Thursday, November 29, 2007

Before, During, After: My family comes to Japan, fails to see how Japan comes on me

I’m not the best at traveling, and I don’t think Colin is either. We show up somewhere last minute, without a plan, and because we don’t get our act together in time, we end up only being able to see or do about two things before it’s time to move on. We’re not usually the lucky people who happen to stumble upon something amazing. We’re more likely to narrowly miss something amazing because we’re too busy occupying ourselves with something not amazing, like getting out the door or learning the public transportation system. So when my mom and sisters said they would visit me in Japan, I vowed to get my shit together and show them a good time, so they could love Japan as much as I sort of do. Minus the complicated relationship, of course.

Before: For weeks the ideas were floating in my head at all times. Where I would take them. Where we would eat. What they could eat. What classes I could take them to. Where they could go while I worked and who would take care of them. And where they would stay.

Itineraries were beginning to solidify in my mind, but key factors were missing. If we would stay around the Saga-Fukuoka area, or try to go somewhere more relevant. The exact days we would return from our excursions. How I could work out meeting with all the friends and co-workers they needed to meet. And once again, where they would stay.

I’ll spare you the details and say that coordinating sightseeing in various parts of the prefecture with everyone else’s schedules was fucking difficult. One thing I didn’t expect to be so fucking difficult was accommodation. Two different nights spent in Fukuoka city, which has hundreds of cheap hotels, and about five or six nights in the Shi-town area. Luckily, Shi-town has one ryokan, or Japanese-style inn. It seemed relatively clean, in need of business, and was within walking distance.

There ended up being problems with both of these places. A huge sumo competition in Fukuoka city left only a scattered few rooms throughout the city unbooked. And I’ll tell you about the ryokan.

Weeks before, everyone was interested in where my family would stay. My boss suggested cities that are forty-five minutes from where I live and not on a train-line. When I told her I’d like them to stay in Shi-town, she said, “There is nowhere.” The one family I teach for in Shi-town mentioned the two ryokan in the area when I told them proximity was the most important thing, but also suggested places that were forty-five minutes from where I live and longer from where I work. When I eventually told the mother of that family I had pretty much decided on the one Shi-town ryokan if it all turned out okay, she said, “[But it is very old. There are Japanese style rooms and futon.]”

With the unhelpful suggestions everyone was giving me, I had the idea that if this place didn’t work out, there was NOWHERE. I planned for a long time to go there myself, learn the rates and details, and if it all worked out, make a reservation. I kept putting off doing this, because it was, after all, someone’s private residence and I had no idea when it would be okay for me to just show up. I started thinking about how shocking it might be for the people living there to unexpectedly encounter an enormous foreigner so deep in the country whose honorific speech isn’t so great. I started thinking about how when I asked a Japanese friend of mine to make a dinner reservation at a Shi-town restaurant for Colin’s family, they required quite a bit of convincing because “they can’t speak English.” I thought about how I really needed this ryokan.

So I found the number and asked my lovely Japanese housewife friend to call for me. She could explain my situation with minimal shock to the country ryokan people, and use all the correct honorifics and social graces. I explained to her that they might be nervous or surprised and need convincing (“[Really?]”), but if my family couldn’t stay there, I wasn’t sure where they could. I was assured that she would give it her all.

She did. The next day, she produced a paper of what appeared to be notes and bulleted points she had made during the phone conversation, and told me with a casual tone, “[As we suspected, only Japanese people can stay there.]” Before I could react, she began reading her bulleted points, “[The landlady said that there are many differences from American hotels. There are Japanese style rooms with tatami, there is one entrance, and there are shared bathrooms.]” I stared at her, perplexed, as she was just describing common features of ryokan, which I’ve stayed in on several occasions. I expected these ryokan people to be naïve or confused, but I was shocked that they would actually turn down my business. I muttered some things in English about the same discrimination being illegal in the U.S., to which my friend replied, stone-faced, “Yes.”

Basically, I was appalled and saddened, and it probably showed all over my face. I felt like my friend didn’t realize what a big deal this was, but later she revealed the details of the conversation and said that she too was very uneasy. In America, the proper way of sharing such bad news among friends is to approach it like, “You wouldn’t believe what this bitch said!” Perhaps stony neutrality is more of the norm here.

She told me the landlady’s exact words were, “Koko wa genzokuteki ni gaikoku no hou ga kotowatte imasu.” (Generally, we decline foreigners here.)
When my friend said, “Nihonjin shika tomenai to iu koto desuka?” (Are you saying that only Japanese people can stay there?), the landlady’s answer was “Hai, soudesu.” (yes, that’s right.)

I’ve lived here for nearly a year and a half, and I should have been prepared. I’ve heard of these things happening, but I didn’t suspect it would happen in my own little town. It affected me more than I thought it would. Maybe it’s my American sense of entitlement. Maybe I could have brushed it off had I grown up a minority in America, knowing that even though illegal or unethical, such injustices do just happen.

My plan was to tell everyone I knew to try and ostracize them within my small town (I’m friends with a Shi-town hairdresser), and to open up dialogue with all the Japanese people who think it’s perfectly okay to reject people on the basis of their race or nationality because they aren’t used to sleeping on futon. However, my plans were thwarted. After hearing the news, I spent the next few hours with the internet trying desperately to find somewhere else my family could stay before returning to work. As soon as I entered the office before my class, my boss said to me, “The Kita mother called to me. She say ryokan is not bad. They have guest now, so your family cannot stay.”

The Kita mother she was speaking of was the mother of my Shi-town family. A family that was always so incredibly kind and hospitable and genuinely excited to meet my mother and sisters. A family I had looked forward to telling about the awful ryokan woman and have them be on my side. So I got angry with this obvious lie, that my boss was participating in. My emotion wasn’t as controlled as it should have been when I replied to her bad English with my bad Japanese.

“[If that’s true, why did lady say only Japanese people can stay there? Guests are already inside, that is easier.]”

My student waiting for class to begin looked up. Yoshiko continued in English, “There is construction. It is dirty. Construction peoples are stay now in house.”

And I continued in Japanese: “[Lady said ‘no foreigners can stay here.’ That is difficult to say, I think. Probably, when she realized her mistake, she make a new story.]”

I can’t remember how this ended. I’m sure it was with one of Yoshiko’s attempts at non-confrontation, and her private chagrin that half of that conversation was in words my student could understand. To her credit and to that of my housewife friend, that day they got very involved in looking for other places for my family to stay. And I’m sure it involved a whole lot of secret conversations about me between god knows how many parties.

I had wanted at least those close to me to sympathize with me, but instead it seemed like they were being conspiratorial, covering for inexcusable behavior. I remembered them suggesting the most touristy, western places for my family to stay, that would have been inconvenient for me. It felt like they were trying to decide for us what parts of Japan westerners could or couldn’t have access to. What needed to be protected from us. It gnawed at me at all times. I felt betrayed, I was irritable and wary of every supposedly friendly person I saw. I was feeling so negative about the place I lived, I was in no condition to try and sell its finer points to my family.

On top of that, I still had a lot of shit to do, related to work and other preparation for the impending arrival. I was so busy, I wasn’t going into the office as much as I should have been to clean and appear busy in front of people. So I felt incredibly guilty, then angry with my guilt, then guilty again. And I made a decision. So as not to color their opinion of Japan, I wouldn’t tell my family about this until after they had left.

To be continued next time: During and After