Friday, February 24, 2006

La Plus ca Change...

“I hate Western Women.” The words rolled easily off his tongue, and his face betrayed no sense of irony as he made his proclamation to me one Fukuoka Friday night in spring. We were in our local, a nighttime hangout populated by Gaijins who enjoyed cheap beer and all-you-can eat peanuts in the shell. We were nursing our respective drinks; a glass of white wine for me, a mug of Asahi draught for him. We didn't know each other in the biblical sense, there was about a twenty-year age gap separating us, but we weren’t just mere acquaintances either. This man had, on more than a few occasions, opened up to me and shared many stories of his personal life, seeking advice, but often, I believe, just needing someone to listen.

And I did. I listened attentively and with compassion for some of the hurts this man had gone through in his many years of living in this country. From what he had told me over the course of our Friday chats, and from the lines furrowed deep in his brow, I could tell that his time here had not been easy.

He would open up to me as we nibbled salty seaweed bar snacks and chucked peanut shells onto the floor. Much of the hurt he had endured had been incurred through the course of more than a few failed relationships. They had been relationships which had begun like so many over here, with all the hope and anticipation that this country can offer with its Land of the Rising Sun mystique.

However, the brightness, the newness, the shininess of the Eastern enigma is soon dulled and dampened when the realities of an intercultural relationship set in. The linguistic miscommunications, subtle but meaningful gestures missed, the unspoken cues sent out by both parties but received by neither, all contribute to the breakdown of so many Gaijin/Japanese couplings. Perhaps at the root of these breakdowns is the disappointment of unmet expectations.

We would discuss until the early hours those cultural misunderstandings that occur within these relationships, misunderstandings that would so often be dealt with through gut reaction rather than logic, shoji doors being slid shut with an abrupt slam of frustration, unwarranted accusations being flung without thought, or a cultural slight being uttered with contempt by both people in the relationship. So often, a misconstrued comment or action could have possibly been turned around and used positively as a solid and useful building block toward the creation of a long lasting bond.

Unfortunately for many, myself included, those building blocks are often seen and used as barriers to communication rather than stepping-stones to a more solid cross-cultural union.

These are some of the more intense and emotional topics my drinking partner and I would touch upon during our weekly barstool therapy sessions. We didn't solve the world's problems, nor did we discover any magical key that could have changed the outcome of his failed marriages. But, the talk and the company sure were nice.

Sometimes we would leave those familiar barstools behind on balmier evenings, and go for walks, criss-crossing the many bridges that populated the city. We’d find our favourite outdoor yatai stand, run by an ancient obasan and her daughter, and munch on chicken gizzards and tiny whole birds barbecued on sticks. Actually, he would eat, and I would usually watch, still unable to bring myself to eat those Fukuokan delicacies. And he would talk some more, late into the evening, our wine and beer replaced by sweet smelling sake.

By listening to him, I was better able to come to terms with my failure to keep my own culture-crossing relationship afloat. I had listened, over the course of many weeks, to the sadness, the guilt, and the anger that this man had allowed to well-up inside him over the years, and I am sure that I saw a positive shift in his attitude towards his past relationships, seeing them more as learning experiences rather than sheer failure. He began talking about taking small trips, showing me some of his travel guides and going over his plans. It was quite a shift in behaviour for a man who, not so long ago, was resolute in his plan to be as hermit-like as possible, save for his Friday night forays to the familiar barstool.

It was on a Friday in March that I found him not at his usual barstool, but in a small room adjacent to the main barroom, with his maps and guide books spread out on the table, one Asahi draught mug holding down the right corner of the map, a chilled glass of white wine holding down the left. He held up his jockey for a cheers, a huge smile on his face.

“Beware the Ides of March!” was his toast as we clinked glasses.

It was indeed March 15th, and the sakura were making their Kyushu debut, making their presence known in a pink flourish directly outside the window. They were practically glowing in the early evening light and I had to pause for a moment to take it all in.

Here we were, continents away from our respective homes, a generation or two separating us, living in a country that often treated us as if we were not only aliens, but circus freaks as well, and we had managed to create a mutually beneficial friendship out of this mishmash of odds. Had we met each other in our own countries, our age and experiences would dictate that we would probably never have become friends.

It was precisely through his age and experience that I was able to accept and understand that ending my own strained inter-cultural relationship was not an indication that I was a bad girlfriend; it was simply time to move on. And, from what I could see in the happy man planning his vacation in front of me, he too had decided he was not totally to blame for his marriages that hadn’t worked out. We had helped each other, as friends do.

