Monday, May 31, 2004
In Malaysia, I met a man who sold toy mice. The mice were made out of foam, with a rubber-band-sprung plastic spool underneath. The spool had an offset axle, and around it was wound a string that went out through the back of the mouse. When you pulled the string, the wheel underneath would turn, and since the axle was off-center, the mouse would wobble as it scurried. It had a long tail that shook as the mouse scurried.
The man Assiz said that he made them by hand, and that between 10 in the evening one day and 5 in the evening the next, he could make 100 of them.
"You're crazy." I said.
"Oh, it's okay." he replied.
I bought one.
A few days later, I decided to buy a lot. They were so cleverly made. They would be great gifts. As I headed out the hotel, I ran into three other people who were also at the conference I was attending. They had seen the mice before, but hadn't stopped to play with them, and they wanted to come with me.
The mousemaker had a big smile on his face when he recognized me. (I was smiling equally big.) I brought my friends, I said. He said "Yes, tell them to try it," holding out a mouse.
As they played with the mouse, I asked the mouse maker about how long he had been making them.
"Fourteen? One, four?"
"Yes. Before that, I had a government job, but I stopped that, and I knew how to make these, so I thought I can try it. And I got better."
"Wow. They're very well made."
"Yes, and you know, people come from everywhere and buy them." he added.
"Yes, there are hundreds of people all over the world who play with your mice."
I bought six mice from him, for which he gave me a discount, and then had one of my conference-mates take a picture of me with him. "Thank you." he smiled, with his hand on my shoulder.
Those toy mice, I forgot them on the airplane, and they were never turned in to the lost-and-found. The feeling of loss hung with me for awhile, because I really wanted to share them with other people. But, the act of buying them was good by itself. It made Assiz happy, and it was fun for my conference-mates as well.
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
I feel funny. Two days of being mostly an observer in KL and also doing it on limited sleep has made me feel lonely. Gotta change that tomorrow. sleep sleep sleep.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
I spent the day walking around Kuala Lumpur. The food was one of the best parts. From a restaurant, I had coconut water from a coconut, and seafood mee goreng. From food stands, I had black jelly drink, fried fish chips, and the best shrimp noodles I’ve ever had.
At the restaurant, the waitress was watching me. I noticed her staring at me, and when I would look up at her, she would be watching me. At breakfast, too, my waitress looked me in the eye. These short glimpses. They were some of the best moments of my day.
Walking around today I saw beautiful bright fabrics with flower patters displayed in front of stores. There were sarongs and hoods in bold colors that caught the eye and bid one to look. If I had a girlfriend, I would buy her these beautiful things.
There’s new stuff going up all around. Cranes everywhere. Yet there are signs of neglect – cracks in the sidewalk, a still fountain with murky water, trash along the streets in places. Malaysia, unlike Japan, doesn’t have all of its rough corners evened out yet. It is, however, said a man I met on the monorail, cleaner than Manila.
I passed by an Indian temple. I passed by people selling things laid out on narrow alleyways. I passed by the shops where people sold beautiful cloth. I bought shrimp noodle soup from a hawker stand run by a mother and her son and daughter. I wonder what these people think of their lives. I wonder what worries them and what gives them joy.
When I wrote Mel telling her that I was going to be in KL, she wrote back a long email telling me about things to see, eat, and do. She told me to try Durian. She really likes Durian. So I bought Durian. I wouldn't have bought it if she hadn't told me, because it has a rather odd smell. But the creamy texture of it is rather endearing. It's not really a refreshing fruit, like I usually imagine fruit to be. It's an interesting fruit, though. I remember when I didn't like bittermelon, but how at some point, I liked it. Durian must be an acquired taste.
People are often like Durians. You're put off by them at first until you dig up their hidden good qualities.
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Well, on second thought - maybe I wasn't entirely fair to ZQ on our last date. I was feeling kind of rotten then anyway. And, I suppose she was working pretty hard to answer my questions about her.
As I look out the window at the sun setting over the Kuala Lumpur skyscape from the 21st floor of my hotel, I thank providence that I am such a lucky bastard. My company has sent me here for a week of training, and I have arrived a day early. Tomorrow, I have an entire day to adventure.
At the airport passport checkpoint today, leaving Narita, I helped out a French family who was trying to figure out what line to be in. The sign said "immigration." Having studied French, I can't tell you for certain whether English makes this distinction, but to a French person, "immigration" means entering a country, and "emigration" means leaving a country. They were trying to figure out why certain lines seemed to be designated for people entering the country.
I explained to him that it was a misspelling, that the Japanese part of the sign definitely said "emigration." From then, we started talking about how I had learned French, about their vacation in Japan, about places in China they had visited. He gave me postcards of tourist spots in and around Paris. He kept saying "Le
Tour Eiffel!" with each postcard he handed me. "C'est le Tour Eiffel." I wonder if this was why he had brought postcards with him to Japan, so that he could give a piece of his country to people he met. I said. "Vous aimez le Tour Eiffel." (You like the Eiffel Tower.) I was sorry I said it, because I think it dampened his enthusiasm for speaking to me. The conversation shifted to one of the women in the group. I am glad to have been able to help them - and it was great to be able to dust off my French. I did feel sorry for making the slightly snide comment I should have tried to apologize. (Je vous prie de me pardonnez, monsieur...)
