Sunday, August 2, 2009

The mysteries of Japanese hospitality

As many of you know I have concluded my year in Japan. I am finally back in good old New York City, anxiously awaiting my next world tour (to Europe this time) commencing in September. However, it would have been very un-Andrea like to leave Japan without incident and, true to form, I managed to kick up something.

The last weekend I was in Japan, I was wined and dined by my students. One thing Japanese people know how to do is provide hospitality, and they do it perfectly. One of my most hospitable evenings was with a student who is a successful liquor importer. I always enjoyed teaching him because he was a gentleman and a pleasure to have in my class. Anyway, this evening he outdid himself. He treated my co-worker, Stephen, and I to a dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant, fully equipped with a private room, a full vegetarian dinner for me (which is extremely difficult in Japan-yes, believe it), a sushi and sashimi menu for Stephen, and bottle after exquisite bottle of wine. Given that he imports the stuff, the wine we had was the premium of premiums running about a quarter months rent in NYC (probably a studio on the lower east side). By the end of the evening, we had eaten and drank our fill and decided it was time to part ways. Since my student and I (I will name him Toshi) lived near each other, we shared a cab.

The cab ride was fairly long which gave us plenty of time to say our goodbyes and make small talk. However, the small talk that I was trying to make was becoming increasingly difficult since the Louis Latour was now swimming through my head and the exhaustion of my last week at work was finally catching up with me. Needless to say, I was not in the best form and becoming rather careless with my words. Since Toshi was taking my class to learn English, he still tip toed through the language and very often had difficulty understanding parts of our conversation, therefore I was using my minimal Japanese in order to facilitate our small talk. The combination of being slightly tipsy, extremely tired, and two people with a shaky grasp on each others language is a recipe for some serious miscommunication.

Andrea(in English): So, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Toshi(in Japanese): Ah, I don't understand.

Andrea (in English): Um, ok, what will you do for the rest of the year, you know, August, September, October, November, December? What will you do?

Toshi (in Japanese): What? One more time please...

Andrea (in Japanese and I have translated the literal meaning to English): From now, what you are going to do?

Toshi (in English): Um (long pause) my wife. She very important to me...

Andrea (in English): Oh, o...k. (and then the horrible realization) OH!

Toshi (in halting English): Yes, she is very important to me. My wife.

Taken completely off guard, and cursing myself for not adding the simple word of "this year" to my sentence, I didn't know what to say and instead stared out of the window of the cab, eyes wide open and my tongue glued to the bottom of my mouth. I said nothing, most likely incriminating myself further in my own adulterous advances. A few minutes passed, and still we sat in complete silence. The cab that seemed to go on forever. The cab that never, ever seemed to stop. I briefly contemplated opening the door and jumping out, such was my embarrassment, but given that I had no idea where I was, I chose to not to do that. Finally, the awkward silence was broken when Toshi began to discuss his dreams of coming to New York (with his beloved wife) to visit me. I nervously replied that he was more than welcome to come visit me and my boyfriend who was most likely going to become my fiance and that we were going to get married and have many children and that we were totally happy and that he was wonderful and that I was so glad to see him and that he took care of my cats and, and, and....and then I took a breath.

Granted, I surely made the situation worse with what probably seemed like my "disappointed" silences followed by my incessant babbling about Nick and our imaginary future. Very likely Toshi will forever remember me as the home wrecker who he turned down. He will probably pat himself on the back for being faithful and conscientious of his wife's dignity. He will remember some American girl who semi-graciously accepted his rejection by prattling on about some guy named Nick who was simply a figment of her broken heart's imagination. But such is my life.

Toshi was a gentleman to the end and walked me to the door (after what seemed like the eternal cab ride), gave me a brief hug of farewell and a bottle of MOET champagne, and was off back into the night headed home to his champion wife. I think I even saw him congratulate himself on this defining moment as he sat back in the cab.

I suppose it could have been worse. He could have taken me up on my subtle and inadvertent offer, in which case I definitely would have opened the door and jumped out of the moving taxi, with or without the ability of finding my way home.

Japan proved to be an interesting and perplexing place. I am sure that almost every day something strange happened. Something that I could never explain. For example, when I tried to leave Japan, they rudely (for the first time in a year, someone was rude) informed me that my visa was expired by 2 days. Since overstaying your visa is considered a crime in Japan (I think in most countries), I was in trouble. After some negotiating, running through the airport, filling out paperwork, paying 40 bucks, running back through the airport and being ushered through security without being able to say goodbye to my friends who took me to the airport, I was put on a plane to Korea. As I sat in the Korean airport, contemplating my mad rush to get out of Japan without being arrested, I kept going back to the rude airline attendant. She was fairly nasty to me, but then when I asked for an aisle seat after my visa cleared with 15 minutes remaining before my flight left, I fully expected her to put me somewhere in cargo, but instead she changed her demeanor to slightly less rude. I couldn't help but wonder why.

Unfortunately, I do not have an answer and most likely I will never know why she changed her attitude, but I do know this. From Korea to JFK, a 14 hour flight, I sat, fully reclined in a seat in business class, being served my vegetarian meals with real silverware and wine, and with my choice of toothbrushes and hot towels. I don't know why she put me in business class, but I do know that when I boarded the plane, and when the lovely flight attendant ushered me personally to my seat, I quickly closed my mouth which had fallen open in bewilderment. When the same charming flight attendant offered to take my $10 Old Navy hoodie, I automatically gave it to her, and when this same endearing flight attendant offered me a drink as soon as I sat down, I said, but of course. I stopped wondering why and simply enjoyed the last remnants of Japanese hospitality, that is, showing guests of Japan good service even as they fly home on a slightly illegal extended visa. Japan is a very perplexing place indeed and I will miss its mysteries sorely.

To all my Japanese friends, thank you so very much for everything. You made my year unforgettable. I will miss you tremendously. And Toshi, if you ever change your mind, call me....

It's good to be home :)