...And A Cast of Thousands
I started writing this so long ago that I’d nearly forgotten about it. It’s been a really hectic month of disease, swords, speeches, new friends, furniture, Japanese lessons, and learning how to play the flute. But this missive is all about my trip home in August.
So I’d given my parents virtually no warning that I was coming home two days earlier than anticipated and my dad had spent all day Monday trying to get in touch with me while I’d left my phone at home for reasons inexplicable. It’s an odd coincidence that my cell phone’s message service is activated by dialling 1416—the area code for Toronto. So I couldn’t even call my dad back.
I’d gotten into the habit of seeing my neighbours, the K.s, about every other Sunday while school was on, but I hadn’t seen them since before the start of summer vacation. As I was taking off for another two weeks, I figured I should at least make an appearance before I left, but they weren’t in, so I left a note in their mailbox.
It was 10:00 p.m. by the time my dad finally got in touch with me, and just as we were figuring out what terminal I’d be coming into, the K.s knocked on my door.
“Um… right now is… father… on phone, talking to," I bumbled in Japanese. "Uh… right now is, uh, sorry? Yeah, um, sorry…”
They gave me a carved wooden plate from Hakone, smiled, waved, and left.
I give them a note, they give me an artistic plate. I get the sense that people in this country just have gifts lying around in case they need to give something to someone. I need to work on that. When people come to my place, I can’t even offer them a drink.
When I finished on the phone I went next door to apologize and say a proper hello, and the K.s started talking enthusiastically about some word I didn’t understand.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you know when parents give kids some money to spend?”
“Oh. Okay. Yeah, we call that ‘allowance’ in English.”
“Yeah. We’re going to give you one.”
These people are nuts: despite my protestations that I really do get a salary of my own, they handed me a little thumb-sized envelope. I bowed and thanked, went home, and found they’d given me a bloody 10,000-yen bill. That’s about $120. I determined that I absolutely had to remember to buy Miki K. the postcards she’d requested.
Setting my alarm, I tacked an extra hour onto my estimated travel time to Narita to make absolutely sure I didn’t end up like Socks and Bishop and miss my plane. Naturally, I was too stressed out about the whole thing to fall asleep. I got up at 6:30 barely rested, anticipating of a full 27.5 hours wracked with sleep-deprived pain. I can’t sleep in transit.
I had to be at a counter in some unknown part of Narita airport at 2:20 p.m. to pick up tickets for my 4:20 flight. Thanks to abnormally long waits at all my transfer points, I only got to the ticket desk in Tokyo station at 11:55.
From Tokyo, the express train takes an hour to get to Narita Terminal Two, and I wanted an extra hour to find the counter just in case it turned out to be hidden in some secret Terminal Three five miles down a winding mine shaft guarded by flying marmots or something. I knew the express trains left at three and thirty-three after each hour, and since I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it down the several hallways and escalators to the tracks for the most immediate train, I agreed when the guy at the ticket desk asked if thirty-three was okay. It was a little tighter than I’d planned, but I’d still have thirty minutes to find the counter, so it seemed okay.
Even stopping to buy a snack, I made it to the tracks about a minute before the doors on the 12:03 closed, but I decided I’d wait for the next train since I had a reserved seat. So I watched a non-express come and go, and as I stood around with nothing to do but look at the light boards, I noticed that the next express was listed at 13:03, which was surely a mistake, since my ticket was for thirty-three after. I pulled out my ticket and examined it carefully. I was vindicated: it was indeed for thirty-three after. Thirty-three after one, that is.
I went a little nuts at this point. I think the descriptive words that came to mind at the time were “mind-warpingly angry.” I very seriously considered walking all the way back out and demanding of the ticket guy what kind of unrepentant moron sold tickets for a 1:33 train to somebody who arrived at his desk at 11:55. I swear I seem only to run into the interpretive imbeciles at that counter. Remember two tickets to Terminal One? Yeah.
Of course, I was really just furious with myself for not jumping on the 12:03 train when I’d had the chance, and I had nothing to do for an entire hour but contemplate violence and froth.
Panicking ever so slightly, I got to the airport at exactly 2:00 after sitting nervously in a seat that wasn’t mine on the 1:03 because I wasn’t prepared to be an idiot twice. Or rather, three times. I vaguely recall making the exact same mistake when I was late meeting The Rover in March.
Normally, I wander around and try to find things on my own, only asking for directions if I’m really stumped. A time limit will do amazing things for your decision-making process: I asked pretty much everyone who looked remotely official where the heck I could find Counter H or whatever because I didn’t have a second to spare. If there was a huge line, I’d be screwed.