I met an astoundingly fun man aboard the plane. I still do not know his name. I hope he writes me. I gave him my card. I hope we keep in contact. He's on a trip to Malaysia by himself. He doesn't speak any English, but he's going to a place where there are few Japanese speakers. I admire that. Somehow, we hit it off very well. We spent nearly the entire trip here talking on the plane. He's awesome with people - he remembers details, he notices traits, he thinks interesting things. At breakfast, he remarked about the onigiri that he wondered if people knew how to open it properly. (Onigiri is a bundle of rice wrapped in dried seaweed. To keep the dried seaweed fresh, it's packaged with a layer of plastic separating it from the rice. There's something of a trick to opening it.) What was funny was that the white guy sitting in front of us went straight for the sandwich.
At times I am lonely. The only hope of fighting off this loneliness is to connect with people. We were able to connect and find humor in serious things - his living apart with his wife, my breakup with Karen, the Japanese prisoners in Iraq. As well as downright funny things, like the onigiri, or the way sending email by cellphone has become a social phenomenon.
My main concern when I came to Japan was whether I would be able to keep my good spirit, whether I would be able to smile at the touches of humanity that occur throughout a day, whether I would still be able to laugh at my problems, whether I would be able to stave off lonliness.
Japan. Asia. Far away from my old familiar friends, far from my mother language, far from the foods I am accustomed to eating, far from material things that I might have clinged to for happiness. Every day, to be happy, I am pushed into trying to figure out what is really valuable to me.
I knew two people at college who had moved frequently. Philip and Lewis. They are two of the coolest people I know. I used to wonder why. Now I think I know. Moving frequently, they have been forced to think about what's valuable to them - the bonds of friendship that bind the myriad people of the world together. They are honest. They make the people around them happy. They are confident of themselves.
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
I'm afraid I was disappointed yesterday with a date that I went on. She never reciprocated any questions I asked her, and didn't offer up much information besides what I asked her about. Different communication strategies, I guess. I'm disappointed, because our first few meetings seemed to go so well.
Well, whatever. I am, however, very happy that she asked me to a sumo game last Saturday. Did you know that there are 83 different ways to win at sumo? You can slam a person to the ground as he's charging at you. You can step to the side and use his weight to pull him out of the ring. You can push him out of the ring. It was very fun to watch - more interesting in person than on TV.
Friday, May 14, 2004
Overheard from the cubicle next to me: "So, you're question is whether we should have a big lunch, or a lunch with small people?"
Does he mean he usually eats big people for lunch? Gotta watch those adjective placements.
So, two weeks ago when I gave a presentation, I was a deer in headlights. I just gave a presentation on the same material this time, and it was great. It rocked. And, it was so much fun to give it in front of my sales team, because they asked questions about stuff they didn't know about, or that I didn't clearly explain. AND: I did it in Japanese. I walked away from that presentation with the happiness that I had taught my fellow co-workers some things they didn't know about the products that they sell. My manager Y-san has decided that we'll do presentations on a rotating basis. One person per week, about the products that he covers, so that we can all learn from each other. This was truly the highlight of my workweek. While in English I can almost wing a presentation, I have to plan a lot more in Japanese. A few years here will make me more rigorous in my habits, and make things in English a piece of cake.
An old friend of mine from the states, AG, has moved in with me. He worked as a computer programmer on a rather uninteresting project in Nara for eight months before he decided to quit his job. Now he's living with me for a month or two, and he spends all his free time meeting people and reading.
He's met some odd people.
There was one particular girl who he'd met on an internet bulletin board, and when they went out to coffee, he learned that he was one of the nine out of 200 people that the girl had corresponded with on the internet in the past 4 months, and that she's been studying English for some 5 hours a day. She was corresponding with people in English because she had done a study-abroad program in Australia, and that made her want very badly to express herself in English. Thing is, she say's things like "I'm disinclined to walk in Roppongi in the evening." Ari said that she seemed a little disappointed when he pointed out that it wasn't exactly natural usage. But isn't that awesome? She uses the word "disinclined!"
I imagine that I sound the same when I speak Japanese, though. There's a strong temptation to take Chinese words, pronounce the characters according to the Japanese, and see if the other person understands. Doing so makes you sound really highfalutin, much like the more complicated words in English come from French. So, I end up with lopsided Japanese: Basic vocabulary and advanced vocabulary, but missing some intermediate stuff in addition to some grammatical glue.
Sunday, May 09, 2004
Once there was a Japanese writer who wrote that he realized that it was possible to go through an entire day without speaking a word to anyone. One could go to work, through a mechanical ticket gate at the station, do hours of paperwork alone at one's desk, eat lunch by oneself, even buy cigarettes from the vending machine. In this huge city, it is possible to be reduced to a cog in a wheel.
Yet, the skyscrapers and vast miles of concrete are built with the purpose of allowing 8.5 million individuals to coexist. Tokyo is a city of interrelated networks of 8.5 million individuals with unique personlities, that hail from diverse backgrounds. If you can tap into this vast pool of people, then contrary to being a lonely place, it can be one of the most hospitable places in the world. This has, so far, been my good fortune.
Saturday, May 08, 2004
This city amazes me with all it's people. My job here will be to sell things to Japanese customers. Customers that are here because there people for them to sell their products to, and those people are here because they are able to earn a living by providing services for other people. This city is a huge network of people.
A friend of mine told me that in Roppongi Hills recently, there was an accident involving a child in an automatic revolving door. The child got caught in the door. He was too small to trigger the stop sensor. He died. But there were other accidents before, that didn't result in anyone doing anything about the door. Our decisions matter.