Monday, October 17, 2005

both sides of the fence

There was a girl I knew from vaguely from college who once asked me what the Japanese character she had tatooed on her arm meant. "At the store they told me it means peace!" In combinations with other characters, yes, it can have that meaning. But sitting on its own on her arm it conjured up the rows of discount stores in Tokyo where the character screams "cheap! cheap!" has been documenting the hilarious abuses to the English language committed in Japan for years, so I was extremely pleased to find the website in their links section which somewhat obsessively documents American mistakes in Chinese and Japanese character tatoos. While most of his entries are petty examples of upside-down characters and missed strokes (on the level of spelling mistakes), some of them are disturbingly funny. Ergo the marine who wanted "tank" on his arm and instead got "toilet bowl/feeding trough"(tank, get it?), or the unexplained tatoo of "shit/excrement" on one guy's thigh.

A few weeks ago I was out with a Japanese friend who had studied for a year in London, and she regaled me with the unbelievable names of Japanese restaurants out there. Apparently the largest Japanese restaurant chain in London is Wagamama (directly translated: "selfish"). Somewhat puzzling was "Moshi Moshi Sushi" (Hello Sushi), but the real corker was a Sukunai, which means "small (portions)".

Thursday, October 06, 2005

when the circus comes to town

A. called at the same instant his face emerged from the photo paper. We hadn’t spoken since he’d moved back to the states to chase grants and scholarships to fund his perpetual art addiction. Both A. and darkrooms have odors of the occult about them, and the fact printing his picture had summoned a phone call from across the globe had a strange symmetry to it. Best not to ask too many questions about these things. Dark powers fuel A., keeping him in a state of perpetual crackling focus. The photograph was taken a few years ago, as he reclines in the corner of his solid white apartment, a slashing ink painting of his uncurling above him like the smoke from the invisible fire behind his eyes. His hair was long back then, tangled in the same obsidian blacks of the scroll. I cradled the phone against my shoulder as I slid the photo into the stop bath and listened to A. speak. Conversations with A. move with the same sharp strokes as his artwork, bristling braids of abrupt impulses twisted to a single focus.

Turned out wasn’t A., but a friend of his I was to talk to. It was Tuesday. The friend was coming to Tokyo with a band and a documentary film crew the next morning, they needed a translator on Thursday and Friday, I would get money and meals and my big crack at show biz. On Thursdays I coach adults skills relating to the capture and taming of the English language, so Friday it would be.

In a society that feeds on images, a film crew is a safari hunting the choicest bucks in the herd. It is an amoral and self contained unit that picks up stragglers like a conquering army. It hews individuals down to caricatures of their roles: the egomaniac director, the technically oriented camera-man, the benevolent producer that counts the pennies and soaks in the energy of the expedition, the flurry of gophers that haul tripods and tiptoe around the general. I had met all these characters before in movies and novels, and suddenly here were half a dozen American males my own age slipping into these eternal roles with their own particular variations. The director’s arrogance solidified into a metrosexual wardrobe and a smile that he hadn’t been used innocently for years. The crisp clean black shirt and baseball cap of the cameraman suggesting the one quiet, confident kid in middle school who could land consecutive three pointers but didn’t gloat about it. The producer was the veteran of close to eighty Phish shows, which explained several things: his rabid fanboy enthusiasm for the project, his tendency to rate everything in grades of hyperbole (“the fucking greatest”, “the shit”), and his self-consciously atrocious dancing that married white-boy funkiness to an epileptic fit. Somehow the squirts, prudes, jocks and obsessives I’d known all my life had brought their quirks into adulthood intact, inflicting them on girlfriends and coworkers, Tokyo and documentary films.