I started to breathe more easily when I arrived at the counter at 2:10 and found it completely desolate. As I received my tickets about thirty seconds later, I fielded a call from Big Sis, who was worried that I’d missed my flight. To blow off some steam, I’d sent her a phone mail from Tokyo station entitled, “A Plague On All JR Staff.”
I really didn’t want to sit in the terminal and wait with all the other passengers going to Newark. I was so accustomed to the ingrained politeness and passivity of Japanese culture that the aggressive friendliness of a bunch of east coast Americans just seemed like a naked assault on my softened sensibilities. I was also just shocked to see so many fat people. Even people who would once have seemed skinny to me now looked like they could have cut back on a few cheeseburgers a day.
I’d never flown via any airline other than Air Canada, so the features of my Continental 777 were all quite exciting. Each seat had a video screen right in front of it, with a built-in video game controller and an onscreen menu with a vast array of games, movies and music. My excitement died out pretty quickly when I realized there were 14 channels of movies I wouldn’t watch for free, a similar number of channels of music I couldn’t even stand to listen to while trying to sleep, and a sad selection of imitation Atari games that could easily be outdone by stuff you can download onto your Japanese cell phone. There’s nothing like watching your Space Invaders bullet tick up the screen for five seconds. Nik-nik-nik-nik-nik…bgung. They didn’t even have Tetris. It was a long flight.
At one point I accidentally hit the “service” button on my control pad, and when I told the stewardess I actually didn’t need anything, she said it was okay, but if I did it again she’d break my arms.
I had a moment of shock before I started to laugh. A Japanese stewardess would probably apologize for coming unbidden before making absolutely sure you didn’t need anything while she was there.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Toronto. People like to talk about “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock,” but I was more concerned that I would lose the challenge in my daily life. In Japan it was always a little adventure trying to dig up vocabulary that described what I wanted in a roundabout way; in Canada, if I wanted something, I could just ask for it. I had this language I used every day that I’d just be putting in my pocket for two weeks. It felt strange even sitting on the plane.
We all got herded into a big line at Newark, and a customs agent waded through the crowd asking people to show their passports and answer basic questions about their intended stay in the US. He even asked a few questions in Japanese that he’d clearly memorized from a phrasebook.
“Hi how are you,” he said mechanically as I reached for the passport in my pocket. “What kind of passport you got?”
“Canadian,” I said, still fumbling to get the thing out.
“Oh,” he shrugged indifferently. “Don’t worry about it.” And he moved on.
Canadians are apparently benign. I was tempted to threaten to blow up a bridge or something just to get treated a little more seriously.
I made the disheartening realization that it is not the language barrier that renders me incapable of interpreting instructions. When I asked one of the airport staff which line I was supposed to join with my ticket, I took a minute to figure out what she meant by “the middle one.” She looked at me like I was an idiot, pointed, and I moved accordingly. In Japan, if you can go left when they point left, they’ll applaud you as a linguistic genius. I’d forgotten that I’m really not nearly as bright as everyone keeps telling me I am.
I think it was the lack of personal uniqueness that struck me most about my return to North America.
I knew I had to take my laptop out of the case for the X-ray machine, but I hadn’t given any special thought to the cap attached to my belt, and the security guards got really freaked by the unidentified bulge under my shirt as I casually walked through the gate. I don’t know if they’re actually armed, but they backed off like they were ready to put a bullet through me. Then they got jumpy when I offered to open my laptop and turn it on as I’d been told to expect, and instead they ran a cloth over its exterior, stuck the cloth into a machine that looked like it was normally used to monitor coma patients, and told me to go on my way.
The extra security procedures didn’t really bother me, but the edgy atmosphere gave me the impression that the US was a really unfriendly place for visitors.
Once through, I made a note for future reference: when your ticket says you’re boarding flight 1993 at Gate 91 at 8:05 p.m., it really means you’re getting on at Gate 72 at 8:40. It was a good thing I hadn’t been in a rush to catch my connection.
Taking off into the clear evening sky above New York, I could see the arc of the darkened world outlined in golden red by the light of the setting sun.
I’d been growing out my hair and beard for a few months just to mess up my friends and family, and when he came to pick me up at Pearson, my dad said he initially mistook me for a guy he’d once known in university.
I got home around 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday night, and my body thought it was noon the next day. Figuring I was immune to jet lag given my habitually irregular sleeping habits, I even stayed up tinkering on my computer until 1:00 a.m. Then I woke up at 2:00 p.m. the next day when the phone rang.