Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Midlife Enlightenment

“What the hell am I doing here?” These were the first words that came to Kate’s mind when she queued up under the official looking sign labelled “Aliens”.

There were two other line-ups, one for “Japanese Nationals” and the other for “Alien Re-entry”. The one she chose seemed the most logical. She and the planeloads of other weary arrivals separated themselves from the Japanese and formed a somewhat orderly line under the sign flashing their new identity. Waiting to clear immigration, Kate looked around at her fellow aliens and something became abundantly clear. She was alone.

At 42, she found herself on a cusp. At a stretch, she could be considered a baby-boomer, while at the same time she straddled that other generation, named for a book and referred to as “X”. Kate preferred the latter, and she didn’t really mind the label. It made her feel like she belonged to something. And there were worse things than belonging to the slightly neurotic, intellectualized nomads called Gen X. She scanned the line for other like-minded travellers. Not a one in sight. There was a group of East Indian ladies with at least a half-dozen kids of various ages in tow. For having just flown from what Kate assumed must be Delhi or Mumbai to Tokyo, the kids were incredibly well behaved. Most were clinging to their Mothers’ saris, brown eyes wide, sucking their thumbs or twirling their hair.

There was an energetic group of seven or eight Filipinas, each helping the other adjust a purse strap or tame frizzy airplane hair as they chatted in what sounded like Spanish on speed. Kate couldn’t remember the name of the language they were speaking. She listened and watched some more, racking her brain for a name to attach to the words flowing so smoothly from their mouths. From the way they were grooming each other and re-applying lipstick, Kate thought they looked more like they were preparing for a nightclub rather than the immigration booth at the head of the line. They were happy, uninhibited. And then she remembered the name and said it aloud to herself with a sense of satisfaction; “Tagalog…” Forgetting place names, dates, book titles, was happening with more and more frequency lately and it rattled her when it did.

A bit further down, a group of men were eyeing the Filipinas, nudging each other and smirking. She knew what they were. GI’s on furlough. They were representatives of Uncle Sam’s finest military might. When she was in her late twenties, she had taken a leave of absence from her teaching position at an all-girls high school. These get-aways seemed to be a perk the Gen X’ers had over their baby-boomer predecessors. It was almost a given that time off is a part of seniority, and if not offered, it was time to move on. On this particular leave, she had spent almost a month in Thailand, one week of which she lay low in one of the seediest places she had ever seen - Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Right now, the baritone voices of the men drowned out the chatter of the Filipinas ahead of them, enough so that the women stopped their conversation dead to shoot the men withering glares over their shoulders. There was a quick exchange of Tagalog amongst themselves and fits of giggles as the women turned back to continue their previous discussion. The men, all in their early twenties, were silenced for a moment. The one closest to the Filipinas, stocky and so blonde he could have been Albino, broke the silence; “Dudes, they want it and they want it baaaad!” He grabbed his groin and swung his hips in the direction of the women. They ignored him, but his mates didn’t. He got a few slaps of encouragement as he continued swaying his hips to and fro. Kate had to look away. She didn’t want her own blondeness to include her in any way with these assholes.

She realized that these GI’s lining up for immigration could have been clones of the ones roaming those gritty Bangkok alleys she had been exploring in the early nineties. Kate wasn’t sure whether to think it ironic or sad that for US military men so much had remained the same over the years, from the haircuts to the cocky attitudes right on down to the generic light blue acid washed jeans. She decided right there that the only thing that distinguished these guys from their brothers before them was the location of the countries they were bombing. And even at that, it was only by a few hundred miles or so. She snuck another peek at them as they continued their attempt to get the Filipinas’ attention. She knew there were army bases in Okinawa, and Okinawa was at the opposite end of the country from where she would be living – Tokyo. At that, she smiled, and checked her progress in the line. Her attention was brought back to herself by a wave of loneliness as she looked from the front of the line all the way to the back.

Indian mamas, Filipina party girls, Army surplus wankers. She brought her eyes once more to the front of the line and started the scan yet again. Even if there were only one woman her own age, even if she were on the arm of a husband, a lover, a significant other, it didn’t matter. Kate just wanted to see one other middle-aged, female alien to validate her own decision to be here. Even as she scanned, she was consciously hating herself for needing the reinforcement. She looked at her stuffed backpack lying on its side at her feet. It had tipped over from the weight of its contents and looked slightly ridiculous, bulging at the seams, some of the contents spilling out the top. The Canadian flag sewn on years ago was frayed at the edges. She gave the bag a bit of shove with her foot and felt a sudden flash of resentment.

She thought back again to her stay in Thailand. Kate remembered watching the weathered hippies as they walked the beaches of one of the more secluded Thai islands she had visited almost fifteen years ago. Wearing their flowing long skirts and headbands, they would sit with the locals making jewellery from shells and weaving wristbands from hemp. Looking back, she had a pretty good idea of what was going through her mind at the time. It was surely nothing too harsh or overly malicious. Probably more of a tolerant pity accompanied by the words; “Grow up.”

These were the words going through her head now as she bent over to pick up the dead weight of the toppled-over backpack. This time they were in self-reproach. She repeated what she had said a few minutes earlier; “What the hell am I doing here?” The initial judgement she had passed on the GI’s she now directed back at herself. Had she changed at all in fifteen years?