The actual subject of the film mystified me. It was ostensibly about this rock band I’d never heard of (“the 26th largest touring act in the US” according to the producer), but the director described a massive social critique in sweeping op-ed page phrases like “Post-modern consumer society”, “Me Generation vs. We Generation” and “Society of Excess Imitation”. The list of questions I was supposed to fire at our interviewees looked liked they’d been penned somewhere over the Pacific between the third and fourth micro-bottle of scotch against the spine of a historical background section of the 1993 edition of Lonely Planet: Japan. “How does the concept of Bushido apply to the modern Japanese corporation?” “Does Japan imitate the West too much?” “Would you characterize Japan as an excessive consumer society?” The director didn’t actually have any questions about Japan, he’d simply rearranged the grammar on a few simple statements and thrown question marks on the end.

I was here to help them speak with the natives. I was that strange lonely figure whose white skin shone out beneath the war paint, who was torn between the simultaneous desires to both protect and shelter his adopted people and display their wonders to his fellow white men. I had been living in this country among friends and neighbors but suddenly they became but “the Japanese people.” I felt myself getting sucked into the reckless momentum of the film crew, their brazen tribal confidence. They were paying me to give them the real Japan, but somehow I wanted to shelter the Japanese innocence from the marauders. Navigating the train platforms and labyrinthine neighborhoods, I led the white men to the watering holes, where we picked our prey carefully before shooting indiscriminately.

A group of males wandering with a battery of heavy shooting equipment exudes a morbid fascination just about anywhere on the planet, even in a city as saturated with camera crews as Tokyo. I had taken them to a university campus, where small flocks of undergraduates eyed us from courtyards and staircases. After getting a small orange press badge from the public relations department we began the interviews. Aside from the initial ping of fear I took to interviewing pretty quickly. All these years of coaxing conversations out of thin air from reluctant English students suddenly showed their merit. The crew looked on with glazed eyes as I guided the conversations through the tundra’s and valleys of “generation gap”, “relevancy of art” and “mass consumerism.” A pair upperclassmen just off studies abroad navigated the questions with easy aplomb, a couple pimply freshmen still looking for the library hacked at them with nervous enthusiasm, and two coeds aiming to be public servants answered the questions like true bureaucrats, deflecting any bite or conflict and letting everything settle into a lukewarm consensus. As we were interviewing them a male friend of theirs walked by with a wary look on his face. “Are you guys being scouted or something?” In Japanese, being scouted has much narrower connotations than the English: it almost always means porn.

By the end of the day we were back in their hotel in downtown Shibuya and the cameras had turned on me. Three years in this country and suddenly I’m the local expert. Hopefully I got through it with only a two feet dangling from my lips, but we’ll have to wait for the final product. For all I know they could edit my forty minute of words down to the sentence “ me...out?!” I ducked out at half past eight, had to meet a few friends for a farewell party across town. Close to a dozen other Japan hands crammed around a table in a Shinjuku izakaya, the talk peppered with whole chunks of Japanese, jokes and gestures colored years among the natives, the roar from our party dissolving in the clattering din of a score of other tables.


Living abroad as an ex-pat is just like any other drug: the initial effects are disorienting, frightening, maddening, exhilarating. Some folks put away the experience and only bring it out in idle conversation (“I tried that once!”), some flit on and off, returning for weeks or months at a time, and not a small number get into the habit of it. To live in Japan as an ex-pat is to know that some part of you will always remain outside this country, that the way you make your living will almost always revolve centrally around your nationality and not your individuality. We are language teachers, hustlers, prostitutes, translators, announcers, DJ’s, importers, exporters, cooks of exotic foods, sellers of exotic wares, entertainers, and usually a few of the above. We might be factory workers, but we are never cops or firemen or judges.

Translation between individuals may just be the most direct experience of this; putting yourself directly between both worlds and watching them try to speak to one another. I must enjoy the experience, because I signed up again for nothing more than a free concert ticket and a backstage pass.

