Saturday, June 24, 2006

The First Trip Home


Christmas decorations and muzak versions of White Christmas arrive full force in Japan on December 1st. It looks and feels as if anything remotely related to Christmas, save for Baby Jesus and all that holy stuff, has exploded all over Nagoya. The streetlights, bus stops, storefronts, and even mini-bonsai trees are festooned with silver tinsel, blinking twinkle lights, and waving Santas. I half expect to see little elves with toy-making tools running about, preparing for the big day. It’s the North Pole, minus the snow.

This is my first Christmas season in Japan, and it is surreal. I really don’t know what I expected at this time of year, but if I’d had any notions about the season, they certainly had nothing to do with the consumer craziness that was taking hold of the city. Japan at Christmas is a retailers dream come true.

I have seen this insanity back home, of course. But it strangely seems to justify itself in that there is a small rememberance, tucked way in the recesses of our collective North American consciousness, that there really is a deeper meaning and reason for the season. A slight nod to the birthday boy might be given in the form of a visit to Midnight Mass, or maybe a little prayer at Christmas dinner, or perhaps a gift given to the needy in the form of canned food. Something. Anything. The sentiment of the season still does exist even though it has to be dug out from under a ton of gift-wrap and overindulgence.

I cast my cynical eye over the Christmas craziness in Nagoya, and start counting the days to my Christmas homecoming with a vengeance. The final straw comes three days before my departure home. I am sitting at my own little desk, which is one among an island of eight foreign staff at the publishing company where I work. It is a very typical office, by Japanese standards, in that privacy is not a priority in its layout. Our eight desks are lined up in two rows of four. I am facing my co-worker, and he is facing me. At the head of our eight desks is our group leader. He has the honour of not only having a view of all eight of us, he is also the holder of the phone. If any of us receives or needs to make a phone call, we have to use the leader’s phone.

There are seven more islands, eight desks and one leader each, spread out over the whole of the office space, with nary a wall or partition between us. This was group work, and I was a part of it. Kind of. I guess our island of eight plus leader felt a little out of place as we were all foreign. We called our little office oasis “GI”, short for “Gaijin Island”, but that was our little secret. We had freely referred to ourselves as Gaijin in the past, but at some point we must have ruffled some feathers. The Bucho told the Kacho, the Kacho told our leader, and our leader told us to stop using the word Gaijin in the office. So we did. Now we were codeword “G”, and, during the day, we lived on “GI” from 9:00 to 5:30. We certainly could be childish when we wanted to be.

Anyway, it’s three days before Christmas holiday departure, and Michiko, a co-worker from a neighbouring island comes over for one thing or another. As I rifle through my papers looking for what she needs, she points at some of the cards and pictures decorating my work space. “Is that your mother?” she asks, pointing at a photo of my mom at Christmas. I answer yes. “Oh, she is very beautiful!” I smile, and hand her the form she was looking for. She points at the next picture on my desk, a Christmas card from an Aunt. “Is that a cousin?” She asks, pointing at Baby Jesus in a manger scene. I don’t know what to say. I check to see if she is laughing, if she is pulling my leg. Her sincere gaze leads me to believe that she truly thinks that this is a relation of mine. I tell her who the baby is and she gives many nods of earnest understanding as I give the history of Christmas in a 40 second soundbite. I explain that that’s why I’ll be away for a couple of weeks; I’ll be celebrating the season with my family. She nods some more, and then gets a mischeivous look in her eye. Gaijin Island is almost empty, most of my co-workers having gone to get some lunch. She looks left and right and then comes closer to me. She speaks in a low voice, very breathy, very excited.

“I’ll celebrate Christmas, too!” She looks over her shoulder. It’s all clear. She begins again. “My boyfriend made a special reservation at Hotel Christmas in Gifu! They only take a reservation at Christmas and he got it! He got the Christmas special with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Sauna room!” Michiko is blushing deeply at this point, but there is a real look of joy on her face. I tell her that’s great, and to enjoy the 25th. She practically skips back to her island.