She shuffled ahead as the line moved forward a few inches. She focused on the colourful headband on the traveller in front of her. Now was not the time to have a meltdown considering she was about to face immigration man and his magic rubber stamp. Self-pity and jet lag made for a bleak blend. Kate decided to drown out her thoughts and the voices around her with music. She used music the way some people consumed Prozac. It was her feel good drug, her escape hatch. She hit play on her i-pod, adjusted the earphones, and closed her eyes as the first few notes of Comfortably Numb carried her away from the gloom that had burrowed itself so deeply into her thoughts.


Passing through immigration had been a lot easier than she had predicted. The questions the official had asked her had been straightforward enough. “Why are you here?” Easy. She was offered a teaching position at a junior high school through a recruiting agency in Vancouver. She was on sabbatical from her own teaching position back home. “How long will you stay?” Again, simple. The agency had taken care of the paperwork, and she was guaranteed a one-year visa. “Will you have family members joining you?” Nope. Single, no dependants.

She did have a small stomach flutter when she had said she was single. In reality, she was divorced. Or, more exotically, she was a divorcee. Never mind that the marriage lasted exactly sixty-four days and took place in Vegas on her twenty-first birthday. She used to hide her divorced status for years. She had felt ashamed of her Las Vegas adventure with her high school sweetheart. After the age of thirty-five, however, she found the “D” word rolling off her lips more often when asked her marital status. By her mid-thirties, it seemed like a better club to belong to than the one labelled “single, never married.”

Final question; “Do you have an address in Japan?” She pulled out the slip of paper the agency had given her. It was neatly typed and included a map from downtown Tokyo to her final destination. Her street name had 18 letters. Kate tried to say it, but it was unpronounceable. She showed it to the man, he scanned it briefly, and stamped her passport with a swift flick of his wrist. “Next please…”. And she was in. She was, officially, an alien. Kate adjusted the weight of her backpack and made her way to the luggage carrousel and customs.


The agency had offered to pick her up the following day from Narita Airport. She was arriving on a National holiday and there was no one available to meet her. Kate could have stayed the night at the airport hotel, but she declined the offer, opting instead for the adventure of locating the apartment on her own. Standing in the middle of Shinjuku station, she was beginning to question the sanity of her decision. She had read about it. She had seen pictures of it. Photos and words had no way of conveying the madness surrounding her. She stood still and in awe as the humanity swarmed around her on all sides. She felt invisible as people jostled past her, stubbing their toes on her rollaway suitcase.

She had tried to navigate the station to get to the exit she needed, but the combination of sounds, sights and smells and the sheer volume of people were overwhelming. Kate imagined the sight from a bird’s eye-view. She wasn’t sure if the image that came to mind was from a nature program she had once seen or from a biology book she had once read, but all she could think of were ants. Hundreds of thousands of ants going about their daily business, never touching, never stopping. And here she was, all 5 feet 10 inches of her with bobbed blonde hair, creating a disruption in the natural order of the Shinjuku universe.

Unhooking her backpack, she set it on the floor. She laid her suitcase on its side, pushing the metal handle in as she did so. And then she sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the busiest train station in the world. She adjusted her headphones, hit play, and let Pink Floyd reinvent what she was witnessing. Her body, her suitcase, her oversized backpack acted as miniature dams to the flow of people. And, just like water in a river, the people reacted accordingly. They redirected themselves around the intrusion, continuing on as if never interrupted. Kate smiled to herself. Many travellers to Japan found enlightenment sitting zazen with Buddhist monks in hidden Kyoto temples. She found it waiting for her on the concourse of Shinjuku Station at rush hour.

Kate was brought out of her reverie by the sight of the American GI’s from the airport. She could see them striding through the station, dodging commuters and laughing. But she couldn’t hear them. Their lips were moving, their hands motioning here and there, but it meant nothing without the words to match the gestures. They practically stepped on her as they made their way through the crowd. From their reaction, she assumed they were laughing at her. One stepped over her suitcase, leaned down and put his face close enough to hers that she could smell aftershave and French fries. Pink Floyd still filled her senses, but the GI’s voice managed to break through. She could feel the spray on her face as he yelled; “You’re a fucking freak!” Judging from the contortions overtaking the faces of his pals, he was a hit. They continued their way through the station, receding into the distance. If they had any more comments to add, she couldn’t hear them. And then she couldn’t see them. They were swallowed up by the masses and gone.

In the next moment, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked behind her to find a businessman staring down at her. It was difficult to judge his age. He could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty. He had on a smart blue suit and heavy black-rimmed eyeglasses. She removed her earphones. “Missus, are you fine? Are you English speaker?” His raised eyebrows and cocked head made Kate smile. He was truly concerned. She answered him as she brushed her pants down with her hands and stood up; “I’m good. Thanks.”

She hoped her smile was sincere and not overdone. She’d been reading up on cultural communication and she didn’t want to come across as a phony in her first meeting with a Japanese person. “Do you need an information for train?” He was gesturing toward the overhead subway map. It looked like a jumble of Crayola colours splashed on paper by a hyper six-year-old. Kate showed him her map, and he walked her directly to her platform. He even told some fellow passengers where she needed to get off. He left her with a bow and a smile as the train doors slid shut.

She was offered a seat by one of the passengers who had taken note of her stop. She declined the offer. She hitched her backpack securely on her shoulders, and placed her suitcase beside her. She was back on her feet again. She drank in the sights of the train and the people in it as it pulled out of Shinjuku Station to bring her to her new home. Quite possibly, she could belong here.