Saturday, December 02, 2006

Back to Reality

It's official. I like traveling much more than I like working. The freedom of the open road (or air in my case) v. the drudgery of the fluorescent office tan. It's not a tough choice. Unfortunately, because I do not have the pleasure of being independently wealthy, I can't have one without the other. So work I must, in order to afford that next trip.

For me at least, returning from a long trip like this inevitably leads to a bit of existential angst. This is on top of my regular, day-to-day existential angst, of course, which I always carry with me, as manifested by the following questions I am perpetually asking myself:

"Am I leading the life I want?"

"Am I living to work, or working to live?"

"What is happiness? Am I truly happy? What makes people happy? What makes me happy?"

"Is this it? All there is?"

"Is it time to buy a Porsche? A Corvette?"

It would be easy to write these thoughts off as evidence of a midlife crisis, but I don't think that's what is going on here. I've always been someone who asks these kinds of questions, and they have seemed particularly relevant the past couple of years as most of my friends have married off and settled quietly into the stasis of family life. The road more traveled. Maybe people with kids don't have the time or energy to expend on these kinds of thoughts or concerns. Maybe the internal motivation inside of them that craved a purpose in life, which we all have, was fulfilled through marriage and a family. Caring for their children and raising a family has become their purpose. But when that choice isn't immediately appealing, or when you haven't encountered someone who makes you completely want to make that choice (assuming such a person even exists), you tend to wonder exactly what kind of life path you're on.

For me, returning from a trip to a foreign country, particularly one as foreign as Japan, only adds to the questioning and internal speculation. There is an incredibly big world out there to see, and I want to see more of it. I feel very fortunate that I have the freedom and financial means to be able to travel as much as I have. I'm a little wary of screwing with either life factor, notwithstanding the other things in life that I think I want for myself.

The other day I read an interesting quote that resonated with me: "The world is a book. When you don't travel, you only read one page."

I feel this is true. While I am not someone who wants or needs to travel every month or two -- I like my own bed and tend to miss my life here if I'm gone too long -- I enjoy visiting and experiencing new places. For me, it's not only educational, it's a spiritual renewal. I always come back from a trip like this feeling more alive, spiritually refreshed, centered, and wanting more out of my life. I can't understand people who never go anywhere, who aren't curious about the world and cultures outside of their own country, and who couldn't care less if they ever left their own hometown. Too many Americans with the means to travel seem so xenophobic or arrogant that they think they have nothing to learn from anyone outside this country, and they have zero interest in going anywhere except Disneyland. It appears that they prefer to expend their energy trying to keep people OUT of the United States rather than REACHING out to explore a foreign culture and maybe learn a different point of view about the world and possibly something about themselves in the process. I feel I learn a lot about myself when I travel.

I understand that not everyone can afford to travel overseas, but most people can afford to pay for a tank of gas (or two) and drive to a neighboring town or state for a weekend. A lot of Americans don't even do that with any regularity. Maybe I should not have been surprised when I heard that before he became President, President Bush hadn't ever traveled outside the United States except to Mexico (and maybe Canada -- I need to check my facts). How is that even possible when his father was a diplomat for so many years? Is it any wonder that our foreign policy is so fucked up, given Bush's clearly-demonstrated disinterest and lack of intellectual curiosity about the world before his Presidency?

Alright, enough introspection for today. As an example of how strange, curious, and interesting foreign travel can be, here is the story I promised about THE DOLLHOUSE AND THE THREE LITTLE MAIDS, one of the more bizarre highlights of my trip:

Before I left for Hiroshima, Naoko took me to Akihabara, which is the electronics/gadget district of Tokyo. I have been a bit of a gadget hound since I was a kid, so I wanted to see if there were any new electronic toys out in Japan that weren't yet available here. I was also looking to see if I could find a Playstation 3 for sale, since I want one and at least four of my friends asked me to look for one in Japan and bring one home for them. Unfortunately, the Playstation 3s are as sold out in Japan as they are here.

