Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Different Animal

It had been two days since I deplaned at the Eastern Iowa Airport, but it seemed longer. It had been a dizzying time spent doing errands in cars that drive on the opposite side of the street, make right turns on red, and don’t stop at railroad crossings unless the lights are flashing. My sister, Mandi, had been talking about a new karaoke bar she liked to go to that was small with few customers, so she and her friends could sing as much as they wanted. As we pulled up to the little bar by the carwash, Mandi assured me that the people were friendly and it wasn’t an intimidating environment at all. As soon as we walked through the door, my body tensed as the patrons (who were more numerous than I expected) turned to look at us. I felt immediately out of place, among these people who were so much bigger and louder than I was used to, many of them with tattoos and some even with mullets. This was no place to sing ABBA.

“I’m scared, Mandi, I’m scared, oh my god,” I said under my breath.

“Why?” she asked, and she genuinely didn’t know. I’d been away from Iowa bars for too long, I guess.

I insisted we go straight to the bar. Mandi ordered vodka cranberry, and I hesitated momentarily to stop myself from blurting out nama or the translation, raw beer. I found the right words and ordered an Amber Bock from the tap. Then the woman asked us, “Mug or shell?”

Mandi and I both looked at each other and repeated, “Shell?” The bartender looked at us suspiciously and showed us an example of a shell, which was just a regular glass as opposed to a frosty mug. I opted for the mug, and she asked to see our IDs. Mandi produced hers quickly and I fumbled through my wallet to find that only my Japanese driver’s license was immediately available. I searched through the different pockets and compartments of my wallet, thumbing through my expired Japanese insurance card, membership cards to various Japanese establishments, and more relevant cards I hadn’t thought of in years. My face became hot as the third full minute of me rooting around my purse and wallet passed, and I considered that I might not actually have my American driver’s license. I finally found it in a hidden pocket, and triumphantly showed the bartender. Who studied it for a really long time. Then showed it to another woman sitting at the bar to evaluate. Eventually, my perfectly normal ID passed the test, because they gave me my beer. Obviously, it had been a long time since I’d been carded.

My embarrassment over the ID incident quickly gave way to giddiness when I realized my beer only cost $2.25! In Japan, they always cost five dollars or more. Later I bought a PITCHER for five dollars and I nearly exploded. When even premium draught beer is so cheap, I don’t understand why literally everyone in the bar with beer was drinking bottles of Bud Light. Bottles are more expensive and not as good as from the tap. It must be an American example of groupthink.

Anyway, there were a few people singing, mostly the DJs, I learned. But we got a few drinks in us and looked for a karaoke book, which turned out to be the karaoke book, because there was only one for the entire bar. We retrieved it from a table of butch lesbians and flipped through. A couple of Mandi’s friends joined us, but they didn’t want to sing. I think karaoke in Japan is best done while drunk with a small to medium sized group of friends. They should be musically compatible with you—similar taste but not completely the same because you need diversity to keep things interesting. There are variables that can affect the experience. For example, someone who really likes Creed can set a strange vibe. Along similar lines, if I’m karaoke-ing with someone I just met or don’t know very well, I try to be supportive of their song choices and act like I’m listening and enjoying their turns even if I actually think they have horrible taste. If you’re with a group that’s too big, everyone fights over the limited remotes to enter their songs, you have to wait forever for your one song to come up, and generally everyone is either waiting for their song or focusing on entering one rather than listening to the people singing. Some people are karaoke selfish, and enter a ton of their own songs while less assertive members of the party barely get to sing at all. There are many things that can set a karaoke session on a good or bad course, but the thing about Japanese karaoke is that it’s hardly about performance. It’s more about nostalgia and identification, as everyone in the room may end up singing over the person with the mike if a good song comes up. Sure, people still judge you if you’re amazing or terrible, but when you’re with mostly friends, the stakes are pretty low. If the heart of karaoke is nostalgia, it’s important for the majority of the group to be nostalgic about the same songs.

Back at the American karaoke bar, people were singing mostly a mix of country and classic rock, and I found myself bobbing my head and pretending to listen in order to appear supportive of the singers. I often either didn’t like or didn’t know the songs (especially if it was country), but it was my Japanese karaoke etiquette taking over. Eventually I loosened up and stopped feeling the need to pay attention to strangers’ songs if more pressing things came up involving getting more drinks or talking to people at my own table. The fact that three people were completely monopolizing the queue was a big help, though. I leaned in and told Mandi that those people were singing way more than was good etiquette even for a medium karaoke room in Japan, let alone a whole bar. When she finally made it through the queue of song-hogs, Mandi sang some of her old standards, or number 18s if you want to be Japanese about it. I gave the DJ my fake name, Margot, and for some reason I chose the vocally challenging “Take on Me”. I didn’t totally bomb it, but apparently the crowd wasn’t that into ‘80s synthpop. Oh well.