The club occupied the entire fifth floor of an unremarkable Tokyo department store. I had to weave through a few racks of imported hip-hop apparel to get to the stairs, and then suddenly I’m inside and several hundred people are milling about waiting for the show to start. The V.I.P. area was a wobbly partition and a plastic braided rope on the left side of the stage. I shook hands with the documentary crew like old friends. The producer bought us all beers. A handful of photographers shouldered blocky black cameras, a few American girls I took to be girlfriends of the band furtively handled a dark green Ziplocked brick, sound engineers and roadies scurried in and out of a backstage door. If the documentary film crew is a safari, the rock band is a conquering army: Alexander’s host and Genghis Khan’s cavalry, Sherman’s divisions sweeping through the South, a train of grunts, cooks, refugees and tagalongs trailing in their wake, every single one pricked by the sickening exhilaration of sweeping through border, law and reason.

Backstage after the show people lounged in footstools and chairs, nicking complimentary beers and orbiting the five band members, who shook hands and smiled and kissed their girlfriends (if they had them) and batted around plans for their last night in Tokyo. I suppose we all have cartoon sketch ideas of the backstage of a rock concert, culled from legends of the Who and the Rolling Stones presiding over night after night of Dionysian orgies of virgin flesh and psychedelics, and for all I know they may be true, but this was so much simpler and human than all that. Just a bunch of folks lounging around after work in the tingling aftershock of electric sound, nothing more radical than an undergraduate party, some of us just barely managing a handshake, some of us just thinking of a warm meal, and a few of us flicking glances at that short guy with the steely bronzed arms who had just been pounding the drums for a few hours. Oh, I thought to myself, those girls over there are groupies. But the thought didn’t stick or even ring very true, the word had reduced a human impulse to a caricature. Wasn’t I also back here out of some curiosity about the whole process? Were my interests here purely anthropological? Didn’t I also end up at the neighborhood restaurant chatting with the keyboardist and his girlfriend amid a few dozen other roadies and hangers on? I stick by my army metaphor, our minds buzzing on the collective rush of bodies crashing through our caution and daily morality. We were the whole world, given the right situation we’d have been stealing livestock and sowing fields with salt, our brain chemistry was already primed and ready.

It was in this frame of mind that the director sallied the crew into a midnight attack on the Shibuya crowds, our minds loosened by beer and rock and roll. A few days before I had deflected and padded the cannonball inanities he was throwing at undergraduates, but now we cut straight to the bone, fans of the band musing on the present and future of Japan, the veiled hostility of the director’s questions unmuffled, all hearts racing on the same electric pulse charging the neon fireworks all around us.

There was more beer and wranglings and karaoke and then there was a few hours sleep in a hotel room with two members of the film crew and a poor girl who had been swept up in the whole thing and suddenly found herself without a train to ride home on or a bed for the night. Maybe if it had been Mick Jagger’s party we would have woken up to streams of cocaine dribbling off the busted frame of a ravaged table, but it was just four bleary mortals in a moderately messy hotel room.

The various grunts and career officers trickled down to the hotel lobby in twos and threes, all military banter and talking shop, a few girls hovering at the edges of the conversations. Oh, I thought absently, these are the groupies. And this time the thought did stick, and it made me ill. Last night they had just been curious folks like me, but this morning the talk had turned to departure times, layovers, Hawaiian tourdates and German shooting locations, and they were left adrift and ignored. I watched astonished as the director and crew who just last night had been haranguing against Japan’s hyper-consumerism compared the plunder from their shopping excursions that morning. They ooh-ed and aah-ed like pygmies in front of a radio as the producer showed them the two hundred dollar pair of limited edition Japanese-market only Adidas he had discovered.

Hotel clerks and baggage handlers were dispatched in curt, hungover voices. Roadies and band members boarded different buses for the airport, and I saw the documentary crew off in the chilly October air to a stream of goodbyes and promises of more translating work in post-production. I headed home to whip up a meal and wash up before work in the afternoon. The white men had left with their trophies, but I had to get back to living among the natives, selling my talents and living a quiet life.