So, I was at Narita Airport with a couple of hours to kill before my flight to China. After looking around for a smoking area and finding it- some not-so well-ventilated closet with several people who could effectively be used as poster people on anti-tobacco ads targeting teens that state plainly: You don’t want to end up like this person, do you? I indulged myself and then got the hell out of there as quickly as possible. That closet gave me the creeps.
While I walked around in search of a comfortable place to hole-up for an hour or so I remembered the commercial slogans of the two American Express cards (Green and Blue) that have resided in my wallet 10 years running: Don’t leave home without it and Membership has its rewards! On the former, I certainly keep them on my person at all times. As for the latter, I rarely do take advantage of these so-called rewards. I’ve received hundreds of invitations to upgrade my card to Platinum. Apparently my credit is in good standing, but damn if I need the temptation to impulse buy a yacht, a Porsche, or a small Pacific island sitting in my wallet. Especially one with a $250 annual fee. But Platinum has even more perks. One of those perks being whenever you travel, you can enjoy complete and unrestricted access to over 500 airport lounges worldwide, regardless of your class of travel. Dragging my carry-on behind me around Narita I almost wished I had upgraded.
One of the drawbacks of non-platinum membership is watching those people enjoying the rewards of the upgraded membership. You can always find them cooling their heels in the airport lounge. As I strolled pass such a lounge at Narita on my way to stretch out on the chairs, I peeped the writing on the door. It had pictures of the cards that would gain one access…several Japanese bank-issued cards and a lonely American Express symbol. It didn’t specify Platinum card holders so I wondered, could I slide up in here and cool my heels among those with disposable income, disciplined spending habits or corporate accounts?
What the hell, I gave it a shot…
“Irrashaimase!” the staff person sang as I entered, smiling approvingly. I felt very welcomed.
I peeped inside the lounge while I dug for my wallet. Well-dressed Japanese people abounded. Mostly business-types, a few vacationers looking very, i don’t know, an understated Louis Vitton look I suppose.
I slid my Blue Amex across the counter . It’s a novelty in Japan. Whenever I use it in a store or hotel it’s either welcomed with awe (wow, I’ve never seen an Amex like this before) , suspicion (Is this really an Amex? Or is he trying to pull a fast one on us?) or total ignorance (What am I supposed to do with this? Is this some kind of foreign currency?) turning it over and examining it like it was something dug up in an archaeological dig.
The staff person gave it the once over and slid it through the reader. The machine beeped…not a very friendly beep. A beep of rejection. Funny how beeps have personalities sometimes. She smiled, but I could see her tension rising as a result of something unexpected occurring. Sle pressed some keys and slid it through the reader again. I wondered if I had been late with a payment…again.
“I’m sorry, but this card is not acceptable here.”
“I see.” Yappari! I was prepared to receive the Platinum ‘upgraded membership has even more rewards’ snub. “May I ask why?”
“Um, well, it seems that you must have a Japanese-American Express card to enter.”
“I’m sorry…” I said. My Japanese is still pretty dicey when it comes to keigo- a type of super polite Japanese that is used by people in the service industry. “I’m not quite sure I understood you. Did you say, ‘Japanese Express card?’”
“I’m so sorry…I mean a Japanese American Express card.
“Oh, I see..” I said, and laughed. I don’t know why. Though she was smiling ear to ear, clearly she wasn’t joking. Maybe it was the irony, the incongruity of a Japanese-American Express card. . She almost laughed with me. I mean, I was prepared for a snubbing, not for a…what the hell was this? “I’m sorry but…exactly, what is a Japanese American Express card?”
“It’s an American Express card issued in Japan,” she replied with the friendliest smile anyone ever mustered.
“Oh, I see…” I said. I looked in the lounge, at all the Japanese faces. Some were looking my way with typically anxious stares, and I felt my insides roiling a bit.
She handed my card back to me with two hands like it was a precious article to be handled with care. I don’t know why but I felt like she’d spat on it.
I was at a loss for words…the implication was too blatant. I mean, I had to be mistaken, right? I mean, here I was in an international airport being told that this lounge was for the exclusive use of travelers issued a card locally? There had to be some mistake, some kind of oversight.
But, her smile was so friendly, so naively oblivious of the humiliation that was starting to creep up on me out of nowhere, that I turned away from her, and peeped once more within the lounge at people- Japanese people- having friendly chats or reading newspapers and sipping coffee or tea from tiny cups or watching CNN on the giant flat screen TV, and, I don’t know why but it reminded me of that perfect early autumn day under a powder blue sunny sky in NY, which just happened to be 9/11/01.
Slowly, dejectedly, I walked out of the lounge.
By the time I got on the plane I had convinced myself that I had somehow misunderstood the situation. It wasn’t some sloppy form of discrimination. It was simply an oversight. The developers of the computer system in that lounge had not anticipated a foreign cardholder and upon encountering one the software was not able to process the request. That explanation made perfect sense to me. Incidents of that magnitude happen often in Japan. Quite possibly I was the first foreigner to ever try to gain entry to that lounge. Positively thinking, now that the flaw in their programming has been identified, the next foreign traveller that decides they want to cool their heels in the lounge at Narita will have a different reception.
I wondered if I’d made it clear to that staff person that what she was revealing to me was indeed a flaw that could easily be misconstrued. She did look pretty naive, after all. I wondered if she got it. Perhaps I should have done everything within my power to make sure she did. I mean, that would have been the constructive thing to do, wouldn’ it? Maybe the next traveller won’t be as shouganai-ish as I’ve become living in Japan. (Shouganai is Japanese for “Oh well, whatchagonnado.”) Maybe he or she will raise hell and cause that sweet naive staff person with the disarming smile undue embarrassment.
…and that would be a shame.