I pin the Christmas card back in its place. Baby Jesus is looking serene under the watchful gaze of Mary. I wonder if Michiko thought that Mary was my aunt and Joseph my uncle? Who knows. What I did know is that had they been able to make reservations at love hotels way back at Christmas number one, I guess we would have missed out on the whole Nativity scene. Joseph could have simply called ahead to the Inn, Jesus would have been born in comfort, and the whole family could have relaxed in a soothing sauna. Dark cynicism is taking root in my guts as I sit by myself at my desk. Cynicism, I am realizing, is one of the side effects of disbelief. I can either fight it, let it simmer inside, or flee. Danger! Danger! I wanted to get home, to reality, away from the surreal Nagoya surroundings, and off of Gaijin Island.


The view of Toronto Pearson International airport is obscured on the other side of my little JAL economy class window by ice. And sleet. And snow. And hail. I don’t want to leave my seat. The sound of the ice storm battering the little window to my left is a little off-putting. But, my friends, whom I haven’t seen in close to a year, are waiting inside the terminal for me.

After getting my gift-laden bags from the luggage carrousel, and pushing through the swinging doors into the terminal, I soon find myself the centre of attention. My friends have swarmed me, full of excitement and questions.

“You're skin and bones. Don’t they feed you over there?” is one of the first enquiries I field. Before I can fully explain that my diet is actually better than it ever has been, someone has already jumped in.

“What do you expect? She’s probably living on rice.”

I let that slide. I’m too tired to go into my daily food intake. On Gaijin Island, we eat from the office cafeteria, where french fries, coca cola and hot dogs are unheard of. Miso soup, salads, pickles, rice and cutlets are the daily fare. We’re a fit lot on our little Island, although we have been known to go on the occasional cookie run to the Lawson’s Convenience Store down the street.

We make our way out to the waiting gargantuan SUV in the parking lot. We throw my bags in the back, and then comes the next comment.

“Bet you’re glad to be in something with 4-wheels and an engine rather than the rickshaws they’ve got over there!”

What? I’m trying to conjure up an image of what an actual rickshaw is in my jet-lagged addled head. It takes awhile, but I finally clue in to what he’s referring to. I look at him to see if he’s having me on. I don’t think he is.

I get settled into the backseat, and we all hunker down for the two-hour ride ahead of us. The windshield wipers are going full speed, but they simply can’t keep up with the rate of the snowfall. Kind of like me not being able to keep up with the comments and questions flying my way.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?” That one comes to me from the front seat. I think for a moment, and come up with mayonnaise, corn and octopus on pizza. There’s a long silence. And then:

“You mean…they’ve got pizza over there?”

I’m about to tell him it’s delivered by rickshaw when I think better of it. The whole scenario is getting a little surreal; the weather, the questions, the comments being thrown around without any thought. Where was I and who were these people?

My vacation continues in much the same vein. Comments about the Japanese being wonderful craftsmen. The Great Wall is testament to their handiwork, isn’t it? Had I had a chance to visit it? It’s one of the Seven Wonders, you know...

It went on and on, no matter where I went. Once people realized I was visiting from Japan, the talk went on to pandas and concubines, spicy pickles and Tai Chi. The mishmash of Asian influences that encapsulates most people’s vision of Japan amazes me. And it has me wondering if only a short time ago I too had such a jumbled view of where I now lived? Was it possible? Thoughts of Gaijin Island are swirling in my head. Maybe it is an oasis. I do know that I am looking forward to landing on it, and having a chat with its inhabitants. Had they too experienced this strangeness with the natives of their previous homes?


I’m in the duty free shop in Vancouver on my stop-over back to Nagoya. I stop to look at the different knick-knacks they have on display. Christmas items are now marked down 50 to 75 percent. There’s a little wooden Nativity scene, complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men. I pick it up and walk over to the checkout. There’s a bowl full of plastic Santa figurines, only a dollar a piece. I pick one out, and have the purchases put in a bag.

When I return to Gaijin Island on January 4th, I look over at Michiko’s desk. Her group has already gone for lunch. I pull the Nativity out of my bag. Santa Claus is now firmly a part of the scene having been set in place earlier with some sticky glue. I have a little card with a maple leaf on it, and I place it beside Michiko’s computer terminal. On the front of the card, I have pasted a picture of my family. We’re a pretty happy lot. On the bottom is a small note:

Christmas is what you make it. You made mine a happy and thoughtful one. Thank you Michiko.
From your Friend on a Neighbouring Island

I walk back to my desk, my own little piece of Gaijin Island, and set out my miso soup, pickles and rice. I don’t think lunch has ever tasted so good.