Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Windows On Japan
A Memory in Four Parts

Part I – In the Air

September, 1995. Air Canada flight 26, Vancouver to Nagoya. I’m sitting in economy, crammed bent-kneed into my too-small seat, when I get my first real taste of Japan, both literally and figuratively. This is a few years before Asian edibles, particularly the Japanese variety, have become commonplace in Canada’s west coast. I’m staring out the little window to my left, my own rectangular slice of the world spread out in front of me in fluffy whites and streamlined blues. This is my adventure and it has just begun. When offered the choice of lasagna or Japanese noodles, I jump on the noodle option immediately. I want my culinary experimentations to begin right now. The flight attendant, wearing a uniform the same colour as the slick blue sky outside my window, passes me my tray. On it is a neatly arranged assortment, including soba noodles, a perfect cube of white tofu, and steamed sticky rice. The soya sauce is packaged in miniature plastic fish-shaped bottles. I rip my chopsticks apart quickly in anticipation. They break unevenly in two. The wood is jagged and splintered, one stick much thicker than the other. I quickly attempt to cover my faux pas, hoping my Japanese seatmate won’t notice how awkward I am with my woody eating utensils.

But, he notices. He makes an enthusiastic eating gesture, smiling, and says to me; “You use chopsticks very well!” His grin is contagious.

I beam.

Part II - Landing – Nagoya Airport

When the plane lands, I follow the crowd of people in front of me. They seem to know where they’re going. I look at the signs directing weary travellers to their proper waiting stations. My queue is labelled quite clearly. In bold red lettering, it reads “Aliens”. I take my place in this line, passport gripped tightly in my free hand, while the other hand attempts to adjust the straps of the 30-kilo backpack weighing me down. Jet lag is making its presence known through a persistent buzz deep in my middle ear. The fluorescent lights lined up symmetrically above my head add to the din with their own frantic rhythm; Bizz! pause. Bizz! pause. Bizz! The lights flicker in time with the persistent drone. I dig into my pockets, hoping to find a Tylenol among the lint, coins and candy wrappers. No such luck. My boarding pass stub is there though, its edges already curled and frayed. Seat 42A, Window. I put it back in my pocket. I’ll keep this as a souvenir; maybe paste it in a photo album later. The buzz in my head continues.

After a not-too-long wait, I find myself first in the queue, being summoned forward to the large, windowed Immigration cubicle. Stony faced, middle-aged Immigration Man, official officer’s hat firmly planted on the top of his head, has his hand outstretched before him. I decide he is definitely a no-nonsense type. I lay my passport in the opening below the glass. His hand glides under and grabs it in one swift motion.

An image suddenly comes to mind. My going-away party. Two nights ago. Bags packed, I had put my important going-to-Japan documents, including this sacred passport, on the glass-topped coffee table. One of my friends, a west coast boy through and through, is smoking a joint. His baggie of stuff is spilling out onto the tabletop, mixing with beer drippings and nacho chip crumbs. What if that granola-stompin’, tree-huggin’, hippie wannabe dropped some his weed into my passport?

The bizz-buzz cacophony gets louder, my legs wobble, and the window separating me from my future reflects a blurry image of myself, hair askew, eyes dark with semi-circles, droopy and in need of sleep staring back at me. To Immigration Man in front of me, I am certain my face reflects that of a hard-core heroin junkie, desperate for a fix. I’m screwed.

He glances at the computer. He glances at me. He glances at the computer again. And then he speaks;

“English Teacher?”

I nod. I let out a bit of an affirmative “uh huh” and bob my head up and down. Perky, I should look perky. I could be teaching this man’s child. I attempt to curl the corners of my mouth up, but not too much. These Immigration guys can detect insincerity a mile away. They can also sniff the scent of one lone pot seed buried deep at the bottom of an overstuffed backpack. Or, stuck in the creases of a brand new passport for that matter. He’s looking right at me. Did his nose just twitch?

I’m screwed.

He rifles through the empty pages of my passport one more time. He grabs the rubber stamp in his right hand, and down it comes on page two. Bam! He slides it underneath the glass towards me. I grab it and attempt my first Japanese word with a real live Japanese person;

“Areeegattooo!”

I’m not certain, but I think I see Immigration Man’s stern fa├žade crack slightly from behind his glassed-in enclosure. I detect the beginnings of an almost smile itching to get out. I think it’s his eyes that give him away. There is a glimmer, perhaps even a twinkle, buried in there somewhere. I hike my backpack over my shoulder and make my way to the luggage carrousel. I no longer feel fatigued or worn out. I practically bounce over to the circular conveyer belt, scanning for my belongings as it spits out bag after bag. I can’t help it. I give myself a little pinch.