Anywho, after visiting a couple of stores and getting an incredible foot massage from a $400 Sharper Image-esque foot massage machine in one of the department stores (I'm telling you, it was incredible, I might have to buy one for my own self), I was getting tired, so I asked Naoko if we could find a coffee shop and take a little break. We took a short walk and then entered this small department chain store called "Don Quixote," which sells clothes, electronics, toys, souvenirs, toiletries, everything. As we took an interminably long escalator up six cramped flights to the top floor of the store, I was wondering where we were going and if Naoko had misunderstood me.

At the top floor, we got off the escalator and stepped up in front of this small, pink and white entrance to what looked to be a mock dollhouse. It was called "@Home Cafe." I guessed that this was the coffee shop we were looking for. Immediately inside, standing behind a little counter, was a young girl, who looked about 15 or 16, dressed in a black and white french maid's costume. She wore black stockings and shoes, and a little maid's hat, along with two coats of glossy, bright red lipstick. She also had this white, geisha-like makeup on her face. "Mmmm-kay," I thought to myself. "This is a bit odd, but I'm going to go with the flow here and try to stay out of trouble."

For reasons that would soon become apparent, a big, white sign in front of the entrance to the dollhouse had a picture of a camera on it, covered by a big, red "X." No pictures allowed. "As if I would want a picture of myself seen in this place," I thought.

After a short wait on two stools sitting in front of the entrance, we were invited in by one of the Little Maids, who promptly seated us in one of the rooms in the back, which unfortunately, turned out to be the smoking section. Rather than switch rooms, which would have required a longer wait, we decided to stay. The back room was painted a light, optimistic yellow and was decorated like a dollhouse bedroom. There was a small bed in the back of the room, what looked to be a jute rug, and small, circular coffee tables in front of the bed and along the sides of the room, each of which had two metallic chairs underneath. For some reason, every time one of the Little Maids had to walk across the small rug in front of the bed to deliver something to one of the tables, she removed her shoes. "Must be a Japanese thing," I thought.

There were also several pictures on the walls, though I can no longer remember what was on them. I do remember that they were distinctly feminine and dollhouse-oriented, and I was a bit amused by them.

We were seated at a table on the left wall, closest to the door. To my far right, across the room, there was a small, elevated stage, with a flat screen t.v. on the wall. Both stood out starkly in the otherwise soft, girlie room. "I wonder what they need a stage and t.v. for -- that's weird," I wondered.

When our personal Little Maid, I mean "waitress," came to deliver my coffee and Naoko's Coke, she kneeled down next to me, all smiles, and slowly poured my coffee from a little blue pot. I felt like I was at a little girl's tea party. Our Little Maid then started to jabber something sweetly to me in Japanese, grinning at me expectantly.

I nodded. "Uhhh, what is she saying?" I nervously asked Naoko. I was starting to chafe a little under my heavy black sweater, which I stupidly had chosen to wear on a fairly balmy day. This all felt too weird.

"She wants to know if you would like sugar in your coffee."

"Ohhh, ha ha, sure, sure I would like some," said I, relieved at the simple request, but still wondering why this little girl was smiling so much and acting so... subservient. It was making me uncomfortable.

Naoko translated for me. "One sugar or two?"

"Two would be fine, thank you."

Then our Little Maid, still kneeling down in front of me, smiled sweetly and proceeded to utter some kind of girly, candycoated mantra in Japanese as she daintily placed two sugars in my waiting cup of coffee and stirred it very, very slowly.

"Milk?" asked Naoko.

"Um, yes please," I said.

Then, before she poured the milk, our Little Maid looked at my coffee and started chanting something sweet again, in a girlish pitch, none of which I understood. This coffee experience was starting to feel oddly cultish. With both of her hands, she formed the shape of a heart, pointing her thumbs down and together, and curling her rounded fingers together at the top. In one motion, she began pushing her little hand-heart towards my coffee cup. She stopped and looked at me, as if she were waiting for something.

"Uhhh, what in the world is she doing now?"

"She said that she is putting her love into preparing your coffee, and she wants you to also put your whole heart into it along with hers," said Naoko.

