Back to my future


On January 15, 1987, a day engraved in my memory, I first came to Japan. In those days that was the day of the Adult Day ceremony, when women who were 21 donned elaborate furi-sode kimonos and filled the stations and streets with stunning beauty.

I thought it was everyday wear …

That night the snow fell and I awoke, jet-lagged, and walked the streets of Kichijoji amidst the early morning smells of grilled fish and miso soup wafting through the windows. Those things and the blanket of snow that covered Inokashira Park changed my life forever.

Three decades later things the Showa emperor was dead and his son was now on the verge of abdication. The airplane’s toilets, though, were still tiny and cramped. Perhaps the food was better but perhaps it wasn’t because I still haven’t gotten over the luxury of flying, in any class, to notice or care about in-flight amenities.

But the thrill was gone. The mystery was gone. My youth and innocence and excitement were gone, I expected no surprises or adventures, no mysterious language, no fear, no wonder. I was just another old dude on an airplane going to visit his wife’s family in Japan.

Despite the iPhone plug-in and the seatback videos, I busied myself with a couple of books, paper ones, and made notes, also on paper, with a pen. The grown man next to me immersed himself in cartoons and cheap red wine. And no one was smoking …

I’m thirty years older, twenty pounds fatter, countlesss eyeglass prescriptions blinder, my brother is dead, my immortal brother, my father is in his eighty-first year, and the people I’m going to visit, strangers then, are old family now, not least of whom is my wife’s grandmother, who is also a great-grandmother, and now at 100 years is a great-great-grandmother.

I gnaw at the old bone hoping for a taste of marrow, knowing it isn’t there, but hoping for at least a scent, however faint, of what was, even though the Narita we’re landing at is no longer set in an ocean of rice fields, and is no longer surrounded by armed guards fearing a terrorist attack by farmers whose land was confiscated to make the runway. Confiscation is now the order of things, especially the democracies in name only, like theirs, like ours.

But people still farted on planes and babies howled on and off for eleven hours straight and flight attendants looked bored and vaguely angry at those of us in steerage and though Japan was no longer a haven for draft dodgers it was still a refuge for those who had come in the 80’s to the new Paris and instead of coming home with Picasso and Stein and Hemingway they returned with sushi and ceramics and wives and Hello Kitty. We created no literature or art and brought to Japaan instead poorly taught English to marginally willing learners.

I sat in my seat, 36F, reading a stunned post-election New Yorker and an enraged Economist; in 1987 I read neither and spent the time instead immersed in Eleanor Harz Jorden’s  “Beginning Japanese,” which for me might as well have been ending Japanese, too.

Time hadn’t changed its propensity to crawl inside an airplane cabin. Five hours to go was five thousand or five billion. United no longer even pretended that people read; the seaatback pockets had an emergency manual and a Duty Free catalogue. All you needed to do was survive and shop, and even the catalogue was an anachronism–the man next to me had brought his own customized shopping catalogue of nothing but shoes, and happily killed hours gazing at them.

Then I had graduated from college with three years of Chinese; our textbook was the old green Pratical Chinese Reader published by the Communists. Now I was still on Book 3, though the PCR had been updated, glosssified, CD-ified, and pricified as you’d expect from the New China. I wondered if Trump would be renotiating that deal, too, replacing it with good old-fashioned Rust Belt know-how about Chinese grammar. If nothing else it proved I really was moving in place.

I killed an hour by the toilets talking with an “Asia hand” in his 60s who spent half the year in various Asian countries. He had fifteen whole years under his belt and bragged about being able to speak bits of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Japanese, and Spanish. “I love foreign cultures and have devoted my life to it. It’s really important to know other languages when you visit a country for the hookers.”

America …

In the immigration line the same people tried to cut the queue and the entry permit cards hadn’t changed. The same immigration officers looked dreadfully bored in the same tiny cubicles but they were efficiently bored, at least.

We reached my in-laws’ home at 9:00 PM. A wonderful home-cooked meal awaited. We hadn’t seen each other in five years and it was good to be back. The same kotatsu, the same soft futon, the same tatami floors, and the same deep, hot bath to wash the miles away.

Just like it had always been.



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