Starring H. as Herself May 17, 2004Posted by LHK in Japan.
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I’ve got a co-worker, Grant, who once told me that whenever I talk, I sound like I’m presenting something on TV. A documentary about the food served during the last days of Napoleon’s reign, perhaps. Or a sales pitch for a car air freshener (“now available in coriander!”). I was telling him about Tokyo Disneyland’s Space Mountain at the time, and I was saying, “You hear about Space Mountain, and you go in with certain conceptions of it, you know….” And he stopped me and informed me that I needed to go on TV. It’s okay; it was good-natured. He’s from England and he’s pizza-faced and we discuss The Office and Neutral Milk Hotel and Leonard Nimoy’s short-lived recording career when we’re in the staff room together. And he is perceptive: because, too often, I feel like I’m trying to sell people on my alleged wit and cleverness, and trying to sell myself on it as well. I don’t believe it’s there, and that it’s mine. So I have to keep showing it, displaying it, putting on a show of light comedy for whoever’s around to listen. I think work has done this to me, too. There’s a part of teaching small groups that I didn’t count on, and that’s convincing people of your Sparkling Personality before getting into the nitty-gritty of English grammar and conversation. The students have to want you as a person before they want to learn from you. My co-workers and I go about overcoming this in different ways. For me, it’s just a big hello and a “how’s it going?” (I am surprised how many students are baffled at “how’s it going?” A lot of them respond as if I just asked them what they’re doing that day: “How’s it going?” “I went to the supermarket”) and then asking the students questions about themselves. For Craig, it’s long stories about being in the Marines and overenthusiastic talk about “working for the Chicago Cubs” (i.e. serving beer outside Wrigley Field). For Grant, it’s a truly fascinating series of facial dynamics and comedic voices.
But Adam’s here right now. And when he’s around, I’m not performing. I can stutter and stammer over what I see on CNN on the TV in the hotel room in Kyoto, and I don’t feel like I’ve ruined my point by having to shake my head and look down and say, “No, no, sorry, that’s not what I meant at all… I don’t know what I mean.” And I have not failed just because I don’t have the perfect pithy phrase to relate my feelings on Rumsfeld or the prison abuse scandal or the Japanese pension bill or just how much I want to see Troy. It is okay. We are quiet together, walking through the Kyoto streets trying to find a suitable restaurant for my Japan-unfriendly tastes, and he doesn’t bother me with questions, just walks behind and lets me root out a Shakey’s Pizza lunch buffet in the mess of tonkatsu ramen and fried fish.
I forgot how it was to sleep beside someone, and so did he, but it merits a little smile every time I have to shove a wayward elbow out of my face at 5:30 in the morning.
So, you hear about Kyoto, Japan, and you go in with certain conceptions of it, which don’t generally include sitting outside a nine-story art deco train station and vomiting the remains of a Convenience Store Egg Sandwich of Death into a planter while 250 junior high choir boys in identical outfits sit on the concrete ten meters away and watch as your stupid hungover American self gets sticky-haired on the afternoon of her 24th birthday. We went there without room reservations, thinking we’d just head to one of the hostels mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. But as we got off the shinkansen, we both knew I was in no condition to go trekking to unknown hostels with our bags. So Adam left me at the station with the hordes of schoolkids there for a choir convention, and he headed to all the hotels in the station area, trying to get us a room. He returned with a reservation at the 4-star hotel above Kyoto Station. So this was the rest of my birthday: elevator operators and classical music in hallways, a long nap under a down comforter, the most technologically advanced toilet in Kyoto, the Japanese take on tomato-basil spaghetti, and birthday beignets and an iced mocha at the Kyoto branch of Cafe du Monde. I never would have imagined any of it, but it seemed in keeping with the way I’ve spent my twenties so far. Why not usher in my mid-twenties with a combination of the icky, the luxurious, and the offbeat?
I want to tell you more about Kyoto — temples and shrines and torrential downpours and trying to escape the schoolkids before they asked “can I speak English to you?” and walking tours with a kindly little man named Johnnie Hillwalker who took us to home factories and bought us vegetarian sushi. But it’s a pretty grand morning, and it’s Adam’s last full day in Japan, so we’re heading out to Asakusa to take the cruise up the Sumida River. Later.