At one point, a guy used the instrumental break of one of his songs as an opportunity to shout “Fuck Bush!” into the microphone, which was met with cheers and raised Bud Lights from the crowd. Things have really changed in America since I was here last. Anyway, one good thing about karaoke in America is that there’s a much better selection of English language songs, including Bizmarkie’s “Just a Friend”, which I sang after a lot of liquor. Even if American karaoke involves more performance and judgment, the nostalgia and identification element is still huge. The final song should be something that everyone can get into, so back in Japan we often chose something like “Come on Eileen” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The DJs chose the scream-rock song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor”. They got on top of the bar and made a big performance of it, while other bar-goers enthusiastically pumped their fists with them. And once again I felt so alienated.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Fuck yeah!

My dad gave me this pen upon arriving in the airport in my hometown. Apparently, they sell them at his hospital. It features independently punching fists, and when you write lights sparkle at the base. As for the actual pen function of the pen, just like 5.7 percent of America, it doesn’t work. Welcome back.

On the way back from the airport, my mom took me on a brief flood tour. She mainly showed me the damage that was immediately visible on the way home, and took a side trip through Czech Village, driving ten miles an hour and drifting all over the road while she excitedly gestured toward the house that’s side had completely collapsed revealing the inside of the first and second floors. It was somewhat surreal seeing these houses and businesses I’d become used to with junk and damaged furniture piled out front, a brown line along the siding marking the river’s high point, and a colored sticker marking its level of inhabitability.

Now that it’s been two weeks, I’m getting better at the little instances of culture shock. At first I was always giggling at people around me being tall, or people in service positions being sassy. I was tripping over myself at simple social interactions, like when I entered someone’s house I had to remember not to translate “Ojamashimasu” and slip out of my shoes. Leave the bathroom door open. You don’t have to toast, you can just start drinking, and there’s no need to say anything before or after eating. There are lots of instances where these ritualistic expressions are not only useful, but reflexive for me, and I have to swallow them before they come out, replacing it with an awkward silence. A social hiccup. I’m so used to a single phrase, “otsukaresamadesu” being an appropriate conclusion to any evening, and instead I’ve replaced it with the always socially inappropriate nothing. I hope no one’s noticed too much. The first few days when I was driving around with my mom, I kept jumping whenever I saw a pedestrian or a person on a bicycle because they weren’t Asian. For a while, it seemed like people were yelling all the time, and every business establishment I went into was freezing. Central air is crazy, man. I used to wonder how America was the biggest consumer of energy by a million percent or whatever, but now I can see that it might be because everyone insists on keeping the malls air conditioned down to forty degrees during the hottest part of summer. When I was eating at an Asian fusion restaurant with some friends, they mentioned how the disposable chopsticks were wasteful. We talked about the concept of “my-hashi” (bringing your own non-disposable set of chopsticks) in Japan, and how it was most prevalent among foreigners. They were surprised that the Japanese would thoughtlessly waste so many sets of chopsticks. Mind you, we were sitting in a restaurant in which I was currently freezing my ass off. I explained that it was probably something they’d become so used to in their daily lives that they didn’t even think about it, just like America and it’s central air conditioning.

Oh, and Colin came back a couple days ago, and yesterday we both bowed to a car that slowed down for us to cross the street.

All the while, there’s the undertone of destruction that the flood brought. Strangers talk with each other about what they’ve lost, but we’ve been comparatively lucky. My mom owns a duplex downtown that was flooded—thankfully, my sister had moved out of the first floor before it happened. I went with her for just one day to help. Around the neighborhood, people were piling their debris on the curb and washing their siding. There were lots of notices that had been delivered to each individual house from the city about what they had to do to get their houses up to code. We had to wear special rubber boots and face masks to work there because apparently the mold was kind of dangerous. The first floor windows were broken, and I barely recognized the inside. We worked for a couple hours stripping the walls and hauling buckets of plaster chunks and nails to the curb.

The actual houses my family reside in were nowhere near the floodplain, but apparently my mom’s basement became immersed in about two feet of rain water. This is where we’d kept all the photographs and family keepsakes, not to mention everything I’d asked my mom to store while I was in Japan. They managed to salvage a lot, but it’s really strange. Walking around my mom’s house, I’ll suddenly see my diary from when I was a teenager spread open with paper towels between each crinkled leaf, my own tense cursive bleeding across the page, or water-damaged and thoroughly embarrassing personal letters from friends. Suddenly I turn into a petulant teenager again, snatching these things up and demanding to know, “Who read this?” I find warped pictures I never wanted parents to see. Off-colored birthday gifts that lived in my drawer until water expunged them from the basement.

It’s my embarrassing personal history laid out to dry, and I try to snatch up these pieces of evidence and hide them away, but find that there’s nowhere for me to put them. I don’t live here, never have, and there’s hardly even space for me among this life already partially made by others and filled with too many damn dogs. So I guess the new phase of this journal is finding some place to be. In September, we’re moving to Minneapolis, and tomorrow I’m off to Las Vegas, or as I like to call it “lost wages”. Next time I’ll tell you about my recent experience with karaoke in America. Just so you know, there were mullets.