kindness of Ohtaki stares back.
Surely they are trying to teach me something here. I am free to go, or I am free to find out what that may be.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dial 119

Some countries become characters in their own right. Before I left for India, a fellow waiter said: "Tell Mother India I say hello." I'd smiled politely, surprised this man in black so adept with a corkscrew was really a New Ager in disguise. But after a few months on the subcontinent, India became she. She became Mother. She enchanted and repelled, sheltered and shunned. She taught me what I didn't know I'd needed to learn. "Say hello to Mother India," I hear myself say to a friend en route to Delhi.

And now, there's Japan. Its status as a character in the saga of my life grows stronger every day. "Oh, Japan," a fellow English teacher sighs when she reads a billboard emblazoned with Japanglish: "Great looks. And brian, too." When I first arrived I'd found these errors humourous, even charming. That was during the honeymoon phase when Japan was as fresh and bright as the rising sun.

But now I sigh, too. I don't know why multi-billion yen companies can't afford a dictionary. I don't know why it's okay to clip fingernails at your desk but it's impolite to sneeze. Why the air conditioning is turned off to conserve energy but toilet seat warmers are set at full blast. Dial 119 instead of 911. Stop signs shaped like yield signs. A bed is a bed-o. A coat a coat-o. A cream puff is a choux crème but not pronounced the French way. "Shoe cream," my Japanese friend forces me to say. Black at weddings. Black at funerals. Black except when it's not black.

Oh, Japan—sometimes I just don't get you. And I suppose you don't get me. I sit like the cross-legged males rather than kneel. I forget to put on the toilet slippers. I can't pick up silken tofu with chopsticks. I walk while sucking candies. I put my hands in my pockets. I like butter. I like sitting in the sun. I tell stories of streets filled with cherry blossoms that no one celebrates with sake. Blossoms falling on parked cars and cyclists. I tell stories of waitressing and tree-planting and exploring the world. "You've been a waitress?" you ask.

Some days I just want to hate you. It would be easier if you weren't so darn nice. You come to my door with bouquets of lilies. Roses. Daffodils. You bake bread. You pick fresh asparagus. You stop me on a hiking trail and offer me onigiri. You give me a dozen pumpkins. You give me your mother's kimono. Your silver Tiffany heart. You call out to me—again and again—so full of heart-felt cheer: "Konnichiwa!" And I call back—sing the only four syllables I can pronounce with ease. And we smile then, in that place beyond geography and culture where another country becomes nothing more than someone you're supposed to meet.