"What the f---, this is so bizarre," I responded, laughing. But yes, I put my two hands together, shaped them like a little heart, just as our Little Maid had done, and, as she chanted something incomprehensible, I motioned my hands towards my coffee cup along with hers, our two hand-hearts filling my coffee with love.

I felt like a complete and utter idiot. Naoko was laughing her ass off.

After I had finished two cups of coffee (both filled with love), I was ready to pay the lady and get the hell out of Dodge. All of a sudden, three of the Little Maids came highstepping into the back room, singing and dancing in unison like three castoffs from American Idol. Five of their doppelgangers appeared on the television screen behind the stage, which suddenly came on without warning. The Lead Maid held a large microphone. "Shit," I muttered to myself, "now youz can't leave."

After a couple of minutes of singing, the Three Little Maids began to say something to the audience in Japanese, as if they were making an announcement. Naoko translated that we were going to play a little game. As they sang, we were supposed to follow their hand motions, like little children. So... they clapped, we clapped. They put their hands out in front of their bodies and moved them up and down like little animal paws, and so did we. They moved their hands to the top of their heads, and wagged them like little dog ears, we did the same. Since I was a little slow on the uptake due to the language barrier, I was a small step behind everyone else.

We weren't done. This little game was immediately followed by a another announcement from the Lead Maid. According to Naoko, the whole room was now going to play "Rock, Paper, Scissors." I didn't even know they played this in Japan. As the Lead Maid called out "one, two, three, Rock!" everyone in the room threw down one of the three items with their hands. I played along like a good tourist. Naoko threw down "Rock." I beat the Little Maids (and Naoko) with "Paper."

Then the Lead Maid with the microphone yelled out a question to the audience that I didn't understand. A young Japanese guy -- about 17 or 18 years old raised his hand from the other side of the room.

"What do they want -- why is he raising his hand?" I asked Naoko.

"They want the winners who had 'Paper' to raise their hand," she said.

"Oh." I kept my hand down, obviously not wanting to call attention to myself. Naoko, however, had no such concerns and promptly sold me out. She pointed directly at me, like that girl from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and called out to the Little Maids, telling them that I had had won with "paper." Casting her the mal'occhio, I slowly, reluctantly, raised my hand.

The Three Little Maids were exuberant! They excitedly chattered something to each other in Japanese, and then the Japanese dude who had raised his hand suddenly got up and walked toward the stage. The Three Little Maids turned and pointed at me and motioned me forward.

"Wha-, what the hell is going on? Why is he going up there? What do they want with me?" Sweating now, I implored Naoko to explain to me what the fuck was happening.

Laughing, she said, "You have to go up on stage now, you won."

"WHHHATTT??" I should mention here that Naoko had this little habit of only telling me half the story before we went anywhere or did anything. It was the don't ask/don't tell approach to sightseeing, and I was on a "need to know" basis only. This was fucking great. Either I go up on stage and embarrass the hell out of myself, or I end up looking like a poor sport American asshole to all the people in the room. Quite the pickle.

Deciding to do my part for international relations (the Japanese are some of our only friends left in the world -- we really can't afford to piss them off), I got up VERY reluctantly and walked towards the stage, resigned to my fate. The Three Little Maids cheered, laughed and applauded, as did the people in the audience. I felt beads of sweat as big as raindrops on my forehead as I climbed up the stage steps. "Bad day for a heavy sweater, isn't it, you idiot," I chastised myself as I strode to my doom.

Once I got up on stage in front of the Three Little Maids, the Lead Maid started saying something to me in very animated tones, via the microphone. She was speaking very loudly, very quickly, and in a remarkably high pitched girlish squeal. My head started to spin. I'm telling you, I don't speak a word of Japanese, and I couldn't understand a fucking thing she was saying. I didn't know what the hell I was expected to do up there, and the lights in the room suddenly seemed very bright. Too bright. I felt like a circus animal. Or more accurately, Bill Murray on that ridiculous Japanese talk show in "Lost In Translation."