I pulled up a chair close to the table so that I could pore over the maps with him. Travel guides for Okinawa, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand were covering the table-sized map unfolded in front of me. I brushed away some of the peanut shells littering the top portion of the map, and traced with my finger the bright yellow line that highlighted a path from Okinawa and on through to southeast Asia. At certain points on the line were email addresses and names penciled in with stars beside them. Some were five-star names with exclamation marks; others only had one or two stars with double question marks. I could see he had been doing his homework, and had been in touch with more than a few women on the unlimited number of Internet sites that catered to this kind of vacation.

I too had been doing my homework, getting a few of my own ideas together in preparation for his vacation. Just because I would be working during the summer didn't mean I couldn't help to plan his great escape. I was excited to show him what I had been carrying in my backpack all day. I pulled out a “Let’s Go! Canada” guide, a map of the ten provinces and three territories, and a “Via Rail Travel Canada by Train” spring/summer timetable. On my map, which was now fully unfolded and covering Asia completely, I too had made a yellow highlight. It ran from Vancouver to Toronto, a distance of about 2,200 miles.

“Look!” I grabbed his hand and guided his index finger from British Columbia to Ontario. “In total, this trip takes three days through mountains, forests, prairies… and it’s almost half the price of the Southeast Asia trip.” He was looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language. He withdrew his hand from mine and grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the corner of the table.

“Why would I want to go to Canada?” He was munching on the peanuts, more of the casings and skins falling onto the table, Montreal disappearing under a particularly large shell.

I brushed the shell away. Montreal was my hometown, after all. “Look, you’ve been to Okinawa. You’ve been to Vietnam. You’ve been to Thailand. You’ve never been to Canada. It’s time for something new.” I pushed the map a little bit closer to him, part of it sliding off the table. He pulled it up completely; Asia came back into view again.

“I have a bit more than sightseeing on my mind…” He winked as his finger pointed and touched down on a few of the five-star names.

I slid the map of Canada back on the table. “You don’t think that over the course of three days and 2,200 miles you won’t meet a few interesting specimens of the opposite sex?”
And that’s when he said it.

“I hate Western Women.” He pulled the map of Canada up and started folding it, bending and creasing it in the wrong direction. I stared at him as he battled with the folds. My ears were burning and I could feel the heat of tears as they welled just under the lower lids of my eyes. I didn’t dare blink, and I knew that if I moved my head even a fraction of an inch, I would soon have salt water running down my cheeks.

He gave up the struggle with the map and laid the crumpled mass of paper on the floor next to his chair. He sat down, pulling Asia closer to him as he did so.

“What do you think? Should I take a boat from Kagoshima to Okinawa and enjoy the sea for a bit, or should I just hop on a plane here in Fukuoka?”

He had his calculator out and was punching in numbers, presumably to figure out the optimum time/distance ratio for his boat versus plane dilemma. The jockey glass beside him on the table had just a mouthful of beer left in it. My own wine glass was empty. I grabbed both of our glasses and went out to the front area where the regular Gaijin crew was engrossed in a basketball game on the overhead TV. I held up the draught glass and pointed at it, catching the eye of the Aussie bartender. He nodded his understanding and started pulling another glassful from the Asahi spigot.

“Need another glass of white, Love?” He passed me the chilled glass of draught and I shook my head no, passing him my empty wine glass. He went back to the excitement of the New York Knicks on the TV, and I made my way back to the side room.

Travel plans were in full swing. He had his handheld magnifying glass out and was giving Thailand his full attention. I set the beer glass gently beside him, and zipped up my backpack. I left the map of Canada where it was, crumpled on the floor beside his chair. As I slipped the bag straps over my shoulders, I looked back at him, and allowed the tears I had been holding onto to finally release. They were hot and blurred my vision to such an extent I could no longer see him clearly. He was just a blur of colour. As I turned to walk away, I whispered the only words I could think of as an appropriate final farewell.

“Et tu, Brute…?”

I walked out of the room, out of the bar, and into the twilight of the sweet smelling evening. Sakura petals were already beginning to scatter, looking to my eyes not so much like flowers, but more like a soft December snowfall on a downtown Montreal street. But, this was Japan, and spring was in full swing. Although I had my head down, not seeing the path in front of me, my feet instinctively knew the way home. They had walked this route uncountable times before, and had always landed me safely at my front door. Tonight would be no exception.