I am in Japan. I am, officially, an Alien. I have the stamp to prove it.

I beam.

Part III - Welcome to Japan

My new home is, in reality, a room. It’s 6-tatami and contains a bar fridge, a portable gas burner on the bedroom floor, and a foldaway futon mat and cover. There is no chair or table. But there is a little TV. I put a patterned shawl over the unwatched television set, and place a lacquered black and red vase filled with yellow daisies on top. It’s the little touches, I know, that make a space a home. A good friend taught me that, and I never forgot those words of wisdom. They sure come in handy in this small space.

Toilet, sink and bathtub are all contained in a plastic stall very similar to the Air Canada restroom on my flight over. And, a thoughtful addition, an opaque plexiglass window on the toilet’s sliding door allows a soft glow to permeate the little cubicle space. I can read my Let’s Go Japan! by its soft light. After all, it’s in this space where I have the only seat in the house. Many trips, some to Kyoto and Fukuoka, others to Sendai or into the Gifu wilds, are planned from my throne in my multi-tasking cubicle. Do Japanese use these cubicles as a personal library and planning space as I do? My gut instinct tells me probably not, and I’m not fluent enough in the language to ask such a personal question. It will have to wait.

My neighbours have brought me a large box of tomatoes. They are gorgeous tomatoes, perfectly round and plump, each with a bright green sprout on top. I generally don’t eat tomatoes, picky eater that I am; however these particular specimens are practically begging to be devoured. I eat those tomatoes with every meal for a week. I dice them in a bowl with a dash of salt, a touch of pepper, and a drizzle of vinegar. I eat them with unevenly separated, splintered wooden chopsticks, sitting on my throne, (lid and seat down, of course), reading Soseki’s I Am a Cat.

I beam.

Part IV – Fitting In

Backpack firmly fastened to my shoulders, this book-carrying tool that is used by one and all back home, is now a symbol, in my mind anyway, that declares I really am different, an alien. I don’t fit in with the women here. One of my daily pass-the-time-on-the-train games is to count how many Japanese women I see carrying a backpack. From amongst the Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuiton totes, the highest number I ever spy is two. As it turns out, one of those two backpack toting Japanese turns out to be a Canadian.

I still remember her name, even though we only had a two-minute conversation on a train between stops. She had noticed my little maple leaf pin and came and sat beside me. She was Louise from Kapiskasing, a fresh-faced and happy JET. She had arrived a week earlier, she let me know in her breathy, early-twenties enthusiasm. We only had time to chat for two stops, and then she was gone. I watched her through the window of the train as she bounced down the stairs to the adventures she would certainly find. Her backpack announced her foreigness without hesitation or apology. Its very difference from the norm made her special, someone to whom exciting things would happen. It didn’t weigh her down. I felt like such a Japan old-timer gaijin; jaded and cynical. I had been in Nagoya for four months. I wanted to slam my backpack on the floor of the train and stomp on it.

Before the train doors close, a little girl, perhaps four years old, jumps on with her mother, narrowly missing the whoosh of the sliding doors. Mother and daughter are laughing, a little out of breath, as they search for a seat. The daughter climbs up on a vacant spot. The little girl kneels on the seat, nose pressed against the train window, as her mother carefully removes her daughter’s miniature Pokemon sneakers. She is very careful not to let the little shoes touch the seat, and she places them on the floor below. The girl is now ready for the scenes that will soon be flying by in front of her through her own personal square of window. She has the best seat in the house.

Kneeling and gazing out the window, her back is towards me, she is wearing an oversized Sailor Moon backpack. Sailor Moon is staring at me with one liquidy, twinkling exaggerated manga eye. The other eye is closed in a conspiratorial wink. Her cartoon smile, although subtle, is most certainly directed at me. Sailor Moon is communicating with me on an afternoon commuter train. I look around to see if anyone else is giving this extraordinary event any notice. Everyone is doing their own thing; reading, dozing, applying make-up. My stop is next.

I hike my backpack securely on my shoulders and watch the neon Pachinko and Karaoke signs going by outside the window in front of me. The train comes to a stop, and the doors slide open to let me out. I give a final glance over my shoulder at the little girl who now has both hands planted against the window. She’s willing the train to move again, slapping her palms on the glass and giggling. I step out of the train and onto the platform. I am now on the other side of her looking-glass world, and we stare at each other as the doors slide shut. I wave. She’s still laughing as the train begins to move. She waves back at me, and slaps the window one more time. She keeps waving as the train picks up speed. And then, she’s gone. I know she can’t hear me, but I say it anyway.

“Arigatou.”

I run down the steps and into the station, my backpack bouncing against me, offering a gentle reminder of its weight. I walk into the station.

I beam.