The Three Little Maids started singing and clapping in unison again, and then everyone began another round of the silly game of animal mockery (clapping, paws, ears). I was forced to perform this humiliation on stage in front of everyone, along with the Japanese kid who was on stage with me. Unlike me, however, he looked like he was having the time of his life. Confused at first, I saved myself by mimicking the motions of the girl sitting at the table right in front of the stage. So far, so good.

Then the Lead Maid started chattering something into the microphone that I couldn't understand. "Can't they stay on one topic for longer than 30 seconds, Jesus," I thought to myself. She looked directly at me and the Japanese kid and thrust the microphone in front of my face. Now what does she want? I panicked. "Uhhh, I don't understand Japanese," I said into the microphone -- in English -- like a damn moron. The entire room was laughing again. "Ha ha, fucking gaijin, can't live with them, can't live with them."

Finally, I motioned to Naoko for some damn help. "YOU GOT ME INTO THIS MESS, COME UP HERE AND HELP ME!" Laughing and smiling all the way, she stood up and bounded towards the stage.

"What the hell are they saying??"

"They want to know how you feel up here," she said.

"How do I feel? I FEEL EMBARRASSED!"

She translated this in Japanese for the audience, speaking clearly into the microphone held by the Lead Maid. More, louder laughing now. Good times.

Naoko explained to me: "Okay, now you are in the second round of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors.'"

"What? I am??!"

"Yes, you are playing against the other winner, the guy next to you. Okay?"

"Oh, okay," I said, relieved that I finally understood what the fuck I was doing up there. Naoko skipped happily off the stage and back into her chair.

Directed by the Lead Little Maid, I turned to face my young, Japanese adversary. The playoff round began with a chant of "one, two, three!" (I think). We both threw down. At the last second, I went with "paper" again, going with what brung me to the Big Dance. Happily, my opponent went with "scissors." I lost. I have never been so happy to lose anything in my life. As the Three Little Maids thrust my opponent's hand into the air, I nearly ran back to my chair.

When I sat down, Naoko was redfaced from laughing so much. My face was flushed for a different reason -- utter mortification. I'm not sure that my description of these events can fully convey how embarrassing and foolish the combination of the unexpected, not understanding the language, and the strange and absurd atmosphere of the place made me feel as I was standing up there in front of everyone.

We ended our visit to this strange place with a gift from our gracious young hostesses: a Polaroid picture of Naoko and I, together with the Little Maid of my choice, in front of the entrance to the dollhouse/coffee shop. We were forced to choose a fun piece of headgear to wear from a little basket. As you can see from the picture below (a best efforts reproduction of the picture they took), I went with the dog ears, Naoko with a little bonnet.

Cute, no?

I hope you enjoyed the story of THE DOLLHOUSE AND THE THREE LITTLE MAIDS. Let us never speak of it again.


K said...

Hysterical! But the pic isn't showing up... at least not for me.

Glad you had a fun time. I am completely with you on the benefits of travel. I too do not understand those who have no desire or curiosity to expore the rest of the planet we live on. But, to each his own.

Meanwhile - Thailand... here I come :)

Sister T said...

I am glad you had a fun and exciting trip. I'm so proud of you for being a great writer, and a deep, deep thinker. You try to find the answers to questions that so many people don't even bother to ask themselves.

T. said...

Wow, Sister T's first comment! She's officially in the hizzy. Thanks for the complimentos -- you're not sweetening me up for a nice Christmas present, are ye?

KatieG said...

stop reading my mind. its annoying. ;-) i know we spend a significant amount of time together (well, not together exactly, but 20 feet away from each other) but come on!!

good prose...

Sally Tomato said...

OMG, I LOVE this post. I love the start (these questions I have coincidentally been asking of myself lately) and I love the lead in to the humiliation.

I bet as mortifying as it was when it was happening, it was pretty funny in retrospect. Those Japanese have some weeeeird customs. Wow.

Now you're making me really want to go there. My travels have only been limited to the western hemisphere. I need to branch out more.