Friday, July 06, 2007

(Two notes - this evil cafe-computer wont let me edit the title, and the formatter has gone wonky. Gah! I:m in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and I can:t get online! Second -For the record, the Kiwi Kit Kat was pretty good. It also has the added advantage of being fun to say. Kiwi Kit Kat Kiwi Kit Kat Kiwi Kit Kat - come on! Try it! For the hard core Kit Kat Fan, take a look at this guys photostream)

And now we return you to your regularly scheduled blather:

One of the absolute best things about travelling is that you immediately become an expert. For example, now, I can say I’ve been to Japan. When I meet you at a conference or a party, or perhaps on a sidewalk somewhere in the bad side of town where I’ve taken up selling Chiklettes and collecting aluminum cans, (note to self: Selling Chick-lit might be more profitable. Look into garish pink paperback covers) I’ll be able to say, “I’ve been to Japan.” You, gob-smacked by my worldliness, will be forced to accept every following word as gospel. That is unless you’ve also been there, in which case I will ask you if you might be interested in a slightly worn but well-loved copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

At least this is how I’ve seen it work elsewhere. In my experience of living in unfamiliar cultures, there are a few phases. In the first few days, there is a general sense of being overwhelmed. It usually depends on your natural outlook as to whether this means that you are happily overwhelmed or unhappily so.

Example - See if you can figure out which of the following two travelers is being happily overwhelmed:

“It’s so cool we found this little restaurant – we’ll never be able to find our way back here. I can’t believe how delicious this bizarre dish is! I’m not even sure I know what’s in it! Was that a fruit or something? I’ve got to get the waiter to write its name down so I can get it again.”

“You damned people don’t know shit! I said light foam! And they call this a Starbucks!”

The most fun phase, however, follows after the overwhelmed phase. It generally lasts from the end of week one to up to a year or so (or more if the traveler is particularly dense). This is the expert phase. You may notice that people who have lived abroad for a very long period of time rarely call themselves experts about the land or culture in which they live. They have become wise and know it is foolish to attempt. Those just freshly out of the overwhelmed phase know not such wisdom. They have figured ‘those foreign people’ out. They are the ones who tell you where the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ restaurants are and refuse to eat at lesser establishments. These are the people who roll their eyes at the tourists (they might do it twice if they think you didn’t see them the first time – it’s best to acknowledge the eye roll quickly, lest their eyerolling dislodge a contact)*

In the spirit of the expert phase, I mention that I have been in Japan for almost exactly one week. Gather around and I shall impart my expertise.

The Subway

Everything you’ve heard is true. Except that one thing. That was a misunderstanding. I swear it was all a misunderstanding. So, right. Almost everything you’ve heard is true. The Japanese subway is both a marvel and a monster.

I actually live on the border of Tokyo and Yokohama, so to get to my school, I travel about an hour by train/subway. So I’m an expert now.

The first day we tried out the subway, it was a weekend. Oh, we laughed. We transferred and missed trains and chatted in the cars. Ah, it was so long ago. I was so young and naïve. The subway is a different beast on the weekdays. On Monday, we boarded a 7:15ish car into downtown. Oh, for a muse of fire. The thing is that people apparently start getting on the subway in India at 10pm to get into Tokyo for a morning shift. That’s the only reason I can think of for the sheer mass of people. Like I said, I’m about an hour out of Tokyo, and when the train arrived at my station, it was already full. Now, I’m not saying that there weren’t any available seats –that’s a given at any time of day, as near as I can tell. I’m saying that there was no room for myself and the several others with me to get on the train. At all.

Luckily for us, we were at the front of the line to get on, and there were several hundred people behind us who I’m guessing missed the subway in Delhi, and were angry that they had to take a plane to get this far. In any case, they very helpfully shoved us in the backs hard and fast enough to prove conclusively that two solids can occupy the same physical space in the quantum subway car. So we did all get in, smashed together, trying to keep in one clump as the raging eddies of suit and tie threatened to whisk us off to who knows where. Finally the doors slid closed, shaving their way across the chest and face of the poor sap who was half-in half-out.

Then the real struggle began as it would pass every day for the rest of the week. Later I traveled by myself so I could get on the train earlier – that made it a little better, but not much, but it’s always the same. Once everyone gets their place, they need to arrange themselves. But of course nobody can move their body – only pieces, and only in small efforts. Legs shift out in hopeless attempts to lower centers of gravity. Hands stretch up to find that all the hand-holds were taken long ago. The truly amazing thing is that more people get on at every stop. There almost always seems to be a way for them to smash in.

As the train rumbles from station to station, the entire car of people pitch and sway together. Those lucky enough to hold straps or supports are silently tasked as the pillars of the crowd. The short or strapless have no recourse but to fall into the person next to them when the train jolts. It’s not really a fall though, more like a lean. Everyone is leaning on them too. It becomes a bit hypnotic after awhile. There’s the rhythmic light tap of the arm that’s bumping into your shoulder, the macro-view of the guy’s ear in front of you, and even the cool blast of conditioned air that does a nice job of blow-drying your hair. Many people close their eyes and some even nap. In general, no one speaks, no one even laughs nervously when shoved. There is something amazing about so much humanity everywhere around you. You are literally surrounded by people actively pressing against you, not in aggression, but simply as everyone is pressing and pressed. Personal space really doesn’t enter into it.

Finally, as the car gets past the first major stop that heralds Tokyo proper, there are people who leave. With a ‘’scuse me’ and a surprisingly forceful shove, someone from the middle of the train can cut through to the door in time and be spit out of the car before the doors close again. Eventually, a little room materializes.

First to appear from bags and pockets are the cell phones, then the video games and books. Then the newspapers. All without a sound. Everyone with the same expression, now texting away, or reading to themselves as if just five minutes ago they weren’t intimately connected, nose to neck and more. It’s a bit of an anticlimax at the end. You get out, and the mush of humanity rushes on.

There are a couple of rider-types that I’ll identify. In my capacity as expert, I am fully licensed to make broad generalizations and categorize people without remorse. You can make out a chart and bring it with you like you might on a birding trip.

Fauna of the Tokyo Subway:

Salaryman: These come in many shapes and sizes. Most often asleep for the entire trip but magically awake when it comes time to exit the train. When able, he (the female of the species is so-far undiscovered. More exploring is required) will expertly unroll a newspaper and fold it into a rectangle so that he can read it in the smallest area possible. Dark suit, white shirt, salt and pepper hair.

Salaryman –youth: Very similar to the standard Salaryman, but occasionally with more colorful plumage – still within the black to natural-brown range. The clothing will also occasionally be more colorful. A slightly less dark suit or a mildly pastel shirt is common. This version will often have a comic book rather than a newspaper. Do not be alarmed if this man’s comic book is covered with nearly nude women in bondage gear. Or completely nude women without bondage gear. Or perhaps with tentacles. While not entirely common, it has been witnessed by your guide more than once.

OL: A possible counter to the Salaryman is the ‘OL’ or ‘Office Lady.’ Your guide is not sure whether the name seems as slighting in Japanese as it seems to me in English, and isn’t entirely sure what position they hold in the cooperate structure, but in the subway, they are generally not elegant, but seem expensively dressed, and never seem to be over about 35. Perhaps it is a pre-marriage thing? Beware of pointy tall heels.

Students: the youth of the subway wear school uniforms during the week. Blue skirts and white blouses and sometimes sweaters (!?) for the women and blue slacks and white button-downs for the lads. As with any uniform, the key to differentiating the individuals is in the subtle details. The young lady out to make herself unique might load her cellphone down with 90kg of dangling cute things. The young man out to look like a boy-band version of a thug might unbutton his shirt down to his navel and show off his skeletal chest. Sek-say.

*The expert phasers are not to be confused with those ‘gone native’ who, although it is perhaps counterintuitive, are a subcategory of tourist even though they may live there for decades. They are actually categorized in this way only in order to piss them off. These people actually do everything they can to become a local and renounce their homeland. While patently absurd and absolutely impossible, it’s fun to watch them make fools of themselves. If American, they have a particular hatred for McDonald’s, Hollywood and often Coca-Cola, for example (it’s fun to point out the paradox that many locals truly enjoy a Coke at McDonald’s after a Hollywood blockbuster). They also very often identify themselves with a certain narrow cultural group of the local population, claiming that they and said group are more ‘local’ than most of those others actually born in the area. Examples range from the Pseudo-French Art Snob, the False-Mexican Teotihuacan, the Wannabe-Russian Communist and the Ersatz-Japanese Otaku. They are universally mocked.


jayfish said...

excellent observations! wish i were there even more!

liane said...

first time I've made it over to your written blog! observation #1-- I love that "wonky" is in your vocabulary, I don't know too many other people who make appropriate use of the wonderful word! #2--love the observations and notes, you had me laughing all the way through!

mendi-la said...

i enjoy reading about your experiences but am glad I'm not there :) I don't think i could handle the crush of humanity - i think i might pass out - although many other things like the food interest me a great deal. keep writing...let us know if you get to try other kit kats - eldest niece thinks that strawberry would be good.

Overread said...

Glad to have you visit Liane! I am a big fan of wonkiness. From its humble beginnings when use to describe George Stephonapoulus to its modern incarnations, I like to think of it as a dear friend :)

Oh, and Mendi-la, there is a Strawberry version, I think. I shall hunt it down and report!